Top US commander warns Maduro 'mafia' poses threat beyond Venezuela

NAVAL STATION MAYPORT, Fla. — The ongoing crisis in Venezuela is boiling over and aggravating security concerns throughout the Western Hemisphere, according to the top U.S. military commander for South America, Central America and the Caribbean.

Navy Adm. Craig Faller, head of U.S. Southern Command (Southcom), told The Hill this week that he views embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro's influence in the region as a "significant threat" to democracy and stability.

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"I don't think I'd even call them a regime — it's a mafia. It's an illicit business that he's running with his 2,000 corrupt generals. It's ruining the country," Faller said in an interview Tuesday.

"And the effects of that are compounding every other security problem in our neighborhood. Every security problem is made worse by Venezuela," he added.

As head of Southcom, Faller oversees U.S. military forces in Latin America and the Caribbean, with the exception of Mexico, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Bahamas.

The region has long been plagued by instability. Political violence, often in the form of communist-inspired insurrections, dominated the mid-20th century before democratic governments gained a stronger footing.

"When we look back at the number of democracies just within a generation from when I came in and applied to the Navy in the late ’70s, it's been a significant turnaround from dictatorships [to] democracies and coups and civil wars to where we are today," said Faller. "But it's fragile.”

In recent decades, the bigger threat to the region has been drug-related violence.

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Maduro, besieged by U.S. economic sanctions, has been forced to seek other sources of revenue in recent months. In addition to the illicit sale of gold, the Venezuelan military is also allegedly controlling transatlantic cocaine smuggling routes.

That cocaine trade, Faller said, is helping fund the remnants of Colombia's communist guerrillas, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

"The data and statistics show that their numbers have increased because of what they can gain in terms of freedom of maneuver and the economic opportunity that they get from illicit trafficking and partnering with the Maduro regime," said Faller. "Illicit narco trafficking through Venezuela is up some 40 percent.”

Under Maduro, Venezuela’s economy has declined at a faster rate than any other peacetime economy worldwide. 

That collapse has compounded a drug smuggling problem with a refugee crisis, as more than 3 million Venezuelans have fled economic despair and repression.

More than a million Venezuelans have sought refuge in Colombia, the closest U.S. ally in the region, and millions more are expected to flee their home country unless conditions improve.

The unrest comes amid a power struggle between Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who as head of the National Assembly claims to be the legitimate president of the country. He was declared interim president by the opposition in January, and has so far been recognized as such by more than 50 countries, including the United States.

Intervention by U.S. rivals outside the Western Hemisphere, namely Russia and China, is also raising eyebrows among commanders such as Faller, who said his biggest “aha!” moment was when he recognized "the extent to which other great powers see the opportunity here."

Faller said the American competitive advantage in the region rests on common cultural understanding of democracy, human rights, rule of law and sovereignty. 

But despite the political influence the U.S. military wields in Latin America, Faller said he avoids participating in policy discussions.

"I don't set the policy,” he said. “I plan to whatever policy and provide options based on what that policy is.”

Faller, speaking aboard the USS Sioux City near Jacksonville, said the Venezuelan crisis has prompted better intelligence sharing with partners in the region and drawn attention to the importance of the Western Hemisphere.

"But we do have gaps," he said.

"We have a handful of ships in any given day — six to 10 Coast Guard. We'll now have a Navy ship in the fall to cover an area the size of the United States," he added.

The United States 4th Fleet — Southcom's naval component — is scheduled to deploy a littoral combat ship (LCS) to the Caribbean this year.

But the fleet, along with other Southcom operations, is often overlooked when assigning naval resources in favor of forces in global hot spots such as the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea.

It’s a situation Faller is all too aware of.

When Rear Adm. Donald Gabrielson took command of the 4th Fleet on Tuesday from Rear Adm. Sean Buck during a ceremony in Mayport's officers club, Faller joked that Buck could not hold his going-away ceremony aboard a ship because "as the 4th Fleet commander, Sean has no ships assigned to him."

Still, Faller said the U.S. maintains a number of options to act in Venezuela if necessary. 

But in the meantime, the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship, is slated to deploy to the region next month to aid humanitarian relief efforts. That deployment, along with a contingent of U.S. and international crew members, is an example of American soft power in the region, Faller said.

"We do handshakes, and handshakes are a good way to move things forward in the world," he said before making a fist. "But we also have demonstrated that we know how to use power pretty well."

Updated at 10:36 a.m.