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Venezuela's booming drugs trade is so lucrative that traffickers reportedly burn smuggling planes after using them just once

INSIDER logoINSIDER 17/04/2019 Beatrice Christofaro
a pile of luggage sitting on top of a grass covered field © (Screengrab/CNN)

Venezuelan traffickers moving Colombian cocaine to the US are making so much money from their operations that they are frequently using smuggling planes just once before discarding them, a CNN report found.

The drugs are largely smuggled in and out of Venezuela with the help of its military and political elite, US and regional officials told CNN.

The trade is so lucrative that the smugglers often only use their courier planes once, wrecking them or burning them after landing, one US official told CNN. The number of flights skyrocketed from two flights a week in 2017 to as many as eight flights daily in 2019.

At least 240 metric tons of cocaine were smuggled through Venezuela in 2018, a US official told the international broadcaster. The United Nations Office for Drug Control calculated for CNN that this amount of pure cocaine could be worth up to $39 billion once it was cut and distributed in the US. 

CNN's investigation followed how the cargo crosses the porous Colombian-Venezuelan border through illegal routes. Traffickers then take the drugs to the central American nation of Honduras in tiny planes. From there, the cocaine is transported through Mexico to the US.

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Top military officials and politicians in Venezuela are the people profiting the most from the increased trade, CNN reported.

A Venezuelan solider who went into hiding in Colombia told CNN that he received top-down commands to let cocaine pass through the border.

"Everything was coordinated by the brigade commander. He'd send a lieutenant who'd tell you what needed to cross, and this was arranged high up above," he said. "Those who didn't agree were swapped out automatically."

High-ranking officers in the Venezuelan military have long faced accusations of corruption and facilitating the trade. Analysts say this has been important for president Nicolás Maduro to maintain his power base, as military leaders have a lot of money to lose if they defect.

"Drug smugglers are more and more exploiting the complicity of Venezuelan authorities, and more recently the vacuum of power," a US official told CNN. 

This year Maduro has been caught in a tug-of-war with opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who declared himself the rightful president until new elections are called. Guaidó's presidency has received support from many Western nations, including the US.

As the rivals rally for support among the masses, the military, and international leaders, Venezuelans continue to battle a humanitarian crisis.

Crippling hyperinflation has Venezuelans desperate to get their hand on cash, food, or medicine. The soldier who defected to Colombia told CNN that low-ranking officers depended on subsidized food boxes from the government.

"They had us brainwashed with food handouts," he said. "One night, I couldn't take it anymore. I went home, and told my wife, 'We leave for Colombia!'.

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