05/18/2024

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Exmilitar Cliver Alcalá en su periodo como general de la Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana (FANB) en Venezuela.

What Cliver Alcalá’s Sentencing Means for Venezuela’s Cartel of the Suns

What Cliver Alcalá’s Sentencing Means for Venezuela’s Cartel of the Suns

The United States has sentenced a former Venezuelan military official for his role as a high-ranking member of the so-called Cartel of the Suns, setting a precedent for future legal punishments that leaders of this organization may face.

In early April, a judge in the Southern District of New York sentenced Cliver Alcalá to 21 years and six months in prison for providing material support, including firearms and protection, to the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia — FARC) in Venezuela.

“Alcalá Cordones took advantage of his position in the Venezuelan military, including his command of thousands of heavily armed military officers, to provide support to the FARC as the FARC distributed tons of US-bound cocaine,” the Department of Justice (DOJ) said in a press release following the sentencing. 

SEE ALSO: Beyond Cartel of the Suns

The DOJ also alleged that the ex-military officer was one of the main leaders of the Cartel of the Suns (Cartel de los Soles), a network of high-ranking military officers who helped drug trafficking organizations export drugs from Venezuela. US authorities offered up to $10 million in rewards for information on his whereabouts. 

Despite being charged with drug trafficking, Alcalá’s defense team reached an agreement with the US Attorney General’s Office to dismiss those charges, according to court documents InSight Crime accessed. The 21-year sentence considered only criminal association and supplying high-caliber weaponry to commanders of the FARC, helping Alcalá avoid the 30-year prison sentence initially sought by prosecutors.

Alcalá was a general in the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana – FANB), holding various important positions during the presidency of Hugo Chávez. In mid-2006, his relationship with Colombian guerrillas intensified. Alcalá became a government adversary following the election of Nicolás Maduro in 2013.

In addition to his ties to the FARC, he also provided protection to the Guajira Cartel, a powerful drug trafficking organization that operated in Colombia and Venezuela.

The court ruling against the former Venezuelan military officer came four years after his voluntary surrender to Colombian authorities, after which he was extradited to the United States. Alcalá was wanted by Venezuelan authorities for his alleged participation and coordination of a failed military operation that sought to carry out a coup against President Nicolás Maduro in 2020, known as “Operation Gedeón.”

The defendant’s defense filed an appeal of his sentence on April 25. The InSight Crime team contacted Alcalá’s team to get his version of events but received no response by the time of publication.

InSight Crime Analysis

While Alcalá received a more lenient judicial sentence than other Latin American drug traffickers convicted in the United States, his case highlights a countervailing effect that may benefit US prosecutors in their fight against Venezuela’s state-based drug trafficking networks.

The verdict against Alcalá is the first guilty verdict against a high-level Venezuelan military officer or politician linked to the Cartel of the Suns.

“During the Chávez era, his participation [in drug trafficking] was very significant and active. There came a time when the army controlled all drug-related investigations,” said a former Chavista official who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

SEE ALSO: Venezuelan Officials Key in Convicted Drug Trafficker’s Network

According to accusations by the US Department of Justice, many of the most prominent Chavista figures are members of the Cartel of the Suns, including President Nicolás Maduro, Vice President of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela – PSUV) and Chavista number two, Diosdado Cabello, and Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López.

Alcalá avoided the harsher sentences given to other high-profile drug traffickers, such as Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias “Otoniel,” the top commander of the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC). Úsuga was sentenced to 45 years in a US court for shipping tons of cocaine to North America.

Yet the 21-year sentence sends a strong message to state figures involved in drug trafficking who have so far enjoyed impunity.

“At the end of the day, the other members of the Cartel of the Suns who hold power and who are wanted in this same case, such as Vladimir Padrino, understand that the cost of leaving power is jail,” Zair Mundaray, a Venezuelan criminal lawyer and former prosecutor, told InSight Crime. 

Alcalá’s cooperation may help US prosecutors unravel some of the secrets surrounding the sophisticated criminal network, which has evolved over the years and has become an important source of income for the Maduro government.

Hugo “El Pollo” Carvajal Barrios, another member of the Cartel of the Suns, who served as head of the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (Dirección General de Contrainteligencia Militar – DGCIM) is the next cartel member to face trial in the United States. He was extradited from Spain to the United States in mid-2023.

Feature image: Cliver Alcalá while general of the FANB. Credit: Runrun.es

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