A top official and staunch Chavista politician has been accused of ties to Venezuela’s largest drug cartel, plunging the nation into another political crisis.
The former bodyguard of Diosdado Cabello, head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, has said he has information proving that Cabello is the head of the Cartel de los Soles, a powerful Venezuelan drug gang allegedly made up of politicians and military officials.
The bodyguard, Leamsy Salazar, fled to the United States on Monday and entered the Drug Enforcement Agency’s witness protection program. U.S. officials have said they cannot confirm or deny the report, but the original article, published in Spanish newspaper ABC, indicated that Salazar is preparing to testify against his former boss in a federal drug trafficking case.
Lieutenant Commander Salazar was head of security for former President Hugo Chávez for ten years, then took over as chief bodyguard for Cabello following Chávez’s death, a position he held until December 2014. On Monday, Salazar was reported to be traveling to Spain for his honeymoon — however, it was later revealed that he had been in contact with U.S. officials and was actually in Washington, DC.
The revelation has set off a political firestorm in Venezuela, with members of the opposition denouncing Cabello and calling for his resignation, while loyalists have squarely rejected the allegations, calling it yet another U.S. plot to destabilize the country’s government. On Twitter, Chavista congressman Pedro Carreño accused the CIA of buying off Salazar’s loyalty.
La CIA compra conciencia a ex-escolta de @dcabellor, para que lo asocie al narcotrafico. Ante la INFAMIA Rodilla en Tierra Contigo Camarada!
— Pedro Carreño (@PedroCarreno_e) January 27, 2015
Cabello has also responded to the allegations on his Twitter account, writing that every attack only strengthens his spirit and resolve and thanking the Venezuelan people for their “solidarity.”
Cada ataque contra mi persona fortalece mi espíritu y mi compromiso, agradezco infinitamente las muestras de solidaridad de nuestro pueblo
— Diosdado Cabello R (@dcabellor) January 27, 2015
The Soles cartel is Venezuela’s largest drug trafficking structure, made up primarily of military officials — the name comes from the sun emblems featured on the Venezuelan military uniform. The cartel has a virtual monopoly on the transport of drugs passing through the country, which, according to recent estimates, may be as much as 5 tons per week.
Salazar told ABC that he witnessed Cabello give direct orders for the departure of small boats carrying cocaine shipments and had information about locations where the cartel had hidden large sums of cash. The former bodyguard also implicated other members of the Venezuelan government, as well as Cuban officials. This information is expected to be used in a potential DEA case against Cabello.
Realistically, experts say such a case — even if it does move forward in U.S. courts — is unlikely to have any effect on Cabello’s status as one of Venezuela’s most powerful politicians.
“I don’t see how a DEA report involving him with drug smuggling could affect his position [in Venezuela], just like it didn’t happen with other army officers that the United States singled out as drug lords in Venezuela,” Cato Institute drug-war specialist and policy analyst Juan Carlos Hidalgo told the PanAm Post.
Still, the accusations come at a tricky political moment for Venezuela, as the country’s economy continues to falter due to plummeting global oil prices and President Nicolás Maduro faces tough questions about the country’s path forward.
On the other hand, the case is likely to set off another round of anti-U.S. rhetoric in Venezuelan political circles, which have long accused their northern neighbor of waging an “economic war” against the country’s leftist government. Rather than dethroning one of Venezuela’s most powerful Chavista politicians, the Salazar case may just add more fuel to the anti-U.S. fire and perhaps even reinforce Cabello’s power in the process.