A senior U.S. State Department official said Tuesday there will be no long-term solution to Venezuela's political and economic upheaval as long as drug trafficking organizations infiltrate the nation's highest institutions.
William Brownfield told the U.S. Senate's international drug caucus that trafficking organizations in Venezuela have "completely penetrated virtually every security, law enforcement and justice-related institution."
"There will be no long-term, democratic, prosperous and secure solution in Venezuela until there is a solution to the drug trafficking organization presence," he said.
The remarks by one of the U.S. government's top anti-narcotics officials come amid escalating tensions between the Trump administration and the Venezuelan government. Since taking office, President Donald Trump has authorized sanctions against more than two dozen former and current Venezuelan officials, including Vice President Tareck El Aissami, who U.S. officials label a drug kingpin. In August, the Treasury Department imposed the first sweeping U.S. economic sanctions against the nation.
U.S. officials suspect other high-ranking Venezuelan authorities, including socialist party leader Diosdado Cabello, of drug trafficking in a country where corruption is rampant.
Officials with Venezuela's information ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment, though Aissami and Cabello have repeatedly denied involvement in drug trafficking.
Venezuela is entrenched in a political standoff between pro- and anti-government factions set to face off in October gubernatorial elections. Four months of near-daily protests that left at least 120 dead have fizzled as an all-powerful constitutional assembly installed in August targets government foes. Meanwhile, the economy is continuing to tailspin amid triple-digit inflation, food and medical shortages.
"One organization is profiting from this," Brownfield told the committee of lawmakers and private sector experts. "And that is the drug trafficking organizations of that region."
Brownfield also addressed neighboring Colombia's booming coca production, saying officials there focused on peace with leftist rebels at the expense of concentrating on drug eradication. Coca production surged by more than 200 percent between 2013 and 2016, according to U.S. government estimates.
The Colombian government signed an accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by the Spanish acronym FARC, last year to end Latin America's longest-running armed conflict. Part of the accord included provisions aimed at cracking down on coca production and trafficking through voluntary crop substitution programs with peasants that FARC rebels would help the government in implementing.
U.S. government officials previously labeled the FARC one of the world's largest drug traffickers.
Brownfield said the U.S. government is not supporting the voluntary eradication and crop substitution program because the FARC is involved in some aspects and is still designated a terrorist organization under several U.S. laws. He added that early indications suggest the peace accord plan to have peasants substitute coca crops for food products has had "little to no impact on the current cultivation trend."
'Explosion in coca cultivation'
While Colombian security forces are on pace to surpass 2016's record drug seizures, Brownfield said they are "simply not keeping pace with the explosion in coca cultivation."
In a meeting with Colombian officials earlier this year, Brownfield recalled telling his counterparts, "Fellas, we had this conversations before and we're not seeing the sort of results that we were led to believe we would see."
Brownfield said he believes the FARC has taken over or created front groups of coca growers with which the government is negotiating voluntary eradication agreements. He said the U.S. is supporting a second alternative development program in northern Colombia on condition the FARC is not involved.
"The solution to this program is to figure out how to cut the FARC out of having any engagement either as trafficking organizations or as allegedly supporting the efforts to address the drugs issue," he said.