He does it all: military captain, lawmaker, alleged boss of cartel drowning US in drugs
McClatchy Washington Bureau November 28, 2023
(Tribune News Service) — The two men in blue jeans and t-shirts were strangers but entered the governor’s gym in the Venezuelan city of Maturín looking as if they owned the place. They asked the front-desk attendant if the governor was in. He was.
A guard, spotting their weapons, grabbed his two-way radio and blurted: “Armed men just walked in.”
They were his last words before a burst of 9mm gunfire tore into him and sent gym goers, including Gov. José Gregorio “El Gato” (The Cat) Briceño, diving to the floor.
Not 10 minutes later, Briceño, shaken, breathless but alive, received a call from President Hugo Chávez.
“Gato, what happened?” Chávez asked,
“I have no doubt that it was ordered by Diosdado,” Briceño said.
That would be Diosdado Cabello, the close Chávez aide who was fast becoming one of the richest and most powerful men in Venezuela. The same Diosdado Cabello who, according to Drug Enforcement Administration records, interviews with exiled colleagues, and a U.S. indictment, today juggles jobs as a captain in the military and member of the national assembly while simultaneously running the Cartel of the Suns, the connective tissue between Colombian drug producers and the Venezuelan regime.
Cabello, who graduated second in his class at the military academy, has allegedly consolidated power through connections with current President Nicolás Maduro and his late predecessor, Chávez. He enforces his will by maintaining a firm grip on the nation’s security forces. Aided by partners, most of them fellow military officers, he also runs a network of companies that monopolize government contracts, usually submitting grossly overinflated invoices.
Although garden-variety corruption is a major source of his wealth, drug trafficking has gained greater importance following the decline of the country’s oil income, the U.S. alleges.
Finally, his control over the nation’s main ports allows Cabello’s drug operations to flourish, sources claim. Ill-gotten gains must be laundered. Here he holds another trump card: his brother, who runs the Venezuelan equivalent of the IRS.
Cabello’s pivotal role is underscored in the “NarcoFiles: The New Criminal Order,” a transnational journalistic investigation into global organized crime, its innovations, its tentacles, and those who fight it.
The project, led by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) in partnership with Centro Latinoamericano de Investigación Periodística, began with a massive leak of documents from the Colombian Prosecutor’s Office. The leak was shared with the Miami Herald and 40 other media outlets around the world.
The leaked Colombian documents lay out Cabello’s personal involvement in the drug trade, indicating that Cabello has a number of partners who own cattle ranches in the Venezuelan lowlands (Llanos) that receive drug shipments coming out of Colombia through the Arauca River.
Along with exclusive interviews with cartel members in exile and DEA documents, the Colombian leak provides the clearest portrait yet of the man allegedly overseeing Venezuela’s transformation from a nation buoyed by oil profits into a narco-state.
Prelude to a fusillade
Cabello had reason to harbor a grudge. Briceño — then governor of Monagas state, now living in exile in Spain — told the Herald he had sent detailed reports to Chávez alleging that Cabello and his brother, José David, were running a sprawling drug-trafficking and money-laundering operation. Briceño reported that cocaine shipments coming out of Colombia were transported to large cattle ranches purchased by Cabello’s strawmen in Monagas, a state in northeastern Venezuela, and from there taken by boat or small plane out of the country.
Assembled by intelligence agents with the state’s police department, the reports ran several pages long, replete with photos, organizational charts and detailed descriptions of the operation, Briceño told the Herald.
None of this should have surprised Chávez since, according to interviews and documents reviewed by the Herald, the president not only knew of the drug trafficking operation but had handpicked Cabello to help lead it. Sounding the alarm cost Briceño control of the state’s police. A month after the gymnasium attack, units from the National Guard, supported by light tanks and carrying assault weapons, took over the police headquarters.
Things only got worse for Briceño. The governor clashed with Chávez after refusing to comply with the president’s order to reestablish water service in Maturin following a massive oil leak that contaminated the city’s main supply, the Guarapiche River. Had he obeyed, Briceño said, the city’s 600,000 inhabitants would have been exposed to deadly toxins.
Briceño, along with several other former high-ranking regime members, told the Herald in separate interviews that Cabello stands at the apex of the Cartel de Los Soles, the Spanish name for the drug-trafficking organization, which is interwoven with the socialist regime.
DEA documents obtained by the Miami Herald and its parent company, McClatchy, underscore his involvement. Cabello was present at the birth of the cartel, according to those documents. He was among a group of Chávez lieutenants who participated in a series of brainstorming sessions orchestrated by the then-president in 2005.
“Chávez urged the group … to promote his political objectives, including fighting the United States by flooding the country with cocaine,” one DEA document said. According to DEA records, Chávez ordered Cabello, Maj. Gen. Hugo Carvajal, then-Defense Minister Henry Rangel Silva and others to coordinate with the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia’s main rebel army, stipulating that law enforcement should be ordered not to intervene.
Carvajal’s lawyer denied his client, Chávez’s spy chief, attended any such meetings.
One DEA document was sent by the U.S. State Department to Spain to try to secure Carvajal’s extradition after he was arrested when he tried to enter that country. It took years — highlighted by Carvajal’s escape from Spanish custody and almost two years on the lam — but he was finally extradited this year.
While Cabello was only one of several Chávez aides assigned to set up a state-sponsored drug trafficking enterprise in partnership with Colombia’s leftist guerrillas, he would rise to the top soon enough, sources formerly affiliated with the regime told the Miami Herald.
“Diosdado is the boss of everything,” a former cartel member told the Miami Herald.
Cabello’s “direct” involvement in the drug trade prompted the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, aka OFAC, to sanction him, claiming he used his control over the country’s security forces to further an array of criminal rackets, including extortion, money laundering and mineral smuggling in addition to drug trafficking.
Sanctions can involve travel restrictions and freezes on assets.
Beside running his own routes with drugs provided by FARC, Cabello had an additional cocaine connection, according to OFAC. The U.S regulator said his organization commandeered drug loads seized from small-fry traffickers and exported them through a Venezuelan government-owned airport.
“Cabello, along with President Maduro and others, divided proceeds from these narcotics shipments,” OFAC said.
On March 26, 2020, following up on OFAC’s sanctions, the U.S. issued an indictment charging Cabello and 14 other high-ranking regime officials, including Maduro, with turning Venezuela into a state-sanctioned drug- trafficking hub. The State Department announced a $10 million reward for information leading to Cabello’s arrest.
The reward is unclaimed.
Cabello’s control over the nation’s ports is all but absolute, sources said, due in part to the restructuring of Bolipuertos, the oversight authority.
The “restructuring“ allowed the cartel, “particularly the faction of Cabello, to take almost total control over the entry to and exits from the ports and the products — licit or illicit — that moved through them,” said a recent report by IBI Consultants, a security consulting firm specializing in transnational organized crime in Latin America. The report was produced for a U.S. law enforcement agency.
At those same ports, Cabello has military officers loyal to him who facilitate the drug shipments, the report said.
“Cabello relies on both family members in key positions and military and former military officers, particularly those close to his 1987 graduation class from the military academy. Most of those in key positions to control critical infrastructure and cocaine flows are from the military academy classes of 1986-1988, who are personal friends and comrades of Cabello’s,” the report added.
What’s more, Cabello now has direct control of the country’s intelligence service, the feared SEBIN, which gives him the upper hand in the cartel’s infighting.
A key cog in his consolidation of power is Cabello’s brother, José David, who, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, facilitates the cartel’s money-laundering operations through his control of Venezuela’s revenue service, Seniat.
The brothers have allegedly accumulated a vast business and real estate empire through a wave of expropriations conducted over the years by the regime. Some of those expropriated properties ended up in the hands of the Cabello clan, sources said.
Despite the enormous wealth and power they have accumulated, there is one goal that has eluded them. It is said to be a source of the enmity between the brothers and Briceño, which dates back more than a decade ago.
“The confrontation with Diosdado began when I became governor, because he wanted to impose José David Cabello, his brother, in the position,” Briceño said.
“It was his mother’s dream to have one of his sons become the governor of Monagas state,” Briceño said. “That’s when the confrontation began, and the guy used all his power to keep me from winning the election, and then from staying in the post.”
Their mother’s wish didn’t come true, but the desire to turn Monagas — and Venezuela — into a drug haven has turned into reality.
Experts believe the cartel, using Monagas as a jumping-off point, exports between 250 and 350 tons of cocaine per year, with a street value of between $6.25 billion and $8.75 billion.
Much of it is ticketed for the United States.
©2023 McClatchy Washington Bureau.
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