>– Sandinista Leader Lambastes OAS Resolution Demanding Troop Withdrawal, Accuses Other Latin American Leaders of Complicity with Narco-Trafficking
– Red China’s Top General Arrives in Caracas, Pushes Bilateral Military Cooperation with Communist Venezuela
– Chavez Promotes General on US Blacklist for FARC Links, Rangel Silva Vows Venezuelan Military Will not Accept Opposition Victory in 2012
– Imprisoned Drug Lord Valencia-Arbelaez Hired Russian Crew to Fly Drug Plane from Moldova to Guinea, Putin Accused USA of “Overstepping Bounds” in Putting Russians on Trial
There is a conspiracy to spread vast quantities of cocaine throughout the world by way of cargo airplanes.
– US federal prosecutors in New York, statement from 2009 case
Over the weekend, Mexico’s drug war claimed 16 new victims in the northern states, once again exposing the ineffective response of President Felipe Calderon’s government to the destabilizing narco-insurgency that has gripped his country for four years.
On Friday, cartel gunmen killed eleven people in an apparent mass execution in the state of Tamaulipas. One of those killed was the chief of public works in San Fernando, Marco Samuel Herrera Rangel. In a separate incident, in Jimenez, a small town that is about 100 kilometers from the state capital of Ciudad Victoria, five men were found dead near a gas station at what appears to be the scene of a shootout. Three bullet-riddled bodies were discovered in a car, while another two bodies were located about 200 meters from the vehicle.
This past Sunday, gunmen stormed into the Desperados bar in war-wracked Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, and shot up 13 patrons, killing five. All of these slayings came a week after Mexican marines cornered and executed Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, boss of the Gulf cartel. According to various press reports, as of October 31, 7,500 people have died this year in Mexico’s drug war.
On the same day, a massive explosion rocked the Grand Riviera Princess Hotel in Playa del Carmen, near Cancun, killing five Canadian tourists and two Mexican employees (pictured above). In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Carson Arthur described the effects of the powerful explosion: “All of the air was sucked out of every open door, every room and then pushed back at a huge rate. The velocity of the air coming back was incredible, so people were thrown around all over the place in the rooms and hallways. There were several people in the debris. There was [sic] a lot of people wounded from flying glass.”
In another interview, with the Canadian Press, tourist James Gaade estimated that approximately one half of the hotel’s guests were fellow Canadians. “I looked and you could see that the roof [of the restaurant] had collapsed,” Gaade said, adding: “There was a large crater in the area, debris. Everyone said their hotel room shook. The glass at neighbouring restaurants all cracked and blew out. The tiki hut that was in the area, that was on fire.”
Mexican authorities speculate that natural gas accumulation in the building was responsible for the explosion. Thus, there is no reason at this time to implicate Mexico’s drug lords or dormant communist guerrillas. However, if this blast was deliberate, then it would represent a major escalation of violence against Calderon’s “bourgeois regime.”
Further south, the makings of a new Cold War are festering in Central America as Nicaragua’s past/present communist dictator Daniel Ortega threatens to withdraw his country from the Organization of American States. On Friday night, the OAS endorsed a resolution that requires Managua to remove 50 soldiers from a small island claimed by Costa Rica at the mouth of the San Juan River. The vote was nearly unanimous. Only Nicaragua and Venezuela dissented. The president of Venezuela, fellow communist Hugo Chavez, is a close ally of Ortega.
Even though the first Sandinista regime provided safe haven for Pablo Escobar, boss of the Medellin cartel, in the 1980s, Ortega accused other OAS states of defending the interests of the region’s drug lords. In a nationally televised address on Saturday night, Ortega railed against the OAS for conducting a “rigged” vote to approve the resolution. He insists Nicaragua will maintain troops in the area because Isla Calero “belongs” to Nicaragua and the soldiers are there to interdict drug traffickers.
The Nicaraguan president went on to specifically accuse Costa Rica, Guatemala, Colombia, Mexico, and Panama of endangering the region’s political stability: “This proposal that the OAS approved last night says that we should leave this land free for drug trafficking. And we don’t accept that. Drug traffickers are directing Costa Rica’s foreign policy.” Notably, in his “indictment” Ortega failed to include his red buddies Chavez, Evo Morales, and Rafael Correa—three South American presidents who have evicted the US Drug Enforcement Administration from their countries.
Last year, the International Court of Justice granted ownership rights over the San Juan to Nicaragua, but gave Costa Rica limited navigation rights along a 140-kilometer stretch of the river. This weekend, a belligerent Ortega demanded navigation rights on Costa Rica’s Colorado River, which receives about 90 percent of its water flow from the San Juan. “Comandante” wrapped up his tantrum by announcing that his government may withdraw from the OAS. “I ask myself, does it make any sense to still be in the OAS?” whined Ortega. In any event, he said Nicaragua will not send delegates to a special meeting of foreign ministers convoked this week by Costa Rica.
During his rant-fest, Ortega described Mexico as “a country infested with drug trafficking.” In response, the Mexican Foreign Ministry fired off a diplomatic note to Managua, protesting that the Nicaraguan president’s remarks “do not have base.” The Mexican government supported the OAS resolution demanding the withdrawal of Nicaraguan troops from Isla Calero.
In comments to Costa Rica’s Nica Times last week, Nicaragua’s honorary foreign minister, Miguel D’Escoto Brockman—who is also past president of the United Nations General Assembly—spat: “The OAS has no reason to exist anymore.” A long-time Sandinista, liberationist Catholic priest, and recipient of the Soviet Union’s Lenin Peace Prize, D’Escoto branded the OAS “an instrument controlled by you know who” (meaning the USA).
In a related story, on Friday unknown assailants in a vehicle tossed a gasoline bomb at the Nicaraguan embassy in San Jose, but the device did not catch fire and no injuries or damage were reported. Since the border dispute between Nicaragua and Costa Rica appears to be part of a wider plot by Russia, Venezuela, and Iran to advance the construction of a “Nicaragua Canal,” this incident could just as easily have been perpetrated by Managua’s agents provocateur.
If Nicaragua does leave the OAS, this would be ironic because the Sandinistas refuse to support the re-admission of Honduras into this international organization. Most of Latin America’s leftist governments reject the legitimacy of Honduran President Porfirio Lobo, demanding, instead, the reinstatement of slavish Chavez lackey Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted last year in a military-backed coup instigated by his own Liberal Party.
Meanwhile, the People’s Republic of China is closing ranks in the field of officer exchanges and other aspects of military cooperation with both leftist and rightist regimes in Latin America and the Caribbean Basin. Earlier this year, Red China’s defense minister visited Mexico City with the intention of promoting bilateral military cooperation. This September, Chinese and Russian honor guards participated in celebrations marking Mexico’s bicentennial of independence. For many years, of course, Red China has also shipped weapons to its comrades in arms in Cuba.
This Sunday, Chen Bingde, chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), led a delegation of senior brass on a three-day goodwill visit to Communist Venezuela. “The Chinese military is keen on having good exchange with its Venezuelan counterpart,” a member of the PLA delegation commented as they were welcomed by Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro and Defense Minister Carlos Mata Figueroa. In a brief talk with Chen, Maduro gushed: “Venezuela has always admired China’s splendid history and culture. The PLA of China is a great army with both strong spirits and state-of-the-art science and technology.”
During his stay, Chen is scheduled to meet with President Chavez and military leaders who have been responsible for communizing Venezuela’s armed forces. He will also visit the country’s ministry of defense headquarters and a military academy. Before arriving in Venezuela, Chen paid a three-day visit to Ecuador, where President Correa is closely aligned with Chavez. Chen will later travel to Peru, which has a center-left government, but one which is pro-Washington. It may be that Beijing will try to woo Peruvian President Alan Garcia away from his alliance with the USA.
Among the Venezuelan generals who support Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” are top aide Henry Rangel Silva. Comrade Hugo has praised General Rangel as a “revolutionary soldier” and singled him out for promotion to the post of chief of the defense staff. On the November 14 airing of Alo Presidente, Chavez crowed: “I will have the honor and pleasure of promoting … Gen. Rangel Silva while the anti-patriotic opposition lashes out at patriotic generals like him. What they attempt to do is create divisions within the armed forces.”
General Rangel endorses the Venezuelan armed forces’ new salute—“Socialist homeland or death! We will be victorious!”—and vowed in a recent interview that the army will not respect an opposition victory in the 2012 presidential election. Rangel’s threatened intervention in the Venezuelan political system prompted OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza, who lately has been trying to mediate the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border dispute, to rebuke the general. Insulza, a Chilean socialist, called Rangel’s remarks “unacceptable.” Chavez shot back at Insulza: “His unfortunate statements are nothing more than disrespect for our sovereignty.”
Rangel has been blacklisted by the US Office of Foreign Asset Control. In September 2008, the US Treasury Department alleged that the general provided material support to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the opposition newspaper Tal Cual, alleges Chavez plans to instruct the military to ignore a potential opposition victory. Petkoff predicts that Chavez will in fact lose the next election and warned that “violent upheaval” could occur if the military rejects voters’ wishes. “It’s a brainwashing venture, making officials get accustomed to think their job is not to recognize the election results,” Petkoff asserted during a Sunday program broadcast on the pro-opposition Globovision TV channel. “When the president of the republic is defeated, the armed forces will have to decide if it’s convenient to prop up the head of state amid an ocean of blood.”
Venezuela’s opposition coalition has agreed to field a single candidate in 2012, but has not yet decided when or how to choose Chavez’s replacement. The ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela won the parliamentary election in September, but returned to the National Assembly with a reduced majority. The Communist Party of Venezuela, which had a presence in that body until the 2010 election, openly backs Chavez’s slavishly pro-Cuban regime.
Chavez’s Venezuela: Base for Transatlantic Red Cocaine Flights
Cases currently working their way through the US federal court system have inadvertently shed light on the sordid nexus between Latin America’s Red Axis regimes and its drug cartels. As we previously blogged, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime first sounded the alarm about transatlantic drug planes in November 2009, when a burned-out Boeing 727 was found in the deserts of Mali. According to US federal investigators, drug smugglers flew the jet from Venezuela, unloaded it, and then torched the aircraft. In some cases, executive jets have been used, including a Gulfstream II that landed in Guinea-Bissau in 2008 and another Gulfstream seized in 2007 as it tried to depart Venezuela for Sierra Leone.
Last year, a flurry of arrests exposed the drug lords’ air routes. “The quantity of cocaine distributed and the means employed to distribute it were extraordinary,” US prosecutors wrote in one case. They warned of a conspiracy to “spread vast quantities of cocaine throughout the world by way of cargo airplanes.” The global economic recession has contributed to the cocaine epidemic by idling hundreds of cargo jets, which can be bought cheaply. Internet ads such as Planemart.com offer DC-8s for as low as US$275,000.
Under the Chavezista regime, Venezuela has become the most important distribution hub for South America’s red cocaine, that is, cocaine originating from countries controlled by leftist regimes. According to US indictments, at least three cartels have struck deals to fly drugs to West Africa, in particular, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, and Sierra Leone. One trafficker claimed he already had six aircraft flying. Another said he was managing five airplanes.
Since there is no radar coverage over the ocean, big planes can cross the Atlantic virtually undetectable. From Mali’s corner of the Sahara Desert, operatives of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb allegedly pack the cocaine overland to the Mediterranean Sea and then to its ultimate destination, the European Union. Incidentally, cocaine consumption in the USA has stabilized in recent years, but soared in the EU.
“In some ways the plot is a throwback to the 1970s and ’80s, when drug pilots flew freely between Colombia and staging areas near the US border, in northern Mexico,” comments Scott Decker, a criminology professor at Arizona State University. He adds: “Back then, drug lords such as Amado Carrillo, nicknamed ‘The Lord of the Skies,’ sent jets with almost 15 tonnes of cocaine from Colombia to northern Mexico.” Today’s drug lords, Decker continues, are once again using South America’s Caribbean coast as a launch pad: “Going that way, especially from South America, really gets you outside the majority of the security envelope for air traffic.”
Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, concurs:
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s decision to sever ties with most U.S. law enforcement agencies in 2005 has made it easier to bring cocaine to staging sites on the Venezuelan coast, The DEA is not present there, the Venezuelan military is making money off it, and much of the territory is just not controlled by the government.
Drug lords who have operated out of Venezuela include former Chavez campaign financier Walid Makled-Garcia, profiled in a recent post, and Jesus Eduardo Valencia-Arbalaez, who pleaded guilty to cocaine trafficking in a US federal court this past July and was sentenced to 17-1/2 years in prison.
The Valencia-Arbelaez Organization used detailed spreadsheets to calculate flight costs and distributed codebooks to conceal their plans. Strategy sessions took place in Denmark, Spain, (formerly communist) Romania, and a Best Western hotel in Manhattan. Fuel and pilots were paid for through wire transfers, cash-filled suitcases and, in one case, a bag stuffed with US$356,000 in euros left at a hotel bar. On at least one occasion, Valencia-Arbelaez hired a Russian crew to transport a newly acquired plane from (formerly communist) Moldova to Romania, and then to Guinea.
Most of Valencia-Arbelaez’s cocaine was destined for Europe, but a fraction of each shipment was diverted to New York. “I sold airplanes to these people so I knew what was going on,” testified Manuel Silva-Jaramillo, a US aeronautical engineer, to a federal judge. “I knew that they were bringing the drugs to the United States.” The cartel had access to a private airfield in Guinea, was considering buying its own airport, and had dispatched a team to explore the feasibility of direct flights from (communist-controlled) Bolivia to West Africa.
In Liberia, the Valencia-Arbelaez Organization tried to bribe Fumbah Sirleaf, chief of the Liberian security agency and son of the country’s president, into overlooking drug flights originating from Venezuela and Panama. However, Sirleaf was secretly coordinating with the DEA and presumably knew that the ring had already sent aircraft into Liberia, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau.
The Valencia-Arbelaez case aroused the ire of the Russian government because one of the defendants, Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, maintains he was tortured by Liberian police before being handed over to the DEA. He and the other five defendants denied the charges against them. The Russian Foreign Ministry accused the US government of “kidnapping” Yaroshenko and failing to inform Moscow. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called his arrest an example of the USA “overstepping its bounds.” The DEA denies Yaroshenko was abused.