Hybrid Criminal Cartel Note 1: Former Venezuelan National Assembly Member Adel El Zabayar Indicted on Charges of Narcoterrorism and Links to Hezbollah (Hizballah)
Alma Keshavarz and Robert J. Bunker
On 27 May 2020, Acting DEA Administrator Timothy J. Shea and United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey S. Berman charged Adel El Zabayar—a former Venezuelan National Assembly member—in a Manhattan federal court with narcoterrorism, a cocaine importation conspiracy, a series of weapons related charges, and money laundering. The charges were based on a DEA agent’s testimony and his broader investigation into El Zabayar’s links to Venezuelan Cártel de los Soles, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), Hezbollah (Hizballah), and Hamas.
Photo of Adel El Zabayar (left) shaking hand with Nicolas Maduro, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (right). Source: Adel El Zabayar, official Twitter, @Zabayar, https://twitter.com/zabayar?lang=en.
Key Information: “Former member of Venezuelan National Assembly charged with narco-terrorism, drug trafficking and weapons offenses.” Press Release, Drug Enforcement Administration. 27 May 2020, https://www.dea.gov/press-releases/2020/05/27/former-member-venezuelan-national-assembly-charged-narco-terrorism-drug:
“As alleged, Adel El Zabayar was part of the unholy alliance of government, military, and FARC members using violence and corruption to further their narco-terrorist aims,” said U.S. Attorney Berman.
“El Zabayar was allegedly a key part of the apparatus that conspired to export literally tons of cocaine into the U.S. We further allege today, for the first time, that the Cártel de Los Soles sought to recruit terrorists from Hizballah and Hamas to assist in planning and carrying out attacks on the U.S., and that El Zabayar was instrumental as a go-between. Allegedly, El Zabayar obtained from the Middle East a cargo planeload of military-grade weaponry. With today’s charges, El Zabayar joins the rouges’ gallery of defendants we charged two months ago, and he faces the possibility of life in a U.S. prison if and when he is apprehended.”
The Cártel de Los Soles has worked in coordination with designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations, including the FARC, Hizballah, and Hamas. El Zabayar, in particular, has, among other things, participated in weapons-for-cocaine negotiations with the FARC, obtained anti-tank rocket launchers from the Middle East for the FARC as partial payment for cocaine, and recruited terrorists from Hizballah and Hamas for the purpose of helping to plan and organize attacks against United States interests.
During the course of El Zabayar’s activities on behalf of the Cártel de Los Soles, El Zabayar also acted as a liaison between the Venezuelan government and Syrian president Bashar Hafez al-Assad, fought in Syria on behalf of Assad’s Hizballah-backed forces in or about 2013, and appeared in at least two interviews released by Al Manar, Hizballah’s terrorist-designated propaganda arm, in or about 2013 and 2014.
Key Information: John Annese, “It’s an ‘honor’ to be accused of conspiring against the U.S., says ex-Venezuelan lawmaker charged with seeking Middle Eastern terrorists to mount attack.” New York Daily News. 27 May 2020, https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-crime/ny-venezuelan-lawmaker-conspired-terrorists-drug-trafficking-20200528-gytxrtq7onbsxeav2bjikasz3m-story.html:
A former Venezuelan lawmaker tweeted Thursday it was an “honor” to be charged in Manhattan Federal Court on charges he participated in a conspiracy to recruit Middle Eastern terrorists to attack the United States.
“It’s an honor that the great enemies of my native country, Venezuela and my ancestral Syria, have invented such rage,” Adel El Zabayar tweeted of the U.S. “This means that we’re doing well.”
Maduro’s “Cartel of the Suns” – named after the suns depicted on uniforms of top-ranking Venezuelan military officers – used El Zabayar as a go-between with Hezbollah and Hamas to obtain weapons from the Middle East, federal prosecutors say.
El Zabayar, 56, remains at large, as does Maduro. The U.S. is offering a $25 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Maduro, Diosdado Cabello, head of the ruling socialist party, and other accused Venezuelan officials.
Key Information: “US Indictment Claims Venezuelan Politician Linked to Hezbollah, Hamas.” InSight Crime. 29 May 2020, https://www.insightcrime.org/news/brief/venezuela-hezbollah-hamas-indictment/:
…Besides the “weapons-for-cocaine negotiations,” the most striking part of the indictment is that El Zabayar sought to “recruit terrorists…to plan and organize attacks on US interests.” Yet no details are provided about how El Zabayar’s alleged recruitment ring worked and whether any militants actually trained in Venezuela or to what specific purpose.
To be sure, coming on the back of multiple US drug trafficking charges against Maduro’s inner circle, the El Zabayar indictment seems to be more of a calculated attempt to turn up the heat on the Venezuelan government.
Key Information: Tom Winter and Pete Williams, “Feds charge ex-Venezuelan politicians with recruiting terrorists to attack U.S. interests.” NBC News. 27 May 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/justice-department/feds-charge-ex-venezuelan-politician-recruiting-terrorists-attack-u-s-n1215871:
The charges against Adel El Zabayar come two months after the Justice Department unsealed a sweeping indictment against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and several politicians, accusing them of taking a leading role in an international drug trafficking network.
New York federal prosecutors say El Zabayar, acting under the direction of the president of the Venezuelan assembly, traveled to the Middle East in 2014 to obtain weapons and recruit members of Hezbollah and Hamas to train at hidden camps in Venezuela.
U.S. authorities say the Cartel de Los Soles, or the Cartel of the Suns, is a criminal organization focused primarily on exporting cocaine to the U.S. The Justice Department has previously said the cartel works with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and other designated terror groups.
Key Information: Aaron Katersky, “Maduro ally linked to Hezbollah and Hamas charges with narco-terrorism in New York.” ABC News. 27 May 2020, https://abcnews.go.com/International/maduro-ally-linked-hezbollah-hamas-charged-narco-terrorism/story?id=70914878:
Prosecutors said El Zabayar was one of several cartel members that received a planeload of military grade weaponry from Lebanon. “The men received a Lebanese cargo plane that was full of weapons, including rocket-propelled grenade launchers, AK-103s, and sniper rifles, that El Zabayar had obtained while he was in the Middle East,” the criminal complaint said.
Court records described a 2014 meeting at the presidential palace in Caracas during which El Zabayar, Maduro and others “discussed, among other things, and in substance and in part, arranging a meeting between the leaders of the FARC and the leaders of Hizballah and Hamas.”
Key Information: “Nicolás Maduro Moros and 14 Current and Former Venezuelan Officials Charged with Narco-Terrorism, Corruption, Drug Trafficking and Other Criminal Charges.” Press Release, United States Department of Justice, 26 May 2020, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/nicol-s-maduro-moros-and-14-current-and-former-venezuelan-officials-charged-narco-terrorism:
U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman stated, “Today we announce criminal charges against Nicolás Maduro Moros for running, together with his top lieutenants, a narco-terrorism partnership with the FARC for the past 20 years.” The indictment charges Nicolás Maduro Moros; Diosdado Cabello Rondón, head of Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly; Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios aka “El Pollo,” former director of military intelligence; Clíver Antonio Alcalá Cordones, former General in the Venezuelan armed forces; Luciano Marín Arango aka “Ivan Marquez,” a member of the FARC’s Secretariat, which is the FARC’s highest leadership body; and Seuxis Paucis Hernández Solarte aka “Jesús Santrich,” a member of the FARC’s Central High Command, which is the FARC’s second-highest leadership body…
Since at least 1999, Maduro Moros, Cabello Rondón, Carvajal Barrios and Alcalá Cordones, acted as leaders and managers of the Cártel de Los Solesá, or Marín Arango and Hernández Solarte are leaders of the FARC. Beginning in approximately 1999, while the FARC was purporting to negotiate toward peace with the Colombian government, FARC leaders agreed with leaders of the Cártel de Los Soles to relocate some of the FARC’s operations to Venezuela under the protection of the Cartel. Thereafter, the FARC and the Cártel de Los Soles dispatched processed cocaine from Venezuela to the United States via transshipment points in the Caribbean and Central America, such as Honduras.
In his role as a leader of the Cártel de Los Soles, Maduro Moros negotiated multi-ton shipments of FARC-produced cocaine; directed that the Cártel de Los Soles provide military-grade weapons to the FARC; coordinated foreign affairs with Honduras and other countries to facilitate large-scale drug trafficking; and solicited assistance from FARC leadership in training an unsanctioned militia group that functioned, in essence, as an armed forces unit for the Cártel de Los Soles.
On 26 May 2020, the US Department of Justice announced criminal charges against Nicolás Maduro, among other Venezuelan government officials, in New York City, Washington, DC, and Miami. U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman stated, “Today we announce criminal charges against Nicolás Maduro Moros for running, together with his top lieutenants, a narco-terrorism partnership with the FARC for the past 20 years.” According to the press release, the individuals were charged with: 1) participating in a narco-terrorism conspiracy; 2) conspiring to import cocaine into the United States; 3) using and carrying machine guns and destructive devices during and in relation to, and possessing machine guns and destructive devices in furtherance of, the narco-terrorism and cocaine-importation conspiracies; and 4) conspiring to use and carry machine guns and destructive devices during and in relation to, and to possess machine guns and destructive devices in furtherance of, the narco-terrorism and cocaine-importation conspiracies.
The indictment established a timeline of Maduro Moros, Cabello Rondón, Carvajal Barrios, and Alcalá Cordones and their links to the Cártel de los Soles, or Cartel of the Suns, dating back to 1999. Cartel of the Suns members are identifiable by the sun insignias on their Venezuelan military uniforms; it is usually seen among high-ranking officials. The indictment furthers that FARC leaders Marín Arango and Hernández Solarte also in 1999, negotiated with the Cartel of the Suns to move some FARC operations to Venezuela with Suns oversight.
The next day, on 27 May 2020, a prominent Venezuelan National Assembly Member, Adel El Zabayar, was indicted on charges of narcoterrorism and links to designated terrorist organizations. These indictments serve as a significant setback to Maduro’s financially starved Venezuela as he tries to hang on to power. Severe unemployment, shortage of basic resources like food and household supplies, a historic oil shortage, and COVID-19 have together crippled Venezuela. These indictments only continue the narrative of a corrupt government with unconventional ties, such as with Syria, Hezbollah (Hizballah), and Hamas. According to the unsealed indictment, El Zabayar is charged with working on behalf of the Cartel of the Suns, which is known to have worked with the FARC, Hezbollah (Hizballah), and Hamas.
El Zabayar, center, photographed in Syria in 2013 with troops backed by Bashar al-Assad. The criminal complaint described him as an intermediary between drug traffickers, terrorist organizations like Hizballah and the FARC, and the Venezuelan military. Source: United States Department of Justice, Complaint, United States of America v. Adel El Zabayar. 27 May 2020, https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdny/press-release/file/1279391/download
The photograph above was provided as evidence in the indictment of El Zabayar’s links to Syria. El Zabayar has facilitated the shipment of weapons between Venezuela and Syria and has even fought alongside troops who support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This is yet another instance showing the transnational behavior of groups like Hizballah and, increasingly, cartels.
As shown in the Figure 1 below, the Cartel of the Suns have direct ties with the Venezuelan government. They engaged in drug trafficking and money laundering practices that extended well beyond Venezuela’s borders in a broader illicit network of relationships and dealings pertaining to Shia, authoritarian, and terrorist coalition entities.
Figure 1: Cártel de los Soles Illicit Network
Source: The Authors.
The narrative by the Department of Justice links El Zabayar and the Cartel of the Suns with Hezbollah (Hizballah) and activities in Syria’s civil war, which stems back as far as 2013. These links are worth noting as Hezbollah (Hizballah) has long been suspected of establishing training camps in Venezuela; these camps are used for recruiting, militia training, and also facilitating weapon and drug trades. Since Maduro has not been able to rely on oil revenue, drug trafficking has been Maduro’s primary source of financial capital. In fact, the situation has become so desperate that oil tankers from Iran have had to be dispatched to bolster Venezuela’s failing economy which has been facing gasoline shortages. Both Venezuela and Iran have been suffering severe economic effects due to punishing US sanctions which, as a result, have driven these pariah states closer together.
Thus, as sanction second-order effects, it should not be surprising that illicit economy revenue ‘work-arounds,’ cartel and authoritarian regime collusion, and terrorist plots hatched in the shadows and directed at the US should transpire. In response, these indictments of key political and military figures are another avenue towards discrediting the Maduro administration and shifting focus towards the US recognized Venezuelan government led by Juan Guaidó for the purposes of liberal-democratic political change in that country.
Key Words: Cártel de los Soles, (Cartel of the Suns), Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), Hamas, Hezbollah (Hizbollah), Iran, Syria, Venezuela
John Annese, “It’s an ‘honor’ to be accused of conspiring against the U.S., says ex-Venezuelan lawmaker charged with seeking Middle Eastern terrorists to mount attack.” New York Daily News. 27 May 2020, https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-crime/ny-venezuelan-lawmaker-conspired-terrorists-drug-trafficking-20200528-gytxrtq7onbsxeav2bjikasz3m-story.html.
“Former member of Venezuelan National Assembly charged with narco-terrorism, drug trafficking and weapons offenses.” Press Release, Drug Enforcement Administration. 27 May 2020, https://www.dea.gov/press-releases/2020/05/27/former-member-venezuelan-national-assembly-charged-narco-terrorism-drug.
Aaron Katersky, “Maduro ally linked to Hezbollah and Hamas charges with narco-terrorism in New York.” ABC News. 27 May 2020, https://abcnews.go.com/International/maduro-ally-linked-hezbollah-hamas-charged-narco-terrorism/story?id=70914878.
“Nicolás Maduro Moros and 14 Current and Former Venezuelan Officials Charged with Narco-Terrorism, Corruption, Drug Trafficking and Other Criminal Charges.” Press Release, United States Department of Justice, 26 May 2020, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/nicol-s-maduro-moros-and-14-current-and-former-venezuelan-officials-charged-narco-terrorism.
Tom Winter and Pete Williams, “Feds charge ex-Venezuelan politicians with recruiting terrorists to attack U.S. interests.” NBC News. 27 May 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/justice-department/feds-charge-ex-venezuelan-politician-recruiting-terrorists-attack-u-s-n1215871.
“US Indictment Claims Venezuelan Politician Linked to Hezbollah, Hamas.” InSight Crime. 29 May 2020, https://www.insightcrime.org/news/brief/venezuela-hezbollah-hamas-indictment/.
United States Department of Justice, Complaint (indictment), United States of America v. Adel El Zabayar. 27 May 2020, https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdny/press-release/file/1279391/download.
 United States Department of Justice, Complaint (indictment), United States of America v. Adel El Zabayar. 27 May 2020, https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdny/press-release/file/1279391/download.
 See: DOJ indictment, United States of America v. Adel El Zabayar. 27 May 2020.
 For initial background on the Cartel of the Suns, see Deborah Bonello, “Venezuela’s Government Is So Corrupt It Basically Has Its Own Cartel.” Vice. 12 March 2019, https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/yw8e4y/venezuelas-government-is-so-corrupt-it-basically-has-its-own-cartel.
 Julie Turkewitz, “Oil-Starved Venezuela Celebrates Arrival of Tankers From Iran.” New York Times. 25 May2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/25/world/americas/Iranian-oil-tankers-venezuela.html.
For Additional Reading
Magdalena Defort, “Capo-Militaries: An Illicit Modus Operandi of Armed Forces and Intelligence Services in Peru, Mexico, and Venezuela.” Small Wars Journal. 18 February 2013.
Brenda Fiegel, “Venezuela, Military Generals, and the Cartel of the Suns.” Small Wars Journal . 27 June 2015.
Alma Keshavarz, “Iran and Hezbollah in the Tri-Border Areas of Latin America: A look at the ‘Old TBA’ and the ‘New TBA.’” Small Wars Journal. 12 November 2015.
Luz E. Nagle, “Transborder Crime, Corruption, and Sustaining Illegal Armed Groups in Latin America.” Small Wars Journal. 8 July 2017.
Venezuela Investigative Unit, “Drug Trafficking Within the Venezuelan Regime: The ‘Cartel of the Suns.’” InSight Crime. 17 May 2018.
Chris Telley, “Narco-Ionization: The Growing Threat of Narco-Municipality in Latin America.” Small Wars Journal.29 June 2018.
Chris Telley, “Malignant Legions: Treating the Strategic Cancer of the Cartel de Los Soles.” Small Wars Journal. 18 December 2018.
Max G. Manwaring, “Venezuela 2019 - A Cautionary Tale.” Small Wars Journal. 19 February 2019.