Small Wars Journal

Malignant Legions: Treating the Strategic Cancer of the Cartel de los Soles

Tue, 12/18/2018 - 6:41pm

Malignant Legions: Treating the Strategic Cancer of the Cartel de los Soles


Chris Telley


The political and economic tragedy unfolding in Venezuela has led to an exodus of three million people, as of this writing.[i] Those left behind survive in a country left in tatters. There are reports of food, fuel, medicine, and water shortages, a state oil company foundering despite tapping the world's largest proven reserves, guerillas transiting the countryside, and an emerging environmental disaster in the country's south.[ii] What the stories do not connect is the common actor tied into many of Venezuela's terrible ills—the military—and that a particular brand of corruption has infected that institution. Any effort to create lasting change in Venezuela demands U.S. policy that specifically mitigates the military corruption networks, best understood through the concept of the “Cartel of the Suns.” This network, known for facilitating narcotrafficking, has become a central mechanism that both keeps Maduro’s mafia state in power and complicates any future after his departure, all while extracting rents at the expense of the citizenry it is supposed to serve.[iii]


This project sets out to map the Cartel de los Soles in order to identify individuals that were entrenched in the network but untargeted by U.S. sanctions, as well as discover subgroups and seams which could be influenced as a means to provide opportunity to the opposition. This paper begins by introducing the history of the Cartel of the Suns and describing its central, but often overlooked, place in the tragedy that has beset the Venezuelan people. We will then review the mapping methodology and the results of social network analysis. Given that international consensus has, thus far, precluded the possibility of armed intervention, the project closes by proposing initial informational, diplomatic, and financial policy options for influencing the cartel and its position in the national political community. The United States has definitively set itself against the dictatorial regime of Nicholas Maduro within its stated intent to end the “corruption and the looting of the Venezuelan economy,” a goal which requires significantly changing the existing power structure, the military being the key node.[iv]


The military sits quietly at the center of most of Venezuela’s problems. When Hugo Chavez came to power, he built a new “civil-military alliance” which vastly expanded the role of the armed forces in public policy and national development.[v] Now, a third of the government’s ministries are controlled by generals and the military controls all of the ports.[vi] In July, the military took control of local water distribution.[vii] A major general heads the state oil company and the Arco Minero “Economic Military Zone,” created in 2017, provides control of and profits from access to new mines. [viii] Most significantly, “Mision Negro Primero” gives select military commanders authority over the majority of the country’s food distribution programs, thus ensuring that troops loyal to the regime can feed their families. [ix] The Maduro regime requires a compliant military to keep power, and whoever comes after also needs the support of the military.[x]  Unfortunately, the military is deeply tainted by its tradition of integrating with criminal gangs’ and terrorists’ illegal operations.


The Cartel de los Soles


The Cartel of the Suns is a loose group of Venezuelan generals, of various branches, and government officials who have used federal assets and authority to facilitate drug transshipment since the nineties. The name of the group comes from the general’s insignia of golden stars.[xi] The term came to prominence in 1993 after two senior national guard officers, and the Anti-drug chief, were indicted for human trafficking.[xii] Over the last two and a half decades, many senior officers have been implicated in high profile incidents, from international arrests to burnt-out jetliners used to ferry drugs, that were discovered in the Sahara.[xiii] The cartel, not a classic drug producing organization, smuggled narcotics, mostly Colombian cocaine, as well as other goods like gasoline.[xiv]  The organization is loosely hierarchical and reports to the top tiers of the Venezuelan government; a vice president and Defense minister are among those implicated.[xv] Once petty narco-traffickers have evolved into modern day “Caudillos” —a term for regional chieftains who obtained wealth and power by force of arms that dates from Bolivar’s liberation of Venezuela.[xvi]


The maturation of the cartel can probably be traced to Hugo Chavez’ establishment of formal relations with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), a Marxist revolutionary movement turned narcotics cabal. This relationship is detailed in the emails seized by Colombian commandos in a raid that killed FARC leader Luis Edgar Devia Silva. Once the Chavez government kicked out the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in 2005, the cartel’s operation accelerated.[xvii] After Chavez began politicizing the military in 2006, the centrally sponsored mandate to “destroy the mafia” simply allowed the corrupt to create local monopolies.[xviii] Eventually, the military’s role shifted from one of facilitator to perpetrator, now sending large drug scale shipments to Africa and Europe. [xix] [xx] In addition to drugs, the group is linked to the wider leftist movement the “Pink Tide” and even Iranian terror networks.[xxi] Though links to Islamic terror may be oversold in the beltway, Tareck El Aissami, vice president and key node of the cartel, has dangerous links to Hezbollah.[xxii]


Today, the soldiers who started the cartel are now government ministers—their proteges are division commanders and are raising a fresh crop of officers who are entrenched in the drug trade. They are diversifying, now extorting gold miners and food services.[xxiii] Though, surely, not all Venezuelan soldiers are appalling criminals, there remains the perception that “everyone is on the take to survive.”[xxiv] The military’s fundamental illegitimacy is a problem for any opposition leader wishing to subvert Maduro. Support for authoritarians is not new to the Venezuelan military; it was the national security forces who crushed protests against a massive 1989 increase in gas prices, which came to be known as Caracazo.[xxv] They can be swayed. The malleability of the security forces was on wide display in both the 1992 and 2002 coup attempts.


Venezuela has suffered from ubiquitous political and financial corruption since at least the dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gomez, but this is different.[xxvi] The theft perpetrated against Venezuelan people is colossal, as evidenced by the recent prosecution of, ex-Army officer, Alejandro Andrade for pilfering over a billion dollar while in positions of escalating authority.[xxvii] As oil money and international loans have dried up, those who possess the capacity for force have formed an oligarchy of generals; their disturbing level of integration with terrorists and drug runners makes the military, and its Cartel de las Soles alter ego, a serious policy liability for strategic options in the region. A precise and nuanced policy is required to root out the most excessive of the Cartel’s kingpins, while preserving options for the opposition to coopt the force required to establish governance.


Charting the Network


Capitalizing on the tremendous work of Insight Crime, this project used social network analysis to map the Cartel de los Soles for the purpose of guiding precise and nuanced policy. The author collected open public domain data from various sources to map the Cartel’s ties through both career affiliation and relational ties, while coding attributes of sanctions, terrorist ties, and indictments. The data was pulled from U.S. Attorney General indictments, Insight Crime research, ordinary journalistic reporting, and the 2008 document cache seized by the Colombian government from FARC. The network boundaries encapsulate former and current Government employees implicated in drug trafficking, or enabling of the same, associated with Venezuelan military organizations. The aggregate and relation networks are only composed of human actors; however, the component affiliation matrix has human actors and group actors. Due to the lack of coded data on the network, we use an expedient blend of nominalist and realist approaches. The relation network uses empirically established connection that the subject is cognizant of, and the affiliation network uses a realist position in that subjects clearly understand they are part of the delineated group.[xxviii] The lack of detail on the actors also means that the mapped ties are undirected and uncharacterized by strength.


The first of two derived networks (Figure 1) is an undirected, one-mode matrix, with seventy-two identified actors, that records known relational ties between the nodes.[xxix] These are all of the connections that were available from open source documents, including FARC email data, social media posts, news reports, indictments, and biographical information. Friendship relations are defined as close attachments through affection or esteem between two people. Friendship ties are not defined solely as meetings and/ or school ties but also include mentorship ties. This network also includes kinship ties, defined as any family connection such as a brother, brother-in-law, nephew etc.  Kinship also includes current marriages and past marriages due to divorces and/or deaths.




The second derived network (Figure 2) is an undirected, two-mode matrix, with seventy-two identified individual actors that records known affiliation ties with eleven government organizations. The groups include: the presidential Cabinet, Constituent Assembly, the Caracas Judiciary community, the National Guard, the Army, Air Force, Navy, State Intelligence Agency, National Police, the Military Academy, and Anti-Drug Agency. Ties are high level employment in Military and government affiliated organization (i.e. Generals, that could reasonably be expected to have a personal connection). The groups are defined, here, as a federal level administrative or functional system that has authority affecting the drug trade and is believed to be overseeing part of an illicit operation.




The compiled Cartel of the Suns network (Figure 3) is a continuous connection of 71 actors.[xxx] The first apparent feature is a set of two large conglomerations that make up a majority of the set, this polarity represents the divide between Army and Bolivarian National Guard traffickers.[xxxi] Cross checking the centrality rankings with the gathered attributes provides a list of actors that are clearly tied to the illicit network but have not yet been targeted by Treasury sanction, Justice Department indictment, nor have come forward to testify. These individuals should be ripe targets for measures designed to strategically manipulate the network as a means to both mitigate criminal activity and ensure a democratic ultimate endstate in Venezuela.




Manipulating the Network


Armed with the context provided by our social network analysis, we can begin to propose informational, diplomatic, and financial policy options to influence the cartel and its overall political position. The United States is not in a declared conflict with Venezuela; so, any mitigation of this network, that itself is a key node in the wider “Troika of Tyranny" networks, as designated by the U.S. National Security Advisor, must be non-kinetic.[xxxii] Fortunately, the data here have provided some accessible targets for action that pressures one of the National Guard hub while pruning the Army, for its worst offenders, and also separating the two groups. Initially, however, execution of any of the following recommendations should be preceded by specific surveillance to confirm/deny target value and feasibility, as the data gathering for the project was far from all inclusive.


The first recommendation is that U.S. policy makers focus financial action, additional to the already expanding parade of sanctions, on the hub with the most perceptible connections to criminality, as identified by the prevailing literature and the analysis: the Bolivarian National Guard. Of course, existing actions against players like Diosado Cabello, the only true cut point and the legendary center of the cartel, must be sustained. Among the top ten most central players in the cartel, and connected to the Guard hub, there are as-yet untargeted nodes. For example, Luis Motta Dominguez and Reinaldo Berardinelli Tovar have high centrality scores, but have not yet been the subject of Treasury or Justice Department action, and they have brokerage positions between their hub and the Army. Nodes like these two, and there are certainly more to be found, should be key targets for future U.S. sanctions policy and indictment actions.


Second, informational actions are also required. Javier Mayorca, an investigative journalist with El Nacional, found that there had been clashes between various military forces over product and territory.[xxxiii] His work and Guiomar Parada’s reporting indicate that there are fractures that can be used to separate the two competing subgroups.[xxxiv] The division seen in the above charts suggests that the two hubs can be separated and, perhaps, one of them salvaged. Messaging campaigns, overt and covert, must be conducted to isolate the National Guard. Measures like media campaigns casting the generals as betraying the legacy of Simon Bolivar: inheritors of a strain of dictatorship that dates to Generals Manuel Piar and José Antonio Páez, the original Caudillos who betrayed El Libertador.


Finally, ensuring that whatever transition in Venezuela does not degenerate to military coup will require essentially parallel track diplomacy with feasibly vetted members of the Army, in addition to sponsorship of opposition groups through international organizations. Also, whole of government and inter-government knowledge management is also required. After Maduro, organizations like USAID and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation would start injecting contracts and capitol to assist the ailing nation; most of the cartel members have business holdings of their own and must not be allowed to interfere with or profit from their country's rehabilitation.[xxxv] Identifying and outing the network’s most criminal members is critical. The military has always been a “decisive factor” for whatever outcome awaits Venezuela after its long nightmare; it has since become the factor; even if Maduro goes, the Cartel will stay, as will the military stranglehold on civilian life.[xxxvi]


The modern Caudillo is not the only thing wrong with Venezuela, however; the criminally infected military is central to the tragedy and has neither the motive nor capacity required to support peaceful change. They have no incentive to change the status quo and are active participants in the ongoing theft. Unfortunately, the need for legitimate military units will increase substantially as a new government comes onto the scene because the narcotraffickers and terrorists—who have come to expect shelter and support—will now be counted among a growing list of well-armed opponents of the nascent state. Coalition efforts to create lasting change, demand US policy that successfully isolates the Cartel of the Suns while preserving the more legitimate nodes for future governance.


This project has offered conclusions based on an initial network map of the Cartel de los Soles as a means understand how it might be manipulated to create opportunities for change. There is a fuse burning on the ever-growing crisis in and around Venezuela. Refugees continue to pour out, across the continent, as the murder rate recently topped that Honduras, previously the world's worst.[xxxvii] As the flow of Texas Permian drives falling oil prices, the Maduro regime will get desperate.[xxxviii] The cabinet in Miraflores, the presidential palace, has already defaulted on at least 50 billion in debt and, regardless what gold it is able to retrieve from England's banks or value it can swindle with the "Petro" cryptocurrency, inflation will likely hit 1,000,000 percent this year; so, the regime may soon run out of funds to buy loyalty, providing a moment of great peril and twinkling opportunity. [xxxix] The military is a significant driver of Venezuela's tragic positive feedback loop and is likely to continue support for its presidentially appointed economic role.[xl] The institution's rotten core must be addressed before the nation can move forward. Precise and nuanced policy action is needed now to ensure that legitimate governance, not kleptocratic junta, holds sway in Caracas after the ensuing turmoil.


This paper represents the opinions of the author and should not be taken to represent the views of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the United States government.


End Notes


[i] Giulia Saudelli, "3 million people have fled Venezuela says UNHCR," Deutsche Welle, August 11, 2018,

[ii] Hannah Dreier and Joshua Goodman, "Venezuela military trafficking food as country goes hungry," Associated Press, December 28, 2016, Jeremy McDermott, "Venezuela, the New Regional Crime Hub," The New York Times,

July 15, 2018, Diego Oré, "Venezuela's military to coordinate food, medicine distribution," Reuters, July 12, 2016, Patricia Laya and Fabiola Zerpa, "The Army Took Over the Spigots, Forcing Thirsty Venezuelans to Pay," Bloomberg, June 25, 2018, Alexandra Ulmer, Deisy Buitrago, "New Venezuela oil boss to give military more PDVSA posts," Reuters,  November 27, 2017, Jim Wyss, "In chaotic Venezuela, guerrillas from Colombia find new territory to grow," The Miami Herald, June 04, 2018, Kejal Vyas, "Desperate Venezuelans Dig Up Paradise in Search of Gold," The Wall Street Journal,

November 20, 2018,

[iii] This is based on Moise Naim’s definition of “mafia state” in which “government officials enrich themselves and their families and friends while exploiting the money, muscle, political influence, and global connections of criminal syndicates to cement and expand their own power.” Moises Naim, "Mafia States," Foreign Affairs, April 25, 2012

[iv] John Bolton, "Remarks on the Administration’s Policies in Latin America," the White House, November 2, 2018.

[v] Iselin Åsedotter Strønen, “A Civil-Military Alliance: The Venezuelan Armed Forces before and during the Chávez era," Chr. Michelsen Institute, 2016,

[vi] Andrew Rosati, " The Bloody Grab for Gold in Venezuela’s Most Dangerous Town," Bloomberg, April 9, 2018. Hernan Lugo-Galicia, "Maduro turns Venezuela military officers into businessmen to quell discontent," the Miami Herald, May 01, 2018, world/world/americas/venezuela/article210233099.html.

[vii] Patricia Laya and Fabiola Zerpa, "The Army Took Over the Spigots, Forcing Thirsty Venezuelans to Pay," Bloomberg, June 25, 2018,

[viii] Nick Cunningham, "Corruption at Venezuela's state-run oil company is pushing the country deeper into a crisis," Business Insider, April 19, 2018, Andrew Rosati, " The Bloody Grab for Gold in Venezuela’s Most Dangerous Town," Bloomberg, April 9, 2018.

[ix] Hernan Lugo-Galicia, "Maduro turns Venezuela military officers into businessmen to quell discontent," the Miami Herald, May 01, 2018, world/world/americas/venezuela/article210233099.html: Hannah Dreier and Josh Goodman, "Venezuela military trafficking food as country goes hungry," Associated Press, January 1, 2017,

[x] Juan Carlos Hidalgo, "Venezuela: A Military Regime," Cato Institute, September 29, 2014,

[xi] Jeremy McDermott, "Venezuela, the New Regional Crime Hub," The New York Times,

July 15, 2018,

[xii] Jelter Meers, "Report: In Venezuela, Cartels Are Part of Regime," Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, May 2018,

[xiii] Colin Freeman, "Revealed: how Saharan caravans of cocaine help to fund al-Qaeda in terrorists' North African domain," The Telegraph, 26 January 2013,

[xiv] Jeremy McDermott, "Venezuela, the New Regional Crime Hub," The New York Times,

July 15, 2018,

[xv] Brenda Fiegel, “Venezuela, Military Generals, and the Cartel of the Suns,” Small Wars Journal, 2015,

[xvi] John Lynch, “Bolivar and the Caudillos,” The Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 63, No. 1, (February, 1983): JSTOR, 4.

[xvii] Brian Ellsworth and David Adams, “Fugitive Venezuela judge helps elite U.S. anti-drugs unit,” Chicago Tribune, May 29, 2012.

[xviii] Rory Carroll, Commandante, (Penguin Press, New York, 2013) 143-144.

[xix] Jelter Meers, "Report: In Venezuela, Cartels Are Part of Regime," Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, May 2018,

[xx] Brenda Fiegel, “Venezuela, Military Generals, and the Cartel of the Suns,” Small Wars Journal, 2015,

[xxi] Matthew S. Bauer, Andrew J. Maggard, Robert L. Murray, “Convergence in Latin America: Illuminating the Pink Tide and Iranian Nexus though Social Network Analysis. Master’s Thesis, Naval Postgraduate School. December 2017,

[xxii] Christopher Sabatini, "The Islamist threat in Latin America and the Caribbean: What do we really know?," Global Americas, January 26, 2017,

[xxiii] Andrew Rosati, " The Bloody Grab for Gold in Venezuela’s Most Dangerous Town," Bloomberg, April 9, 2018.

[xxiv] Jeremy McDermott, "Venezuela, the New Regional Crime Hub," The New York Times,

July 15, 2018,

[xxv] Timeline, “Venezuela's Chavez Era,” Council for Foreign Relations.

[xxvi] Gustavo Coronel, “The Corruption of Democracy in Venezuela,” CATO Institute, March 2008,

[xxvii] Nicholas Casey, "Jets, Horses and Bribes: How a Venezuelan Official Became a Billionaire as His Country Crumbled," The New York Times, November 23, 2018,

[xxviii] Edward Laumann, Peter Marsden, David Prensky, “The Boundary Specification Problem in Network Analysis,” in Applied Network Analysis, ed Ronald Burt and Michael Minor, Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1983.

[xxix] All social network analysis was done on UCInet and its component NetDraw.

[xxx] The total is 71, when the single isolate is removed. The compiled network appears to have a low average density and centralization, but is relatively cohesive. After collection and coding, the affiliation data was converted from two to one mode. The combined data set was produced by joining and then aggregating the original relation matrix with the converted affiliation set.

[xxxi] A six-subgroup separation has the best calculable fit.

[xxxii] John Bolton, "Remarks on the Administration’s Policies in Latin America," the White House, November 2, 2018.

[xxxiii] Guiomar Parada, “Venezuela. Not a Cartel of the Suns but the Tentacles of Drug Trade Extend to the Government,” EastWest.EU, 03 May 2017

[xxxiv] Guiomar Parada, “Venezuela. Not a Cartel of the Suns but the Tentacles of Drug Trade Extend to the Government,” EastWest.EU, 03 May 2017

[xxxv] Jane’s IHS, “Venezuela > Executive Summary” https//

[xxxvi] Felix Seijas Rodriguez, “The Six Players in Venezuela's Crisis,” Americas Quarterly, July 28, 2017,

[xxxvii] “Murder rate on the rise in Venezuela,” The Kuwait Times, November 19, 2018,

[xxxviii] Javier Blas, “Texas Is About to Create OPEC's Worst Nightmare,” Bloomberg, November 20, 2018,

[xxxix] Editorial Board, "What if Venezuela’s regime just keeps going?" The Washington Post, May 19, 2018, Jim Wyss, "Keep gold in British bank to keep Maduro from stealing it, Venezuela opposition asks," Miami Herald, November 30, 2018, Katia Moskvitch, "Inside the bluster and lies of Petro, Venezuela's cryptocurrency scam," Wired, August 22, 2018, Will Martin, "Venezuela's inflation rate just hit 830,000% — and is likely to keep rising," Business Insider, November 8, 2018,

[xl] Jane’s IHS, “Venezuela > Executive Summary” https//

Categories: El Centro - cartels

About the Author(s)

Lieutenant Colonel Chris Telley serves as an Army information operations officer and is detailed to the U.S. State Department. His past writing covers emerging technology, competitive influence, and multi-domain operations. He tweets at @chris_telley.