U.S. President Donald Trump announced that Navy ships are being sent to Venezuela as his administration beefs up counter-narcotics operations in the Caribbean. The announcement came on Wednesday, less than one week since the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed indictments for narcotics trafficking against Venezuelan Strongman Nicolas Maduro and 14 other high level government officials.
The deployment effectively doubles the size of U.S. military forces in the Caribbean, and includes Navy warships, AWACS surveillance aircraft and on-ground special forces. It is one of the largest U.S. military operations since the 1989 invasion of Panama, which removed Gen. Manuel Noriega from power and brought him to face criminal charges in the United States.
In addition to Maduro, the DOJ is offering a $15 million reward for the capture of the Chief Justice of the Venezuela Supreme Court, Maikel Moreno and the Minister of Defense, Vladamir Padrino Lopez. A $10 million reward is offered for 4 others, including the Vice President of the Economy and the Head of the Constituent Assembly.
Collapse of Public Health System
The action comes during the onset of the COVID-19 Worldwide Pandemic, which according to Johns Hopkins University has claimed the lives of 50,000 people in 1 million cases wordwide.
In Venezuela, the death tool is expected to be especially brutal as only 1 out of 4 people have access to running water in their home. Public hospitals frequently lack, soap, water, surgical gloves, medicine, medical staff, and essential supplies and equipment.
Conflict for Control Of Gasoline and Food
Last year Venezuela was plunged into electrical black outs that left residents for days without power. Recent economic sanctions, combined with the worldwide crash in oil prices have left Venezuela without any source of income or gasoline.
Venezuela depends on imports of gasoline, fuel diluents and food. It’s unclear how much income is generated by narcotics trafficking, which is the main source of personal income for high-level military officials. The military also controls the entire national supply chain, including food, medicine and all imports.
Secret Police Assume Control of Gas Stations
Earlier this week, the government ordered the FAES secret police to assume control of the country’s gas stations. Private citizens are prohibited from buying gasoline and the regular military is in open conflict with the FAES police for access to gasoline. According to a report in Reuters, the FAES is highly secretive, known for signature dark masks and black uniforms bearing skull insignias but no name tags. Officers typically remain anonymous even after blood is shed.
The lack of gasoline is also causing what little domestic food production that is left to stall in the rural sectors of the country. Without gasoline, local food production is not flowing to the capital, and without income or access to credit the import of food is threatened. The IMF recently denied loan requests made by Nicolas Maduro for $5 billion and $1 billion.
It’s unclear how much effect the U.S. counter narcotics operations will have on narcotics trafficking. But, the combined effects of quarantine and pandemic are likely to slow the market for narcotics into the United States. With the oil industry shutting down in Venezuela the country has no apparent source of income apart from narcotics trafficking.