Venezuela: does the 'Cartel of the Suns' exist?

In a rare move, the US Department of Justice issued an indictment against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on March 26. Maduro and 14 current and former Venezuelan officials have been charged with narco-terrorism, corruption, drug trafficking and other crimes. The DoJ alleges that Maduro conspired with the FARC, Colombia's guerrilla army, prior to becoming the president, and continued to do after assuming power. The indictment charges that this nexus has congealed under the name "Cartel of the Suns," and that Maduro continues to collude with dissident factions of the FARC that remain in arms despite the Colombian peace accords. Attorney General William Barr said the aim of the conspiracy is "to flood the United States with cocaine." 

The other indicted officials include Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López; the chief justice of the country's supreme court, Maikel Jose Moreno Pérez; and senior United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) leader Diosdado Cabello. The US is offering $10 million for information leading to Cabello's arrest, and $15 million for Maduro's.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza responded that the indictment shows the "desperation" of the "Washington elite." He said that Trump is "once more attacking the Venezuelan people and its democratic institutions, using a new form of coup d'etat based on miserable, vulgar and unfounded accusations."

Maduro is currently under US sanctions, which are aimed as pushing him out of power. The US, the Organization of American States, and several other countries recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the legitimate ruler of Venezuela rather than Maduro. Guaidó declared himself president in January 2019, but failed to take control of the government from Maduro.

Venezuela has been suffering from the world's largest recent economic collapse outside of a war zone for around a decade. The COVID-19 pandemic has now highlighted the fragility and supply shortages of the Venezuelan healthcare system. (Jurist, Al Jazeera, Ahora Mismo)

Venezuelan 'Bay of Pigs' averted?

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced May 4 that his security services apprehended 13 "mercenaries" who had invaded the country by boat from neighboring Colombia and attempted to carry out a coup against his government. Two US nationals were among the detained. This follows news reports that ex-Green Beret Jordan Goudreau's private security company, Silvercorp, has been working with the US government to destabilize the Venezuelan regime. Goudreau took responsibility for the failed raid, while the US is denying involvement. (CGTN, WaPo, Bellingcat, The Guardian)

The affair also comes as Trump has ordered Navy ships to Caribbean waters near Venezuelan, ostensibly to counter narco-trafficking from the South American country. (AP)

Venezuela orders EU ambassador to leave country

Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro on June 29 ordered the EU ambassador Isabel Brilhante Pedrosa to leave the country within 72 hours. Her expulsion came hours after the EU placed sanctions on 11 Venezuelan officials for "undermining democracy and the rule of law in Venezuela." (Jurist)

Hezbollah's South American bagman busted?

Cape Verde authorities on June 12 arrested a Colombian businessman of Lebanese origin, Alex Saab, who is wanted by US authorities on charges related to money laundering and other illegal activities in Venezuela. He was detained when his private jet touched down in the island nation, possibly en route to Iran. In July 2019, federal prosecutors indicted Saab on charges of running a global multi-million money laundering operation that diverted Venezuelan state funds to overseas accounts. Additionally, Saab is accused of using shell companies to send overpriced, inedible food to Venezuela through the government's Local Provisioning & Production Committees (CLAP) aid program. Saab is also said to be the key money conduit for Hezbollah's South American activities. (InSight Crime, Gulf News, WRLN, Miami)

Venezuela sentences ex-Green Berets in Operation Gideon

A Venezuelan court sentenced two former members of the US Army Special Forces to 20 years in prison for their role in an attempt to overthrow President Nicolás Maduro. In the ruling on Aug. 7, the two men were found guilty of conspiracy, trafficking in illegal arms and terrorism.

According to Venezuela's chief prosecutor Tarek Saab, suspects Luke Denman and Airan Berry confessed to taking part in "Operation Gideon"—an unsuccessful attempt in May to remove Maduro from office. During the attempt, at least eight soldiers were killed, and 66 men were apprehended.

Denman and Berry were arrested in Chuao, a coastal fishing community, following the coup attempt. They have been held at Venezuela's Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) headquarters, where the sentencing hearing was held. The lawyers that the two men hired to represent them were allegedly not informed about the hearing, so Denman and Berry were represented by a public defender.

A third ex-Green Beret, Jordan Goudreau, is still believed to be in the US. Goudreau operated a Florida-based security firm called Silvercorp USA and admitted involvement in the scheme.

Since their arrest, the two men have been displayed on Venezuelan national television as proof that the US plans to overthrow Venezuela’s government. The US has denied any role in Operation Gideon, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in May that the US would fight to win the freedom of Denman and Berry. (Jurist)

Cape Verde court rules Maduro financier can be extradited

The Cape Verde Court of Appeal of Barlavento ruled Jan. 4 that Colombian lawyer and businessman Alex Nain Saab Moran can be extradited to the US, where he faces charges of money laundering on behalf of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government. (Jurist)

Venezuela seizes newspaper headquarters after defamation suit

A Venezuelan court seized the headquarters of El Nacional newspaper after the newspaper failed to pay a $13.3 million fine in a defamation lawsuit. The case was brought by Diosdado Cabello, the vice president of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, after the newspaper reprinted an article linking Cabello to drug trafficking.

El Nacional is an independently run newspaper that has been critical of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and his government. The newspaper stopped printing in 2018 due to state pressure on media companies and paper and toner shortages. The newspaper intends to continue as an online-only publication.

Initially, the newspaper was ordered to pay 1 billion bolivars following the defamation lawsuit. But arguing that hyperinflation made the bolivars' value uncertain, Cabello's lawyer successfully petitioned the court to request the fine to be paid in petros, a Venezuelan cryptocurrency. Following the judgment, El Nacional attempted to appeal on the grounds that the fine should be paid in bolivars, the national currency.

But with this decision, the Venezuelan government will seize El Nacional's headquarters and all assets within the building. In a translated statement, El Nacional expressed that "Cabello's attack on El Nacional is another method of subjugating the regime against freedom of expression."

Meanwhile, Cabello has expressed that the El Nacional headquarters will be converted into an "International University of Communication."

The US Department of State has offered a reward of up to $10 million for information leading to the arrest or conviction of Cabello. The State Department has linked Cabello with violent narco-terrorism and considers him the "illegitimate president of Venezuela’s Constituent National Assembly." (Jurist)

Venezuelan police detain head of human rights group

Police arrested Javier Tarazona, director of Venezuelan human rights group FundaRedes, two days after he held a news conference in Caracas alleging links between members of the government and illegal armed groups from Colombia.  (Reuters, July 2)

Trial links Venezuela military, oil sector to drug trafficking

The US federal trial of Carlos Orense Azocar opened in New York, where he faces accusations of shipping tens of thousands of kilograms of cocaine into the United States with collusion with Venezuelan oil-sector and military leaders. Orense, alias "El Gordo," has pleaded not guilty to three counts of narcotics importation, conspiracy, and possession of machine guns and other destructive devices. (Jurist)

US illegally spied on top Venezuela officials: AP

The Associated Press in an exclusive report Feb. 1 revealed a secret US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spying program that targeted top Venezuelan officials, including President Nicolás Maduro, despite the program’s potential illegality under international law.

According to AP, the program, internally referred to as Operation Money Badger, has been ongoing since at least 2013, but was expanded in 2018. The report is based on a 15-page memo from 2018 which was mistakenly included in a cache of documents released as part of a bribery criminal case against several DEA agents. The expansion of the operation was allegedly initiated by the administration of former US President Donald Trump. (Jurist)