Staring into the Abyss: Examining Venezuela’s Drug Policies

Image: Salto Ángel Waterfall in Venezuela

Venezuelan drug policy is an abyss: difficult to look in from the outside, and challenging to understand the entire picture. There is little and unreliable data on almost every aspect of the political landscape due to Maduro’s dictatorship. Their drug policy is not an exception. However, thanks to the Venezuelan Embassy in Canada and their newly uploaded anti-drug plan, some information on their drug policy and its future strategic direction has become publicly available. This article reviews what we know about drug policy in Venezuela now.

First, it is crucial to understand the country’s context. The population of Venezuela is around 28 million people, almost twice the population of Ecuador, and almost half of Colombia’s. Their currency is the Bolivar, one of the most devalued in the entire world. The minimum wage sits at around USD $2. The nation has two partly recognised presidents: Juan Guaidó, who is recognized by the majority of the world; and the incumbent dictator, Nicolás Maduro. Poverty in this Caribbean country impacts around 95% of the population. The government of the United States of America identified Venezuela in 2020 as a “major drug manufacturing or drug trafficking” country, deeming it as a threat to the health and safety of the North American nation. Ecuador and Bolivia have both been described in the same way.

According to the previous 2015-2019 PNA (Plan Nacional Antidroga, or the National Anti-Drug Plan), there were two main objectives for Venezuelan drug policy: the reduction of drug supply and reduction of demand. A multi-axis programme was developed to execute this mission, focusing on strengthening actions against drug trafficking, money laundering, and drug use prevention. Although the PNA presents a plan of action, it seems to lack exact figures on what the budget for enforcement actions will be, or funding for demand reduction operations.

There is no mention in the Antidrug Plan of the Fuerzas de Acciones Especial (FAES), a Special Forces military squadron created in 2017 that Human Rights Watch reprimanded due to their violent approach to drug policing, which includes the torture of captives and killings in low-income communities that do not support Maduro. InSight Crime reported that dozens of members of narcotrafficking groups were killed by this group in 2019. Not including it was either purposeful or FAES was only later created to increase the level of harsh drug control in the country.

What the Venezuelan government has successfully done is create an excess of organisations and branches to address the drug situation. According to the 2019-2025 PNA, around 15 different institutions are focused on executing the plan. The SUNAD (Superintendencia Nacional Antidrogas) is the governing body overseeing the entire drug effort, responsible for designing, planning, and executing the public policies and strategies of the State; its organisational structure can be seen below. This makes it seem as if the state has managed to control drug use in its population. However, none of these organisations make any data publicly available to demonstrate success or to measure how their goals could be achieved. They also do not have any kind of information on what their budgets are to understand what is being prioritised.

 

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Structural organization of SUNAD in 2022. Source: SUNAD

 

From the outside, the nation’s anti-drug efforts seem astoundingly effective. Maduro in August 2020 stated that Venezuela has a world-leading record for the destruction of drug manufacturing laboratories, and has been declared a territory free of drug production. This is at odds with the fact that Maduro himself and 14 other government officials have all been charged with narco-terrorism by the US government. The Venezuelan Minister of Interior (who previously headed the National Anti-Drug Office) has also been charged with drug trafficking and is internationally sanctioned from entering the EU, US, and many other countries.

The drug policy approach that the Venezuelan dictatorship is taking cannot claim to be successful. First, it perpetuates the endless War on Drugs, chasing and harming consumers, which has failed across the world. Second, the state possesses a huge apparatus that costs a lot of money from its citizens through special regimes to companies and other organizations, but is only used to persecute the people. Third, the few datapoints presented by the dictatorship are not reliable at all as the country is going through a deep institutional crisis, making it their priority to demonstrate that independence from American drug intervention has been successful, regardless of whether the evidence shows this or not. The PNA is a very generic document filled with positivist speech that continues the same War on Drugs and focus on illegal trafficking that the US started in the country.

 

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Most drug policy documents make a note of separating their pre- and post-DEA intervention periods, as seen above with the number of drug seizures per year. Source: 2019-2025 PNA

 

The government’s new PNA forgets about an entire population: drug consumers. Nowhere are consumers mentioned in a plan that is mainly focused on prevention and supply. The PNA dedicates a few strategies for people suffering drug addiction, but does not specify how it will be achieved nor does it give arguments or reliable numbers on how to achieve their goals. For example, the PNA has as an aim to strengthen “work in Addiction Treatment Centers to know the characteristics of the incidences of improper use of substances” or to “Promote strategic alliances with the Ministry of Popular Power for the Health and other public entities to generate training and research in addiction treatment subject.”

Both objectives have no specific actions mentioned, nor are they making any effort to find out with drug using populations to find out why they use drugs, or how to include them in strategic alliances for greater success in treatment. It is the usual prohibitionist approach of dictating how people should be treated, rather than working with them to find out.

Julia Buxton, a British Academy Global Professor focused on studying drug supply patterns, who has worked with counter-narcotics efforts in Venezuela, commented:

“Venezuela is in chaos and barely able to secure and maintain its borders. This is a result of the severe US sanctions layered on to decades of economic mismanagement in Venezuela. Over 6 million people have migrated and the physical and oil infrastructure of the country has collapsed. In this context, criminal entrepreneurialism and informal economic activity have thrived, and this includes increased penetration of Colombian cocaine trafficking through Venezuela - and migrant Venezuelans engaged in coca cultivation and cocaine processing in Colombia.”

It is impossible to shed any light into the abyss of this Bolivarian nation. The Government has taken a War on Drugs approach, but they put it in a more subtle way, filled with empty phrases and meaningless words. Their numerous “drug related institutions” do not present any reliable data at all, not even a budget. So, the situation in Venezuela and their drug policies appears to be built on mere words. Their new 130 page antidrug plan takes the same unfit approach that has not worked in decades. The dictatorship is applying the same failed recipe on an issue that is long overdue. The situation is only a reflection of every other aspect in the country. If Nicolás Maduro and his inner circle have been charged with drug trafficking, is there really anything else to expect about his administration?