Washington, DC—While corruption and organized crime are thriving amid Venezuela’s political and economic crisis, previously unpublished U.S. government drug trade monitoring data suggests that Venezuela is not a primary transit country for U.S.-bound cocaine. In “Beyond the Narcostate Narrative,” a new Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) report, Director for Venezuela Geoff Ramsey and Senior Fellow David Smilde assess the implications of official U.S. drug control data for prospects at advancing a peaceful, negotiated return to democracy in Venezuela.
“U.S. policy towards Venezuela must be based on reality, not rhetoric. The U.S. government’s own data casts doubt on the idea that Venezuela is a primary transit country for U.S.-bound cocaine. While the challenge of organized crime and corruption in Venezuela is very real, all signs point to the need for a peaceful negotiated transition as the only way to meaningfully address it. ” said Geoff Ramsey.
The report finds that the amount of metric tons of cocaine that passed through Venezuela in 2018 is dwarfed by the amount that transited through other countries in the region, like Guatemala. It similarly finds that, while drug trafficking through Venezuela began to decline slightly in the last two years, its 2012-2017 boom coincided with increased coca cultivation and resulting cocaine trafficking through neighboring Colombia, the world’s largest cocaine producing nation.
Responding to illicit drug trafficking in Venezuela, the authors suggest, will require a clear U.S. commitment to a peaceful, orderly transition that can lead to badly needed judicial reforms. But it will also require commitment from Colombian authorities to fully implement the peace accords and build a state presence that provides meaningful economic alternatives in coca growing regions.
“If the United States government wants to meaningfully address state penetration by organized crime in Venezuela, it must redouble efforts to find a peaceful, political solution rather than betting on a strategy that could fuel years of instability and other conditions in which drug trafficking organizations can thrive,” said David Smilde.
The authors’ main findings include:
- Venezuela’s state institutions have deteriorated and the country lacks an impartial, transparent, or even functional justice system. In this environment, armed groups and organized criminal structures, including drug trafficking groups, have thrived. But U.S government data suggests that, despite these challenges, Venezuela is not a primary transit country for U.S.-bound cocaine. U.S. policy toward Venezuela should be predicated on a realistic understanding of the transnational drug trade.
- Recent data from the U.S. interagency Consolidated Counterdrug Database (CCDB) indicates that 210 metric tons of cocaine passed through Venezuela in 2018. By comparison, the State Department reports that over six times as much cocaine (1,400 metric tons) passed through Guatemala the same year.
- According to U.S. monitoring data, the amount of cocaine trafficked from Colombia through Venezuela is significant, but it is a fraction of the cocaine that makes its way through other transit countries. Around 90 percent of all U.S.-bound cocaine is trafficked through Western Caribbean and Eastern Pacific routes, not through Venezuela’s Eastern Caribbean seas.
- There was an increase in cocaine flows through Venezuela in the period from 2012 to 2017, but that increase corresponds with a surge in cocaine production in Colombia during that same time. CCDB data suggests the amount of cocaine trafficked through Colombia rose from 918 metric tons in 2012 to 2,478 metric tons in 2017 (a 269 percent increase), and from 159 to 249 metric tons in Venezuela in that same period (a 156 percent increase). When cocaine trafficking in Colombia dropped slightly post-2017, cocaine flows in Venezuela fell as well.
- U.S. CCDB data shows that cocaine flows through Venezuela have fallen since peaking in 2017. According to CCDB data, the amount of cocaine flowing through Venezuela fell 13 percent from 2017 to 2018, and appeared to continue to fall slightly through mid-2019.
- A peaceful, negotiated, and orderly transition offers the best chance of allowing the reforms needed to address organized crime, drug trafficking, and corruption in Venezuela. The 2009 military coup d’etat and resulting turmoil in Honduras provides a cautionary tale for U.S. policymakers who see intervention or collapse as the best route for a return to democracy in Venezuela.