Once the most powerful civilian drug trafficker in Venezuela, Syrian-born Venezuelan citizen Walid Makled, otherwise known as “El Turco” or “El Arabe,” managed cocaine shipments that left the country by sea and air, going to Central America and Europe.
Rather than running a traditional drug trafficking organization with an armed wing, Makled acted primarily as a broker, selling his services to the highest bidder, from corrupt elements in Venezuela’s military — known as the Cartel of the Suns (Cartel de los Soles) — to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). In exchange, Makled promised safe passage of cocaine shipments, which left Venezuela by the ton.
He also counted with the support of certain governors from the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela – PSUV) and officials from the administration of former president Hugo Chávez.
Walid is a member of one of Venezuela’s most notorious business families, the Makleds, who started out running supermarket and retail appliance businesses. Between 2000 and 2008, the family’s business holdings grew to include the warehouses and loading docks at the country’s biggest port, Puerto Cabello, and Aeropostal, formerly the second largest airline in the country. The family even held the rights to control Venezuela’s trade in urea, a fertilizer that may be used as a precursor for making bombs and that traditionally can only be traded with special military permits. The family business grew especially rapidly between 2004 and 2008, according to a Public Ministry probe into their suspicious banking transactions.
Even at the earliest stages of Makled’s career, his criminal activities were apparently facilitated by the complicity of the security forces and government officials. His first criminal enterprise was robbing and hijacking trucks. He has said that at one point he controlled a group of 300 armed men who stole 30 trucks a week, under the protection of Venezuela’s National Guard. He reportedly first appeared on the radar of US anti-drug authorities in 2004, when the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raided a Makled-owned warehouse for urea and drug precursor chemicals that were suspected of being diverted to illicit ends. But after then-President Hugo Chavez ended formal cooperation with the DEA in 2005, the case was closed.
As the Makled family businesses continued to grow, so did Walid’s ability to transport tons of cocaine across the hemisphere. Some 5.5 tons of cocaine seized in 2006 from a DC-9 jet plane in Ciudad del Carmen, Mexico, was traced back to Caracas and is believed to have been part of an operation organized by Makled. The cocaine shipment was reportedly purchased from the FARC and was meant for the Sinaloa Cartel. This cargo departed from the presidential runway at the Simón Bolívar International Airport, Venezuela’s largest. At the height of Makled’s business, he was reportedly smuggling up to 10 tons of cocaine per month.
The beginning of Makled’s decline came in 2008, when his younger brother Abdala ran for mayor of Venezuela’s third largest city, Valencia, the capital of Carabobo state. Abdala campaigned as a pro-Chavez independent. While he still claimed loyalty to the Chavez regime, his candidacy was seen as eating away at support for the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unida de Venezuela – PSUV) in Carabobo.
This political battle is believed to have prompted the government’s first serious effort to crack down on the Makleds’ operations. On November 13, 2008, security forces raided a Makled family property, where they reportedly seized 392 kilos of cocaine. Three brothers were arrested, although Walid Makled went underground and only came into public view once more when he was arrested in the Colombian border town of Cucuta in 2010. Sources consulted by InSight Crime suggested that the military planted the cocaine on the Makled farm in order to frame them.
After his arrest, Makled went public with allegations about the Venezuelan establishment, stating, “All my business associates are generals.” He also claimed to have financed one of Chavez’s presidential campaigns in exchange for concessions at Puerto Cabello.
When Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ administration agreed to extradite Makled to Venezuela instead of the United States, arguing that he was wanted in Venezuela on murder charges, as opposed to the United States where he is only wanted on drug charges, it was widely viewed as part of an effort to persuade Venezuela to crack down on the FARC guerrillas living inside the country.
Though he began with truck hijacking, Makled rapidly rose to the status of major drug kingpin by facilitating many international drug shipments. Initially, Makled is believed to have leveraged his family businesses — especially the family-owned warehouses and fleet of vehicles in Puerto Cabello — to provide transport services for drug traffickers. As the businesses grew, Makled established his own drug trafficking network using family-owned airstrips in Venezuela and moving the illicit cargo through Central America and Mexico. A US indictment against Makled (pdf) filed in September 2010 alleges that the Venezuelan coordinated several flights carrying multi-ton shipments of cocaine destined to the United States and Europe between 2006 and 2009.
Makled’s trial in Caracas featured over 900 pages of accusations, highlighting the extent of his alleged criminal activities.
In 2015, the drug kingpin was sentenced to 14 years and six months in prison, his brother Abdalá was sent down for six years and six months for concealing firearms and two other brothers, Basel and Alex, were sentenced to eight years for money laundering.
Walid had also been accused of two murders — one of a journalist and another of a veterinarian — as well as illicit association and possession of illegal arms, though he was cleared of those charges.
This decision was appealed by the Attorney General’s Office who also opened an investigation into whether the judge who cleared Makled of the two homicides, Alí Fabricio Paredes, had favored him. Paredes eventually lost his job and was jailed for a short time. On further appeal, Makled’s prison sentence was increased from 14 to 21 years.
Makled’s operations were primarily based in Venezuela, particularly Puerto Cabello. As his empire expanded, however, he established a drug trafficking network extending through Central America, namely Honduras and Mexico, which were the connecting points to transfer drugs ultimately to the United States and Europe.
Allies and Enemies
Makled has publicly claimed that his trafficking network was made possible by complicity at the very highest levels of Venezuela’s military and government. “All my business associates are generals,” he once famously claimed. Makled has also said that he paid off several members of Venezuela’s National Assembly and that he funded PSUV political campaigns. Makled also carried a credential signed by former Supreme Court magistrate Eladio Aponte, which has been interpreted as proof of Makled’s influence over Venezuela’s highest court.
Evidence of his continuing influence has been seen in the benefits he has received while in prison, such as being taken to Caracas’ Military Hospital to receive medical treatment.
In March 2018, Makled issued a threat to retired general Clíver Alcalá Cordones who maintained a long-term feud with the drug kingpin while still active. Despite supposedly being in prison, El Turco published a video threatening Alcalá, on his personal Instagram account. Remarkably, he was not dressed in prison clothes and appeared to be seated on a sofa.
Makled is also alleged to have maintained ties with Colombia’s FARC, providing the guerrilla group with weapons in exchange for cocaine. Makled has also said he has knowledge about the activities of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah in Latin America.
While doubts long surrounded these allegations, in February 2019, former Venezuelan intelligence chief Hugo Carvajal Barrios told the New York Times of links between Hezbollah and former vice-president Tareck El Aissami. He added that El Aissami and Interior Minister Nestor Reverol had been bribed to ignore Makled’s activities.
According to Carvajal, in 2012 when his team was investigating Makled, they seized a shipment of 400 kilograms of cocaine on a small plane. After the seizure, he said he received pressure from the government to return the drugs to Makled.
In 2016, Makled accused Reverol of having seized his assets and $140 million in profits from drug trafficking, which the minister has denied.
Makled’s trial in Venezuela began in April 2012, amid speculation that his decision not to testify publicly meant he had come to some kind of agreement with the government in return for not identifying Venezuelan officials complicit in illicit activities. On February 10, 2015, he was sentenced to 14 years and six months in prison for drug trafficking and money laundering, but was absolved of weapons, organized crime, and murder charges. In response, Venezuela’s Attorney General’s Office vowed to appeal the court’s decision, and officials promptly arrested the judge who had sentenced Makled for alleged favoritism. In an August 2016 decision, a Caracas appeals court raised Makled’s sentence to 21 years and six months.
The Makled empire has deteriorated significantly since Walid’s arrest in 2008. Three of Makled’s siblings were also sentenced after their arrest in 2008; two for money laundering and one for weapons concealment. Given his lengthy prison sentence, the US charges against him and the fact that he has publicly named many suspected former members of his network, it seems extremely unlikely that Makled will ever make a comeback in the drug trade.