Caracas, Venezuela – On Monday, the U.S. Justice Department announced the indictment of two high-ranking members of Venezuela’s military, Maj. Gen. Néstor Reverol and his deputy Edylberto Jose Molina, both of whom were at one point at the helm of the country’s Anti-Drug National Office.
According to the DEA, they received payments from drug traffickers in exchange for assisting them in moving cocaine that ultimately was distributed in the United States.
On Tuesday, President Nicolas Maduro appointed one of them to his cabinet.
Maj. Gen. Néstor Reverol is Venezuela’s brand new Interior minister, a move that many see as a direct dare to Washington.
“The appointment definitely shows that Venezuela's government is not taking the charges levied against Reverol seriously, nor do they accept them,” said Joseph Humire, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Center for a Secure Free Society.
Others say Maduro is trying to radicalize the country and blame foreign foes for the current economic and political crisis. It also shows that government officials in Venezuela that may have broken the law are not being held accountable.
“That’s a dangerous bet, if you consider the low popularity ratings that he has right now,” said Gen. Fernando Ochoa, a Defense and Exterior minister in the 90s, before Hugo Chavez’s time.
While Ochoa believes that this approach is bound to fail, Humire thinks that the situation shows a rift between the U.S.’s Justice and State Department in regards to Venezuela.
“Seems like DEA, FBI and other agencies under the Department of Justice are working to prosecute Venezuela officials, while State is trying to rekindle relations. This could be a case of left hand not talking to the right hand,” he told Fox News Latino. “I've always thought the U.S. government does not have a comprehensive strategy on Venezuela.”
Both analysts foresee U.S. sanctions against Maduro’s regime if it continues on the same defying line.
“If the U.S. Government deems it is sufficient, it can apply stricter 311 sanctions (special measures available for the Department of Treasury under the Patriot Act) on the Venezuelan National Guard or on PDVSA (the state oil company) for drug trafficking and money laundering. That is if they want to apply more pressure,” Humire noted.
In addition, any restriction on the volume of oil that the U.S. buys from Venezuela is a threat to Maduro’s regime, as most of the country’s income in hard currency comes from oil sales to the U.S.
Up until recently, Gen. Reverol was the director of the Venezuelan National Guard — an institution that is now under the microscope for possible drug-trafficking infiltration.
“Venezuela’s military is not completely taken by drug trafficking, but there are some particular cases [of concern] mostly in the National Guard because they are the ones in charge of borders and airport customs,” Ochoa explained.
He said drug trafficking allegations within Venezuela’s National Guard started soon after Chavismo rose to power 16 years ago, given Chavez’s purported close ties with Colombian guerrillas FARC and ELN.
News of Reverol's U.S. indictment and swift appointment was a surprising move for the members of the opposition, who nonetheless are careful in not pointing fingers so quickly.
“Venezuela’s military and the National Guard are historic institutions and cannot be judged by a particular situation, but there is a problem and it needs to be tackled by a new government,” said Armando Armas, a lawmaker from the opposition who sits in the Assembly’s Defense Committee.
Armas added that Reverol’s appointment sends a “dreadful” signal to Venezuela and the world.
“We don’t know if Reverol is guilty or not, he must be judged," he said. "But the government doesn’t have any interest in solving this drug trafficking problem.”
Franz von Bergen is a freelancer reporter living in Caracas.