Is Diosdado Cabello, the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly and perhaps the country’s second-most powerful man, also the head of an international drug-running operation?
That’s what two news reports are suggesting and Venezuelan authorities are vehemently denying.
The reaction comes after el Nuevo Herald and Spain’s ABC, citing anonymous sources, reported that Leamsy Salazar, a member of Cabello’s security detail, had been brought to Washington, D.C. on Monday as a star witness to build a case against the Venezuelan government.
Venezuelan military officials have long been accused of helping run drugs under the so-called Cartel de los Soles or the “Cartel of the Suns” — a reference to military insignia — but according to the reports, Salazar will make the case that Cabello is at the head of the organization.
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On Tuesday, the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSUV, acknowledged that Salazar had been Cabello’s bodyguard and that he had “defected” from the armed forces in December.
At a news conference, backed by other PSUV legislators, Deputy Pedro Carreño said Salazar’s betrayal is part of a global conspiracy to undermine Venezuela’s socialist administration.
“He has appeared in the United States as a protected witness to defame, insult and publicly humiliate the president of the National Assembly and, through him, the people of Venezuela and the Bolivarian revolution,” he said.
President Nicolás Maduro called the allegations a “vulgar” campaign financed out of Miami and said that Cabello has his full support.
“Whoever betrays the revolution is facing an inferno of solitude, failure, isolation and repudiation,” Maduro said of the bodyguard turned informant.
Cabello would be just the latest high-ranking official to come under Washington scrutiny. The U.S. Treasury has seven government officials on its sanctions list — all in connection with drugs and alliances with Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
In that sense, the allegations against Cabello are “plausible,” said Jeremy McDermott, co-founder of InsightCrime in the Americas, a Washington-based think tank.
“What we know is that Diosdado Cabello is firmly at the head of the military faction within the Chavista regime — and that the list of those signaled by the Treasury as being involved in drug trafficking includes several generals,” he said. “The question is how far does one think the Cartel de los Soles permeated the Chavista regime?”
The Cartel de los Soles is more of a phenomenon than an organized group, said Héctor Landaeta, a journalist and author of the book Chavismo, Narco-trafficking and the Military.
As Colombian cocaine flowed across the frontier into Venezuela, military border units ran protection rackets and turned a blind-eye, he said. The rot moved its way up the ranks.
Even so, Landaeta says that neither Cabello nor his bodyguard Salazar is mentioned in the book, which he finished in 2005.
“But since 2005, nothing has changed. This cancer has continued to grow in Venezuelan society,” he said. “The country has become something of a paradise for narco-trafficking.”
Just how high up the problem went was underscored in 2008 when the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctioned three military officials: Hugo Carvajal, the director of military intelligence; Henry de Jesus Rangel, who became minister of defense; and Ramon Rodríguez Chacín, the former minister of interior and justice.
Many believe that the key to unraveling the cartel is sitting in a Venezuelan jail.
Walid Makled, one of Venezuela’s most powerful cocaine traffickers, was arrested in Colombia in 2010 and was the subject of an extradition battle between the U.S. and Venezuela. Colombia eventually sent him to Caracas — arguing that the charges against him there (including murder) were more serious than the U.S. charges.
However, before Makled was deported in 2011, he told media outlets that he had as many as 40 Venezuelan generals on his payroll and that the government knew of his operation.
Although there are reports that Makled’s trial is taking place behind closed doors, there has been no news of him since he went to Venezuela.
“The little bit that he was able to say before he was detained — naming generals and all — was frightening,” Landaeta said. “I can only assume that the reason for bringing him to Venezuela was so he wouldn’t say anything else.”
Cabello, 51, is a longtime party loyalist who was a lieutenant colonel when he joined Hugo Chávez in a failed coup in 1992. Once Chávez was released from jail and became president, Cabello held a number of key posts, including vice president and secretary to the president. He has been the head of the National Assembly since 2012. When Chávez succumbed to cancer in 2013, there were rumors that Cabello would be his successor.
Even if an indictment against Cabello surfaces, it’s unlikely to have much impact in Venezuela.
In July, when the United States lost an extradition battle in Aruba for Carvajal, Maduro greeted him as a hero when he returned to Caracas. Rangel, who was put on Treasury’s narcotics kingpin list in 2008, was promoted to minister of defense in 2012.
In that sense, “this may only serve to reinforce Cabello’s anti-imperialist credentials,” McDermott said.
On Tuesday, that seemed to be the case, as Maduro led chants backing his ally.
“Every attack against me strengthens my spirit and resolve,” Cabello wrote in a series of Tweets. “We’ve had to live through threats, infamies and intrigues during these years of revolution.”