CNN:– Cocaine trafficking from Venezuela to the United States is soaring, even as the country collapses. And US and other regional officials say it’s Venezuela’s own military and political elite who are facilitating the passage of drugs in and out of the country on hundreds of tiny, unmarked planes.
A months-long CNN investigation traced the northward route of cocaine from the farmlands where much of it is grown in Colombia, and found that the number of suspected drug flights from Venezuela has risen from about two flights per week in 2017 to nearly daily in 2018, according to one US official.
This year, the same official has seen as many as five nighttime flights in the sky at once.
Planes loaded with Colombian cocaine used to depart from Venezuela’s remote southern jungle regions.
Now they take off from the country’s more developed northwest region to reduce their flying time, US and regional officials also said.
Officials involved in combating the deadly trade describe a ridiculously profitable courier system for the Venezuelan government.
“Drug smugglers are more and more exploiting the complicity of Venezuelan authorities, and more recently the vacuum of power,” said one US official.
Every shipment of cocaine from South America is so lucrative that the planes flown by traffickers are cheap in comparison; most are used only once and then discarded or set on fire upon arrival.
A sizable fraction of the profits go to countries through which the drugs pass, from the jungles of Colombia through Venezuela and often to the Honduran coastline.
A confidential 2018 US radar map of the plane routes seen by CNN shows their departure from northwestern Venezuela’s Zulia region, their passage north to the Caribbean, and then their sharp turn West toward their destinations in the remote farmlands of Guatemala, on the Honduran coastline, and some in the Caribbean.
From there, the drugs are shipped up to Mexico and then distributed to American cities.
One US official estimated that in 2018 alone, 240 metric tons (265 tons for US readers) of cocaine crossed into Venezuela from Colombia to be flown out of the country. Other officials involved in combating the drug trade said that estimate was conservative.
So much pure Colombian cocaine, when cut and distributed, could fetch around $39 billion on the streets of the US, according to an estimate by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime for CNN.
US officials recently expressed concern that a proposed ban by President Donald Trump on all types of aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador would create a “bonanza” among the Venezuelan-led traffickers, as US aid to these three Central American countries specifically targeted the cocaine trade. “Right now, it’s wide open,” said one US law enforcement officer, “then it’ll just be a free for all.”