Is Venezuela’s military really loyal to Maduro — or its own survival?

The Venezuelan military officers, summoned to the feared headquarters of the Military Counter Intelligence Agency, found themselves in a room wondering what was looming behind the piece of cloth covering the bulletin board facing them.

Having to be there was bad enough. The agency, known by its acronym DGCIM, is notorious for holding some 200 to 300 officers and military personnel who have been sent over the years for punishment after being arrested on accusations of conspiring to depose the socialist regime headed by Nicolás Maduro. Reports of dire conditions and torture abound, the term “hell” often used to describe what it’s like to be in DGCIM custody.

So when the cloth was pulled off, what this recent group of uniformed officers saw chilled their blood.

“Pinned to the board were pictures of their wives, their parents, their children and their grandchildren,” said ex Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, who got first-hand accounts of the incident. Ledezma is a key ally to Venezuela’s interim President Juan Guaidó, whose challenge to Maduro’s rule is backed by the U.S. and some 50 other nations.

As the summoned military officers absorbed the images of their loved ones, DGCIM officials issued this warning, according to sources familiar with the gathering: “We know what you have been doing and we will make them disappear if you continue talking to Guaidó.”

The incident is just one of many anecdotes that offer insight as to how the Maduro regime — under tutelage of the Cuban Intelligence Directorate, according to the U.S. — manages to keep a tight grip on its military. Such credible threats of arrest, torture and even death to those who veer off course or their loved ones are among the extreme measures used to keep the rank-and-file in line.

The other tactic for ensuring loyalty at the higher levels of the military brass comes through promises of riches. Key military officers often get a piece of profits that come as a result of corruption and criminal endeavors, including drug trafficking, according to U.S. officials.

Such tactics, which have been effective in Cuba for six decades, are making it difficult to get rid of Maduro. But the underlying question in Venezuela: is the military really loyal to the regime — or its own survival?

“As long as the senior members of the military are getting paid, Maduro is going to stay,” said Bueno de Mesquita, a politics professor at New York University and author of the book, “The Dictator’s Handbook.“

“For many of them the question really is not whether Maduro is sustainable, but whether the Maduro regime is sustainable. If the money is jeopardized by having Maduro in place, all they have to do is pull a name out of a hat who is a loyalist who then announces to the world, ‘Maduro, in the interest of the people, has stepped down and Joe Blow, the Minister of Whatever, has been selected to take his place.’

“It is really a question of whether the flow of money can continue in a reliable way to the senior civil servants, to the military generals and to the judges,” de Mesquita said. “If the answer is yes, then the leaders may continue with Maduro or they might choose someone else from within the Maduro circle.

“If the answer is no, because the international community will not be satisfied with substituting Maduro with somebody else from within [the inner circle], then people will start to defect and Guaidó can come to power,” he said.

President Donald Trump’s administration is keenly aware that Maduro’s ability to pay off key members of his inner circle is essential to his survival, experts said. Crippling sanctions are aimed at cutting off access to billions of dollars in oil revenues, large sums of which have been stashed at bank accounts of various high-ranking Venezuelan officials and are now frozen due to sanctions.

But there are billions of dollars still flowing into the regime’s pockets — and those at the helm of the military — through criminal enterprises, such as drug-trafficking and gold and gasoline smuggling operations, experts say.

“The Venezuelan high command has been benefiting from a complex system of patronage, which include corruption schemes linked to food imports and in the case of a small and select group, to drug trafficking, gold smuggling and fuel smuggling operations,’‘ said Diego Moya-Ocampos, principal political analyst for Latin America at IHS Markit,

“Key operators in this group, fearing that they would be brought to justice if there is a regime change, will block any attempt that might come within the armed forces to back Guaidó,” Moya-Ocampos said.

Recent U.S. indictments against Venezuelan officials illustrate just how deep corruption spreads. Among the most recent cases: Maduro, his wife Cilia Flores, and Flores’ sons are at the center of a $1.2 billion money laundering case in Miami’s Federal Court. Meanwhile, Flores’ nephews were sentenced in 2017 to a prison term of 18 years on drug trafficking convictions.

Additionally, several of the regime’s key military officers face drug charges, including current Interior Minister Néstor Reverol; former Deputy Director of the National AntiDrugs Office Edilberto Molina Molina; and former DGCIM Chief Hugo Carvajal, who was recently arrested in Spain despite breaking away from the regime in previous months.

U.S. investigators also are going after two of Maduro’s high-ranking officials: Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Constituent Assembly, and Tareck El Aissami, industry minister. Both have been sanctioned by the Treasury Department, which accuses them of aiding extensive drug trafficking operations in Venezuela.

El Aissami also has been the target of wide-ranging investigations by his own country’s intelligence agency into his ties to the criminal underworld, The New York Times reported.

According to U.S. officials, members of the regime — including El Aissami and Cabello — as well as other military personnel run the Cartel of the Suns, a criminal organization that controls the country’s drug trafficking operations.

Guaidó has promised — and the White House has hinted — that amnesty would be offered for any past crimes for those who abandon the regime and help get rid of Maduro.

But so far there have been no takers from the top echelon, despite promises made during recent negotiations with Venezuela’s Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López and Supreme Court Chief Maikel Moreno to do so, as publicly stated by Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton.

Also complicating matters is the expertise provided by Cuba’s security apparatus on how to weed out any dissension from the military ranks. Most officers are under constant watch by the DGCIM or members of the Cuban intelligence, which have infiltrated bases across Venezuela. U.S. officials have said that as many as 20,000 Cuban military personnel are actively engaged with the Venezuelan military, a claim Cuba has vehemently denied.

Colonel Oswaldo García Palomo, who remains in custody after being arrested and tortured earlier this year by the DGCIM on accusations of plotting against Maduro, told el Nuevo Herald in an interview last year that the environment of fear created by the Cubans inside the country’s military installations was widespread and that any resentment against the regime was normally a tightly-guarded secret.

“Communications and fear of infiltration” is top on the list of risks facing any plot to get rid of Maduro, he said.

The environment of fear is fed by the high risk of arrest and personal torture that each plotter might face as well as the threat of arrest and torture of family members, a practice that has been on the rise in recent years as Maduro’s unpopularity grows, according to Human Rights Watch and other organizations.

In some cases, the methods used could be as brutal as those employed by drug cartels, said Venezuelan Air Force Lieutenant Nelson Rincón, who worked at DGCIM before he defected and migrated to the United States in 2013.

“Officers don’t know who they can trust, or who they can follow, or even whom they can talk to because any comment can end up putting them behind bars,” said Rincón.

“Any officer in touch with the opposition can be arrested. Anyone suspected of plotting can simply disappear. Officers live under constant and different threats placed against their families, or any possessions they might have. Being arrested is only one of those threats,” he said.

Armed paramilitary bands, known in Venezuela as ‘Colectivos,’ are under the service of specific members of the regime, and some of them are used by the DGCIM as death squads, Rincón added.

They serve as personal hit teams for the top members of the regime and by the DGCIM to conduct selective political assassinations, which are then reported publicly as slayings committed during robberies, a common occurrence in a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Military personnel quickly became aware of what is going on, understanding the message behind the deaths, Rincón said.

“Through these groups, they spread fear to other officers,” he said.

Rincón, who fled after he came under suspicion at the DGCIM and became a victim of persecution, said he personally has direct knowledge of three officers killed by the Colectivos, including one mayor and two fellow lieutenants. One of the lieutenants was a personal friend of his, Emedardo Nuñez, who had left the military and was preparing to move to the United States. He returned to Venezuela in December 2015 one last time to spend Christmas with his family.

“They were waiting for him,” Rincón said. “One of these groups killed him in front of this house... just because of his political views.”