“A vacuum of lawlessness”

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Drug trafficking in and out of Venezuela has surged by 50 per cent in the past year aided by the illegitimate regime of Nicolás Maduro, according to a US military commander.

The breakdown of government and society has created a vacuum of lawlessness. Smugglers are operating with impunity “in cahoots” with the regime, creating a significant threat to regional security, Admiral Craig Faller of the US Navy, head of the US Southern Command, said.

“We all sense that the threat is significant,” he said, speaking to The Times after the Caribbean Nations Security Conference (Cansec) in Miami, which brought together military and public security leaders from 14 nations and territories. The conference was co-hosted by the UK, the US, Canada, France and the Netherlands.

“Because of the illegitimate government what we have is a breakdown in civil society and security and narco-traffickers are taking advantage of that, so we have seen an increase in trafficking through the rivers, jungles and in the air,” Admiral Faller said.

“Maduro and his cronies have used the money from that to stay in power. There’s been a 50 per cent or more increase in what we’re seeing in the narco-flow. Coca in particular coming in and going out, aided and abetted by the regime.”

Colombia, which he praised as a “strong partner” in the region, has operated programmes to destroy crops of coca, the plant from which cocaine is derived, and promote economic alternatives for indigenous farmers. The process is fraught with complex challenges and tensions, however, which undermine efforts to purge the international trade. In a report published last year the United Nations office on drugs and crime disclosed that the area under coca cultivation in Colombia reached the highest recorded figure of 171,000 hectares in 2017, an increase of 17 per cent over the previous year.

Some areas had successfully driven down production but it was up by as much as 64 per cent in others and new agricultural methods meant that plants were producing 33 per cent more leaf than in 2012, the report said.

A positive development has been that seizures of drugs from transnational criminal organisations have risen by 40 per cent in the past year, Admiral Faller said, enhanced by intelligence-sharing and other collaborations between the US and its partners.

President Maduro’s entrenchment of power through fraudulent elections last year and a failed uprising in April have deepened instability and economic hardship in Venezuela.

Cansec focused on the effective use of security mechanisms to counter the threats posed by the increasing drug flow and other concerns including the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, which has caused more than five million people to flee the country, and natural disasters such as hurricanes.

“Partnerships are how we win. We win in life and we win in conflict and we win better security by working together,” the admiral said. “We all feel a sense of urgency with the threats, and the threats are complex.”

Picture: Ariana Cubillos/AP

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