Dealing Drugs in Clandestine Airports of Perijá

In the mountains of northwestern Venezuela, Colombian guerrilla and paramilitary linked to local authorities have installed an economy of landing lanes that offer a way to make a living for hundreds of people.

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto.

One morning in 2019, Bartolomeo received a short visit by members of the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN). He’s a farm owner in Machiques de Perijá, a small city in the highlands separating Colombia and Zulia State, on the northwest corner of Venezuela. The Colombian guerrilla told him that they’d be setting up landing strips close to his farm, so he better keep quiet. About 40 minutes later, a few men from the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) dropped by with the same message.

“You don’t know what orders to follow,” says the fifty-year-old Bartolomeo, “they just tell you: ‘We’re going to build a landing strip, whether you like it or not. We can give some money, but run your mouth and it’ll be worse for you.”

According to him, there’s a crime organization named “Los Pisteros” that handles logistics so that small airplanes loaded with drugs land and take off in this Zulian municipality. Those waiting in line at a gas station on the road from Machiques to Colón have seen the aircrafts soaring high.

Los Pisteros usually move in SUVs through different areas of Machiques and handle heavy machinery in construction sites, guarded by armed groups from ELN, FARC and the Los Pelusos gang. Drugs come in from Colombia by land or through the Tarra or Catatumbo rivers, the largest in the area, and it’s then moved by these groups to landing zones, mainly in areas close to San Felipe and Calle Larga, a few kilometers away from the shores of the Maracaibo Lake.

In November 2015, Gaspar Enrique Rincón Urdaneta, a farmer who had been president of the Asociación de Ganaderos de Piedras (an organization for cattle ranchers), became a victim of the drug cartels in the region, after they suspected him of talking to authorities about the landing strips. The car he was in was attacked by armed assailants, killing him with over twenty gunshots.

Complicit Authorities

“We’re going to build a landing strip, whether you like it or not. We can give some money, but run your mouth and it’ll be worse for you.”

The complaints filed about these landing strips have been going on for years. In fact, in September 2019, the National Guard issued a press release stating that they had destroyed at least ten landing strips in the municipalities of Machiques de Perijá and Jesús María Semprún. At the time, Colonel Bladimir Lugo Armas, now commander of the Zona 11 Zulia, said that one of the strips was about 2,400 meters long and it was used for drug trafficking. This colonel is sanctioned by the U.S. government, as well as Canada and Panama for several human rights violation accusations, and money laundering; it was him who pushed the then speaker of the National Assembly Julio Borges out of his office in 2017.

A military source says that, at a private meeting early this year, the former commander of the 12 Brigada Caribes, General Aquiles Leopoldo Lapadula Sira, spoke of over 300 landing strips accounted for in five municipalities: Cañada Urdaneta, La Villa del Rosario, Machiques de Perijá, Jesús María Semprún, and Catatumbo. However, in October, Lapadula Sira was arrested and charged by the Criminal Court of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice for allegedly ordering burning an airplane seized from drug trafficking groups from el Rosario de Perijá, later authorizing moving 33,400 liters of sulphuric acid, a chemical agent used to process cocaine.

“A new runway is built every day, or they clean up areas to enable landings. The construction of these strips is fast and they have over forty people with large machinery,” the source claims. Indigenous people from the Yukpa tribe in the Tukuko region, in Sierra de Perijá, also say that there are several runways in the area, more specifically near the Bari de Bachichida village. They’ve witnessed small airplanes landing in flat strips of land.

Scared farmers have abandoned their properties. According to a farmer, state security agents also take part in scare tactics and extortion: “Without notice, a commission from the CONAS (the national anti-extortion and kidnapping squad) and specially officers from the Zulian or the national police, in cahoots with drug dealers, come in and tell you: ‘Ah, you have a strip here, you’ll have a warrant at the prosecutor’s office, we’ll put you in jail… unless you pay us this many dollars.’ Farmers are victims of extortion from police forces and armed groups.”

Los Pisteros Want to Save Us

A farmer from the San José de Perijá parrish says that finding workers has gotten hard. Los Pisteros are altering the region’s economy: “When we call a truck driver to move sand to fix a road inside the farm, he tells you that the ride is $400. Why so much? That’s what Los Pisteros pay and drivers won’t work for less.”

In San Felipe and Calle Larga, it’s common to see a constant parade of dump trucks. The economy of many households depends on the landing strip business.

In San Felipe and Calle Larga, it’s common to see a constant parade of dump trucks. The economy of many households depends on the landing strip business; many work as runners, truck drivers, heavy machinery operators and security. A few feet away from San Felipe, in the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas parrish, many people admit to making a living building these runways.

“It ain’t a secret,” the farmer says, “everyone knows who works the strips, because the risk is worth the dough.” Some grocery stores in low income areas get very odd scenes, with folks paying for a modest breakfast with $100 bills.

Besides offering job opportunities, Los Pisteros have also solved problems that should be handled by local authorities, such as the water scarcity issue. “They fix water pumps, electric panels or any other problem affecting citizens,” the farmer says. “Anything to be seen by the community as saviours and get their loyalty.”