Diosdado Cabello, head of Venezuela's National Assembly. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

Venezuela is afflicted with the world’s highest inflation, its second highest murder rate and crippling shortages of food, medicine and basic consumer goods. Its authoritarian government is holding some 70 political prisoners, including the mayor of Caracas and senior opposition leader Leopoldo López, and stands accused by human rights groups of illegal detentions, torture and repression of independent media.

All of that is now pretty well known, and it is finally beginning to gain some attention from Latin American leaders who for years did their best to appease or ignore Hugo Chávez and his “Bolivarian Revolution.” What’s less understood is the complicating factor that will make any political change or economic reconstruction in this failing state far more difficult: The Chávez regime, headed since his demise by Nicolás Maduro, harbors not just a clique of crackpot socialists, but also one of the world’s biggest drug cartels.

Ever since Colombian commandos captured the laptop of a leader of the FARC organization eight years ago, it’s been known that Chávez gave the Colombian narcoguerrillas sanctuary and allowed them to traffic cocaine from Venezuela to the United States with the help of the Venezuelan army. But not until a former Chávez bodyguard defected to the United States in January did the scale of what is called the “Cartel of the Suns ” start to become publicly known.

According to multiple news accounts, Leamsy Salazar has been cooperating with U.S. federal prosecutors who are developing criminal cases against a host of senior Venezuelan generals and government officials. Chief among them is the man Salazar began guarding after Chávez’s death: Diosdado Cabello, the president of the National Assembly and the second most powerful member of the regime after Maduro.

The day after Salazar’s arrival in Washington, Spain’s ABC newspaper published a detailed account of the emerging case against Cabello, and last month, ABC reporter Emili Blasco followed up with a book laying out the allegations of Salazar and other defectors, who say Cuba’s communist regime and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah have been cut in on the trafficking. That was followed by a lengthy report last week in the Wall Street Journal that said Cabello’s cartel had turned Venezuela into “a global hub for cocaine trafficking and money laundering.”

Cabello has responded with the regime’s most familiar tactic: an assault on the press. Last month he brought defamation suits against 22 journalists from three Venezuelan news organizations that published accounts of Blasco’s reporting, including El Nacional, the one remaining independent national newspaper. In early May, a judge imposed the penalty Cabello sought without bothering to hold a trial; the regime long ago captured the judiciary. The journalists were banned from leaving the country and ordered to appear for weekly court check-ins.

The order came down as El Nacional’s publisher, Miguel Henrique Otero, was traveling abroad. Last week he flew to Washington to seek support from the Organization of American States. The regime, he told me, is desperate to deflect the drug trafficking allegations, which could destroy what remains of its international credibility. While leftists in Latin America and the United States have been willing to overlook assaults on the opposition and media, “nobody wants to associate with drug traffickers,” Otero said.

“This is a very serious blow to the regime,” Otero said. “Their only way of combatting it is to claim it is a right-wing conspiracy directed in Miami and Madrid, and to say that the press that report the charges are part of it.”

It’s not clear whether or when U.S. prosectors will bring charges against Cabello and his associates, but arrests look unlikely. A U.S. attempt to capture one senior general, former military intelligence chief Hugo Carvajal, in Aruba last year failed. But the leaking of the cartel case and any charges, if made public, could divide as well as isolate the regime. Cabello leads one of three “families” that Otero says are battling for Chávez’s legacy; the others are headed by Maduro and by Chávez’s daughter. Only Cabello is linked to the cocaine shipments, and there are drug-free elements in the military leadership.

Like many opposition leaders, Otero is hopeful that Venezuela can resolve its crisis through democracy. If an election for the National Assembly due this year is held and is fair, the opposition should win handily. But Maduro’s term extends to 2019 — and those in the regime tied to drug trafficking, and vulnerable to U.S. prosecution, will not willingly surrender power. Could rival elements of the regime or military move against them? Says Otero: “The situation is so dramatic and so catastrophic that the probability of some kind of event occurring is high.”

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