Seven months ago Nicolas Maduro seemed to be on the brink. A rival for the Venezuelan presidency, Juan Guaido, emerged out of nowhere and led the most serious challenge to Chavismo in 20 years. Weary Venezuelans dared to believe that they were finally to get a new government.
Today the picture is very different. Mr Maduro is still in power, peace talks are spluttering along in Barbados, and the US – which backs Mr Guaido – appears at a loss of how to loosen the Venezuelan leader’s vice-like grip on the country.
Yet for anti-narcotics agents, there is no mystery to the remarkable staying power of Mr Maduro: as the country crumbles around him, the 56-year-old, they say, is kept in power by a vast drug trafficking industry that has captured the state.
Figures are hard to come by but the United States estimates that a quarter of all Colombian cocaine passes through Venezuela, making it a key staging post in the worldwide trade.
But it is the structure of the business that sets Venezuela apart from most of the continent.
“In Colombia, in Mexico, the drug traffickers are civilians,” said Mildred Camero, a former head of the Venezuelan anti-drug commission. “Here it is the state itself.”
As far back as 2008 Washington indicted members of the Venezuelan elite on trafficking charges; Hugo Carvajal, the then-director of military intelligence; Henry Rangel Silva, the then-director of intelligence; and Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, the former interior minister, were all added to the treasury’s list of major “narcos” under the Kingpins Act.
The scale of criminality was shocking even to those within the regime.
General Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera was appointed head of SEBIN, the intelligence agency, in October 2018.
“I never saw the country’s situation and the government’s corruption as closely as I did during my last six months,” he said at the end of June, having defected and fled to the US. “I quickly realised that Maduro is the head of a criminal enterprise, with his own family involved.”
Military officers led what is known as the Cartel of the Suns, named for the sun logo on their uniforms. Ms Camejo said that officials from colonel and above were all implicated.
Indeed, the trade that began under Chavez “went stratospheric” under Mr Maduro, according to Mike Vigil, the former chief of international operations for the US drugs enforcement agency (DEA).
“Chavez allowed his generals and high-ranking officials to engage in drug trafficking,” said Mr Vigil, a 30-year veteran of the DEA, who spent almost 20 years infiltrating Mexican and Colombian cartels.
“He turned a blind eye. But when Maduro came in, the country took a sharp downward spiral, into the abyss of morality.
“It was my opinion, and the opinion of many, that towards the end of the Chavez years Venezuela became a narco state. Now, under Maduro, it’s much, much worse. It’s gone from a narco state to a mafia state; the government and military is no longer controlled by the cartels, they actually run them.”
Mrs Camero, who spent 25 years as a judge before being appointed by Chavez in 1999, said she personally handed Chavez the names of those implicated.
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“Chavez knew,” she said. “I sent him the reports. I wrote down the names of the generals involved. But he chose to ignore it.”
She was removed from office in 2005 – the same year that Chavez kicked out the DEA. Since then she has worked as an academic and analyst.
And she said even the United States was miscalculating the situation.
“The US thought it was a normal dictatorship,” she said. “But no – it’s a mafia, headed by a bus driver (Maduro) controlled by the military.”
Mr Vigil agreed. “They thought it would be easier,” he said.
He strongly criticised John Bolton, who is one of Donald Trump’s most influential – and hawkish – advisors on Venezuela.
“I don’t think Bolton is the right person to be national security advisor,” he said. “Bolton is intemperate, illogical and driven by emotion. He risks getting the US into a war. He doesn’t understand the situation in Venezuela.”
The assessment from both Mrs Camero and Mr Vigil is damning, given the fact that the US appears, from a cursory glance, to be closely watching the situation.
In 2016 the US significantly upped the ante: an indictment in the Eastern District of New York was unsealed detailing charges against Nestor Reverol, the interior minister, and Edylberto Jose Molina, the former sub-director of the country’s national anti-drugs agency (ONA), which replaced Conacuid. Both men are charged with participating in an international cocaine distribution conspiracy.
A year later, in February 2017, the vice president, Tareck El Aissami, was added to kingpin list, accused of having "facilitated shipments of narcotics from Venezuela, to include control over planes that leave from a Venezuelan air base, as well as control of drug routes through the ports in Venezuela.”
The US treasury also accused him of having “facilitated, coordinated, and protected other narcotics traffickers operating in Venezuela,” naming the ruthless Mexican cartel, Los Zetas, and Colombian drug lord Daniel “El Loco” Barrera as his colleagues.
Even more significant was the decision last year to place the man considered the most powerful in Venezuela, Diosdado Cabello, the current head of the constituent assembly, on the US treasury list of sanctions for corruption and for his ties to trafficking.
No one seems to have the answer as to how to get their tentacles out of the country.
“The most difficult challenge to dismantling the Bolivarian Joint Criminal Enterprise is in tackling the network’s diversified criminal portfolio and global reach,” the INSS report’s authors wrote.
Mr Vigil said he thought Mr Guaido was “doing the best he can”. But, he added: “It’s dirty money right now, keeping Maduro in place.”
Mrs Camero said the armed forces, from colonels and above, were entrenched in the drug trade and profiting. And she said she was struck by how Mr Guaido’s plan for the country’s future, Plan Pais, did not even touch on organised crime.
“Plan Pais for me was really striking, because it didn’t even discuss the issue,” she said. “If you don’t have a clear vision of what’s going on, you’re destined for failure.”
And she was pessimistic about Mr Guaido’s chances of dislodging Mr Maduro and his allies, without resorting to force.
“They are delinquents, not politicians,” she said. “They’ve converted politics into criminality. And justice into politics.”