An apparent surge in cocaine trafficking and signs of penetration by drug networks of political circles, the financial system and the armed forces have prompted Venezuela to launch its most concerted campaign against illegal narcotics since the 1960s.
Responding to strong pressures from private business and the media, the Venezuelan Congress passed a drug law earlier this year toughening penalties for traffickers, increasing the authority of police and penalizing financiers of drugs and the owners of bars and clubs where they are used.
The social democratic government of President Jaime Lusinchi, which took office in February, also has created a government center to coordinate narcotics intelligence and signed a treaty with Colombia aimed at blocking international drug trade on their border. Officials say they may allow U.S. enforcement authorities to station intelligence-gathering ships and dirigibles along the Venezuelan coast.
"This is an all-out battle," said Justice Minister Jose Manzo Gonzalez. "We are going to start investigating drugs and arresting people here before the situation gets out of control."
The new initiatives have been prompted by signs of increasing drug consumption by Venezuelans as well as concerns that crackdowns by authorities in Bolivia and Colombia could reroute international trafficking of South American cocaine through this nation of 15 million, which is within smuggling range of Florida.
Accustomed to viewing the drug business as a problem of its less affluent neighbors, Venezuela's political establishment has been shocked by several discoveries of large cocaine shipments in the past year and the implication of police, political figures and ranking retired military officers in locally based trafficking networks.
Confiscations by police of cocaine have increased more than tenfold in the past two years, while the number of Venezuelans jailed in Florida on trafficking charges tripled last year, to 23. Enforcement authorities say that at least five major organizations now ship about five tons of nearly pure cocaine into the country each year and funnel as much as $1 billion in cash through local banks.
"If we don't take action, Venezuela is going to become the new international capital of drugs," said Vladimir Gessen, a congressman who chairs a newly created subcommittee on narcotics abuse. "All of the conditions for it are here."
Venezuela never has been a site for the cultivation of coca plants, the raw material of cocaine, and police have yet to encounter major facilities for processing cocaine or other drugs. However, officials say the country's loose currency and banking regulations make it an attractive center for money laundering. Its status as Latin America's most affluent nation also provides a likely market for drug consumption as well as capital for trafficking.
Government authorities have estimated that at least 150,000 Venezuelans are regular users of drugs ranging from cocaine and bazuka, a semiprocessed cocaine paste used for smoking, to marijuana and methaqualone. As in other South American countries, experts say local marketing of the drugs is increasing because of the combination of excess production in coca growing areas to the south as well as crackdowns on trafficking by both U.S. and Colombian authorities.
The first sign that Venezuela was becoming a route for international cocaine shipments came in September 1983, when police discovered an aircraft loaded with 1,467 pounds of cocaine. Estimated by Venezuelan authorities to value $320 million. The cargo subsequently was linked by police to a ring allegedly headed by a retired army lieutenant, who is now a fugitive.
In February, police discovered another shipment of 290 pounds of cocaine, arrested five persons, and seized several airplanes used in what they described as a major network. To the consternation of the armed forces, the smuggling once again was tied to a military officer, this time a retired Air Force major.
Justice Minister Manzo Gonzalez said investigators had connected the major, now also a fugitive, to the organization of Colombian Carlos Lehder Rivas, a fugitive from justice in Colombia and the United States accused of operating one of the world's largest cocaine-trafficking operations.
Other cases have reinforced concerns that drug networks have penetrated military and security forces. A retired lieutenant colonel of the National Guard was arrested in Miami with 22 pounds of cocaine last year, and a group of seven persons arrested last month for trafficking included the niece of a retired admiral.
Perhaps most alarming for Venezuelan authorities was the recent assassination of an official of the national judicial police in Valencia. Sources close to the investigation said the official had been probing the involvement of police in cocaine smuggling when he was killed, apparently by members of his own force.
Despite the strength of the new drug law, which was rushed through Congress in the minimum period of 90 days, authorities here say they remain concerned over the ability of authorities to halt major drug operations. The judicial police have only about 30 agents assigned to narcotics cases, while Venezuela's national security police, the DISIP, has only a 15-man drug squad.
Critics here charge that Lusinchi's government forced the dismantling of an extensive international antinarcotics intelligence network set up by the previous Christian Democratic administration under DISIP and that Venezuelan police have neither the manpower nor the resources to enforce the new law.
"On one side we have a lack of intelligence and resources, and on the other a natural market," said Rodolfo Schmidt, the editor of the newspaper El Diario de Caracas, which has led a public campaign for tougher anti-drug measures. "The result could be an avalanche of drugs."