The Fall of Commander Moses

A snapshot of the Bolivarian revolution in terminal decline? The fall of Commander Moses, pro-Chavez militia leader at the hands of allegedly drug-trafficking military commanders. A report by the Dromonanos team in Mexico’s Domingo Universal that suggests a troubling level of weakness and corruption in the post-Hugo Chavez Venezuelan state.

Juan Guerrero was planning Christmas dinner when his brother Javier de Jesus called him on the phone. It was the end of November, 2011 and the family had thought about meeting outside of their humble aluminum-roofed brick home in Guasdualito, a small town on the border with Colombia, to celebrate the holidays. Javier de Jesus, the fifth of 14 siblings, was the most highly-anticipated guest. For years, he had been living clandestinely as the leader of a Venezuelan guerrilla group known as the Patriotic Forces for National Liberation (FPLN), and he only appeared rarely. Javier de Jesus had become Commander ‘Moses Carpio’.

His brother describes him as a serious and frugal person, his comrades as an extrovert and a joker, a leader who defended the peasant farmers. And in Caracas, the capital, the experts speak of him and the rest of the guerrillas as armed civilians who simply wield despotic control over local residents at the service of the Bolivarian revolution. His legacy and personality are contradictory, characteristic of man who decides to leave his family to live in the jungle, take up arms and put a cause ahead of himself and his family.

Juan answered the call from his guerilla brother while he drove to work. “They are going make me go away,” he serenely told Juan, who listened to his brother’s words with a sense of resignation. He didn’t say anything. That was the last time he heard the voice of ‘Moses’.

Throughout the El Apure region, one of Venezuela’s most dangerous areas because of the presence of guerrillas, the army and drug traffickers, ‘Moses’ was famous for defending the Bolivarian [Chavez] revolution, for facing down big landowners who controlled the contraband of gas, wood, cattle and drugs, and for fighting for the expulsion of Colombian guerrillas — the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) — with whom he shared ideologies but could not accept that they impose their law in Venezuelan territory. His family begged him to be careful because he had too many enemies. ‘Moses’ knew that sooner or later they were going to kill him. The soldiers of the battalion from La Victoria, a nearby town, under the charge of Angel Rafael Saldeno Armas — an army official whom area residents pointed to as the region’s principal drug trafficker –, had been following his steps for five years.

While in countries like Panama and the rest of Central America, the drug traffickers steal drugs from each other, in Venezuela the guerrillas take them away from the soldiers. “There are generals, colonels, lieutenants and sergeants involved. The drug traffickers got security, transport, lodging, surveillance and the capacity for military organization in an area like Venezuela, which for many years was a low risk place for the traffic of drugs,” says Jose Machillanda, a former military official and the director of the Projective Policy Center, an apolitical foundation that promotes debate on social issues. In Guasdualito, it was rumored that La Victoria’s commander Saldeno was obsessed with capturing ‘Moses’. He accused of him of being a ‘cuatrero’, of stealing cattle and trafficking them. That was why Javier de Jesus lived in the jungle and constantly changed his location. He only approached the city sporadically to visit his family and his ten-year-old son.

‘Moses’ joined the Bolivarian revolution during the campaign Hugo Chavez carried out for president in 1999. His objective was to support the peasant farmers who were fighting for their rights, and to do that he formed part of the Ezequiel Zamora Peasant Farmer Front, which consists of some 15 percent of the farmers and ranchers in the country. El Apure is a prairie region, surrounded by rivers and dominated by big landowners. Inhabitants claim that because of its natural beauty and rich agricultural land, it was from here that God created the world. But being a border area, it is also among the country’s most conflicted.

For many years, the peasant farmers were killed and their deaths were not cleared up, as happened at the El Amparo massacre in 1988, when 14 fishermen were killed by the police and soldiers in an alleged confrontation between subversive groups. In this region, the peasant farmers didn’t have the rights to housing and were subjected to labor abuse. ‘Moses’ was a primary school teacher who had studied in Cuba and exchanged the word for the gun six years ago, when he concluded that politics alone could change nothing. He opted for a more extreme life dedicated to defending the principles of Hugo Chavez’ government. ‘Moses’ had the support of the majority of the people, and when necessary they offered him hiding places and food. El Apure is one of the bastions of the most faithful to Chavez’ revolution. Chavez himself took refuge in the region from then-president Carlos Andres Perez after being taken prisoner in his own failed coup attempt in 1992. Jose Luis, the owner of El Refugio del Conejo restaurant and one of the city’s oldest leftist activists, still keeps pictures in which he appears next to the then-young Chavez, just out of prison and extremely skinny.

The guerrillas emerged in this area to face crime that had installed itself in the border decades ago because of the government’s absence. Gas trafficking to Colombia from a country where a tank of gas costs the same as a bottle of water has been a very profitable business for decades. The guerrillas were able to control petty crime. “Here you can walk safely at three in the morning. No one is going to rob you. (The guerrillas) watch over the area at night,” says a mechanic who has spent his life in Guasdualito, and who asked to remain anonymous.

But while the cities were calm, in the rural areas the most powerful of criminal organizations began to take root. According to acquaintances, ‘Moses’ dedicated himself to confronting these groups, that sometimes had members from military itself or from the FARC and the ELN. Each time the Venezuelan guerrillas heard about a vehicle passing through full of drugs, gas or cattle, they would cut it off and steal the merchandise to avoid trafficking. What they did later with the merchandise is a mystery: In Guasdualito they claim the illegal loot ended up in the hands of trustworthy authorities, but many experts think they used it to do illicit business. “We have gone through bad times and the last thing we have considered is financing ourselves with drugs. We know that hurts humanity. You can’t spit straight up because it will fall back in your face, so we will look for any way to avoid that,” affirms a spokesperson for the Bolivar and Zamora Revolutionary Current, a leftist organization aligned with the guerrillas.

‘Moses’ and his followers started to have an impact on the powerful landowners’ interests — many of whom were retired or active members of the military –, who started to go after them. “My brother and the peasant farmers cut off their transport of illegal merchandise, expropriated lands, and they said he trafficked contraband. They put a price on his head,” explained Juan Guerrero, a 50-year-old man, dark-haired and strong, with thick eye brows and a well-trimmed mustache. The guerrillas gave him the name ‘Moses’ because of the biblical figure, because he guided the people, but for (Juan) he was still Javier de Jesus. Juan pulls from his wallet an identification card that belonged to his brother, 11 years younger than himself. “Everyone said we looked so much alike,” he says, months after Christmas in the lobby of a hotel. He has had that picture with him since the last time he spoke to ‘Moses’ that afternoon towards the end of November. Days later, the prophecy he delivered on the phone came to pass. That Christmas of 2011, ‘Moses’ didn’t make it to dinner.

A woman crosses the border to Colombia with a little marijuana in her suitcase. The Venezuelan National Guard orders her to stop.

-What do you have there?

-Cannabis.

-Ah, OK. Go ahead, go ahead.

It’s an old joke.

Mildred Camero, a judge for 26 years and the former director of the National Commission Against the Use of Illicit Drugs (CONACUID), tells the joke in a cafe in Caracas, as an illustration of the country’s lack of knowledge about drug trafficking when she began her career.

Camero, a older woman with bleached blond hair and intense red lipstick, returned to Venezuela towards the end of the ’70s after studying in Europe, committed to specializing in the fight against drug trafficking. A friend of hers from college had died from overdose. She found a country of the “very very rich who experimented with LSD and marijuana, and the very very poor, who smoked crack, even though it wasn’t as ordinary as it is nowadays.” But over the next decade, Colombia lived through the rise of the big cartels while its neighbor Venezuela, bathed in oil and rich with luxuries, turned into the ideal place for transporting and storing drugs and money.

Camero’s first money laundering case was an investigation of currency exchange houses on the border. The money ended up in the Banco Cafetero, owned by the legendary Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. She also followed the operations of the Medellin Cartel in Venezuela. “There in Colombia they went after them, but here everything was easier,” the judge claims. Many of the informants started to say that members of the National Guard were involved in drug trafficking, turning a blind eye in exchange for bribes.

Two generals from the (National Guard), Ramon Guillen Davila and Orlando Hernandez Villegas, were tried for drug trafficking. They were finally freed in 1993, but the name of the first Venezuela cartel had been inscribed on the popular imagination of the Venezuelan people: the ‘Cartel of the Suns”, in reference to the sun or suns that military officials wore on their uniform according to their rank. The “go ahead, go ahead” of Camero’s joke went from being synonymous with naivete to being synonymous with corruption.

“Today, the biggest problem with drug trafficking in Venezuela is the relationship between the military and traffickers,” says Camero. In 1999, when Hugo Chavez chose her as director of CONACUID, she put out five reports implicating high level Army officials. “But he never read them,” she laments. For her and other experts, there are two incidents that marked “Venezuela’s debacle”. The first was Plan Colombia in 2001. The enormous quantity of money the United States invested to fight drug trafficking in that country provoked an exodus of traffickers who took shelter in Venezuela to flee authorities.

Today, in El Apure — a network of small towns connected by a highway traveled in two hours — is a clear demonstration of the presence of armed subversive groups that share control of the populations. Guasdualito is controlled by the (Venezuelan guerrilla group) FLPN, as is El Amparo. The settlements of San Cristobal, Urena y San Antonio are in the hands of the [Colombian] FARC and the paramilitaries. In El Rubio, it’s the[Colombian] ELN and the paramilitaries who call the shots, and in La Revancha, the ELN.

The second landmark that put Venezuela’s situation on a slippery slope was the decision of Hugo Chavez, who died this year, to promote military officials to posts of responsibility in the government. He did it, above all, after the coup d’etat that nearly toppled him in 2002, when he decided to surround himself with his brothers-in-arms who had been with him during his rise to power.

During the last five years, the United States Treasury Department has frozen the accounts and estates of four high-ranking Armed Forces officers, a member of the police and two government representatives for their alleged relationship with the FARC and drug trafficking. Hugo Chavez blamed the news on “imperialist manipulation” by the (U.S.) government. He never initiated an investigation and, moreover, many of them were given promotions. Henry Rangel Silva, one of those implicated, became defense minister.

Mildred Camero’s judicial career ended in 2005, when they dismissed her the same year the Venezuelan government expelled the DEA and other anti-drug police forces from the country. She says the large part of her investigations ended up involving military officials with higher and higher ranks. In (the investigations) they appeared as middlemen for the FARC, dealing drugs and money in exchange for weapons.

When she confirmed it, an alarmed Camero went to office of the vice president, Jose Vicente Rangel, also a former defense minister and former minister of exterior relations:

-Look, Mr. Vice President, this what is happening, Camero said to him.

-You’ve sure got some balls.

According to Camero’s story, Rangel grabbed her papers, wadded them up and threw them in the garbage. The former judge now has a trial pending for charges of treason. In her safe, she tightly guards reports that she claims implicate various important figures from Chavez’ administration. She says it’s her best life insurance.

A small Air France plane, coming from Caracas, was seized last September 13 in Paris with more than 30 suitcases full of cocaine. Two weeks ago, five police officers were condemned to 26 years in jail for drug trafficking. Last year, another small plane carrying a ton and a half of drugs flew out of the military base at La Carlota. Most of the planes seized in Honduras are registered in Venezuela. In 2012, the government destroyed 100 clandestine airstrips in the country. Up to three years ago, Walid Makled, the most famous Venezuelan drug trafficker, owner of the airline Aeropostal and much of Puerto Cabello — the country’s most active maritime port — was able to send up to five tons of drugs to the international airport in Maiquetia bound for Ciudad del Carmen, in Tabasco. They say this was thanks to his connections with “La Federacion”, a coalition made up of the cartels of Joaquin El Chapo Guzman and Ismael El Mayo Zambada.

At some point in the last decade, the news about Venezuela and its role in international drug trafficking started to flood newspapers in such a way that, at the beginning of this month, the president of the National Anti-drug Commission himself, Bayardo Ramirez, declared Venezuela was “the number one trafficker of drugs in Latin America”.

On the subject, Hernan Matute, one of the main investigators on security and drug trafficking in the country, says: “It’s routine to see foreigners arrested on boats that left from Venezuela, they destroy laboratories that produce cocaine — something that was unthinkable 10 years ago — or they find marijuana growing operations and opium along the borders. Also (it’s routine) that precursors under strict control of the Venezuelan government are used to process cocaine, or that the E.U. Department of Treasury makes declarations of links between politicians, military officials and Venezuelan bankers with drug trafficking.”

When Walid Makled, better known as “El Turco”, was arrested in Colombia, they asked how he had skirted airport security and transported cocaine. He answered: “Do you think you can load 500 suitcases with cocaine without having support?” Venezuela fought with Colombia for Makled’s immediate extradition. In an interview with RCN, one of Colombia’s main television channels, the trafficker claimed he had a list of the people he paid in the Chavez’ government to be able to operate, but since being extradited to Venezuela he has never spoken again. “The clearest example of narco-militiarism is the case of Makled”, claims Jose Machillanda, a former military officer and director of Projective Policy Center.

“The case explains how he had exclusive access to petrochemical products, an airline with international flights, a port, how Chavez’ government supported him and how (Makled) supported regional governments and gave orders to governors.” A while after Makled’s capture, Eladio Aponte Aponte, a military official and judge in the Court of Justice, was removed from his position, fled to Costa Rica and asked for protection from the DEA. The former judge confessed on various occasions that he received orders directly from the presidential palace in Miraflores to free military officials involved in drug trafficking.

This political contamination has lashed the past years of the Venezuelan government from the capital to the border. The former governor of El Apure, Jesus Aguilarte, was obligated to resign in 2011 by Chavez’ administration after a poor term. The next year he was killed in a McDonalds in the city of Maracay. In another restaurant a couple months later, a man approached a table where a couple sat and asked: “Are you General Moreno?”. “Yes,” responded the man. The guy took out a gun and killed him. His complete name was Wilmer Antonio Moreno, a military officer who had collaborated with Chavez since 1992. A while later, it was proven that both of them were linked to drug trafficking.

“They are burning the archives and all that,” says Roberto Briceno, director of the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, an institute for public research on violence and corruption in the country. “Aponte left because of that, because he knows a lot”. Briceno indicates the drugs enter El Apure coming from the Colombian Amazon and are later taken to Puerto Cabello or through Sucre on their way to Honduras. “The union between drugs, the government and military is so strong, and that’s why there are no severe laws against drugs.”

The next time Juan had contact with his brother was in the morgue in Guasdualito, a few days after that final phone call. The forensic pathologist showed him the cadaver for identification. Later, Juan asked to see the wounds. Commander Moses’ cranium was caved in from a blow given by the butt of a rifle; his wrists bald, with signs of being tied up and dragged; bruises and scrapes all over his body; and in his chest four bullet holes.

The official report sent out of Caracas spoke of a confrontation between the Army and some cattle thieves. “But that was not a confrontation. They tortured them. It was a massacre,” says Juan at his brothers’ tomb, a simple headstone decorated with two bouquets of flowers that have dried from the city’s humid heat. Another three guerrillas share the cemetery with the commander, one of them with a rudimentary grave without a name. The family was so poor that they couldn’t offer a more dignified burial. Close to the cemetery there are various graffitis that coincide with Juan’s version of the story: “Saldeno is an assassin”, “Trafficker”, “They are not cattle thieves. They are revolutionaries”. In Guasdualito, although the authorities have a different opinion, they are convinced that Saldeno, the military officer they accuse of being the region’s biggest trafficker, settled a score.

Twenty-two days before being mangled, ‘Moses’ and his command received information that a group of soldiers, under orders from Colonel Saldeno, were transporting four barrels: two with cocaine, one with Colombian pesos and the other full of dollars. The guerrillas assaulted and robbed the cargo. It was then that Javier de Jesus phoned his brother and said they were going to kill him. He disappeared in the early morning hours of November 24.

‘Commander Moses’ arrived the night before with his men to Bocas del Rio Viejo, a rural outpost an hour and a half from Guasdualito that can only be reached by going upriver in small boats. They stayed at the home of a local resident, known as ‘El Diablo’, who lived with his wife and 15-year-old son. They ate dinner and went to sleep. The survivors’ story says that at five in the morning a group of men in civilian dress, equipped with night vision goggles and rifles, assaulted the house.

The next day, four cadavers arrived in Guasdualito, among them the body of ‘Moses’. Two other guerrillas escaped with wounds, as did ‘El Diablo’, his wife and their son, whose hand ended up crushed. “They were spared because the boy latched onto his mother,” says Juan, claiming there were two other guerrillas who were thrown in the river. The defense ministry’s report published after the death of ‘Moses’ showed pride in the work of the National Forces, “permanent guarantors of national sovereignty, more and more united with the Venezuelan people, organized, prepared, trained and equipped”. Months later, Saldeno was relieved of his charge and sent to Caracas. He hasn’t been tried yet, neither for drug trafficking nor for the assassination of ‘Moses’ and his comrades. Another graffiti in the city reads: “Damned is the soldier who fires on his own people”.

We ask Juan to make some calls to visit Bocas del Rio Viejo. Even though he’s never belonged to any armed organization, everyone in the city knows who’s who and it’s not difficult for him to contact someone who knows the area. He promises to do it and we say goodbye until tomorrow. The next day, we meet in the lobby of the hotel. He brings us bad news. “They tell me it’s impossible. It’s very dangerous right now. Yesterday they heard shots… there were confrontations again”.

Translated for International Boulevard by Brian Hagenbuch

Jose Luis Pardo and Alejandra S. Inzunza