Super network of Corruption in Venezuela

Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán*  & Luís Jorge Garay-Salamanca**

In 2019 Venezuela had the same Perception Corruption Index of Yemen, the country with “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world”[1]. With a score of 15/100 and ranking 176 among 179 countries, even North Korea and the Democratic Republic of Congo had a higher score than Venezuela: 18/100.[2]  The low Perception Corruption Index in Venezuela reflects the general opacity, clientelism and mismanagement that characterize most sectors and branches of the Venezuelan public administration today; conditions that sustain the most complex network of macro-corruption and institutional cooptation in the world.

A corruption network is a model that informs how individuals and companies -referred to as nodes/agents- interact to execute corrupt acts and accomplish other illicit objectives. Elaborated through a criminal networks analysis, those models allow an understanding of the subnetworks, the central nodes/agents, the levels of responsibility, and the resources flowing across indirect paths.

Before modeling and analyzing the situation of corruption in Venezuela, Lava Jato was the most complex network of transnational corruption known through empirical analysis. Originating in Brazil with eleven of the most powerful companies in the country, Lava Jato extended across Latin America involving local companies, as well as mayors, governors and presidents who received bribes as donations during electoral processes. Donations and direct bribes paid to candidates and public servants across Latin America reached approximately USD $800 million, according to judicial investigations conducted until 2019.

Considering the institutional effects of Lava Jato in various Latin American countries, in 2018 Vortex Foundation partnered with the Brazilian civic organization Humanitas360 to analyze the case in Brazil; as a result, a network of 906 nodes/agents that established 2,693 interactions was identified.[3] Then, in 2019 Vortex Foundation partnered with the Peruvian chapter of Transparency International, Proética, to analyze Lava Jato including Peru; the result was a network with 1,399 nodes/agents who established 3,758 interactions.[4] Both networks were defined as “macro” because their complexity reached the extension and diversity of macro-criminal networks[5].

However, the prefix “macro” wasn’t enough to describe the level of complexity, extension and diversity found in the case of the Venezuelan network of corruption.

After applying the criminal networks analysis to judicial records and media sources informing about prosecutions for corruption and money laundering against Venezuelan public servants and businesspersons in more than 30 countries, the result was a complex network consisting of 5,748 nodes/agents[6] who established 17,493 interactions. Considering that the structure identified in Venezuela is 3 times bigger than Lava Jato, the situation of corruption in Venezuela can be described as a “super” network. This structure has several characteristics that make it the most complex case of corruption known, as explained in the book “Súper red de corrupción en Venezuela: Cleptocracia, nepotismo y violación de derechos humanos”.

The most relevant types of interaction identified in the network are those describing appointments to positions through clientelism and nepotism, and those reporting on the role of people appointed to public and state companies. Together, those first two categories account for 73.5% out of the 17,493 interactions, followed by 8% that inform about acts of basic corruption. In this his sense, the super network of corruption is sustained by exacerbated clientelism and nepotism, meaning that appointments in the public administration are used to request and pay undue favors to increase the economic and political power of the most central and powerful nodes/agents.

The clientelism, nepotism, opacity and systemic corruption observed in the super network are promoted at the highest levels of Venezuelan State. In fact, the two most connected node/agents in the network are the President Nicolas Maduro, being the hub with a centrality indicator of 3.6%, and José David Cabello, with an indicator of 2.9%. This reflects the nepotism and concentration of political and economic power among Maduro and his circle of collaborators, since José David Cabello, current director of the Venezuelan revenue services (SENIAT), is the brother of Diosdado Cabello, another key player of the regime. In fact, 13 members of the Cabello family have been recently appointed to the SENIAT.[7]

The case of José David Cabello reflects how appointments to public positions do not follow technical criteria but rather favoritism to pay and receive favors, and to secure the permanence of the regime; this explains the mismanagement and collapse of almost every economic, social, and political sector in Venezuela. With a failing energy infrastructure and permanent power cuts across the country, even the oil refinery infrastructure collapsed in Venezuela, as this country, with the highest petroleum reserves in the world, today lacks a permanent supply of gas.

However, the economic effects of corruption and institutional deterioration are not the only ones or the most worrying, even though the International Monetary Fund registered an inflation rate of 200,000% in 2019. In fact, the humanitarian crisis and the violation of human rights are the most serious effects of the super network of corruption in Venezuela, in terms of deteriorating health indicators, lack of food and unprecedented forced emigration. For example: in 2016 the infant mortality rate increased between 30% and 40% since 2008,[8] in 2019 doctors warned that Venezuela registered the largest increase in the incidence of malaria in the world with between 600,000 to one million cases, and over 4 million refugees have left the country since 2014, which is without precedent in the region.[9] Today Venezuela also registers the fourth worst food crisis, surpassed only by Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Afghanistan, with 32% of the population (9.3 million people) in a situation of food insecurity and in need of emergency assistance. Basic human rights of millions of Venezuelans are therefore vulnerated every day, at individual, collective and social levels, due to the omission, complacency, and action of the State.

As a result, Venezuela is currently stuck in a perverse circle of (i) clientelism, (ii) nepotism, (iii) kleptocracy, (iv) institutional co-optation, reconfiguration, and distortion, (v) impunity, (vi) systematic violation of individual, collective and social rights, and (vii) weakening of the institutionalism and society, which increases conditions for more (i) clientelism, (ii) nepotism, and so on.

Breaking this perverse circle will require ambitious structural transformations in various institutional areas when the conditions are right, as well as jurisprudence and legal tools that most domestic jurisdictions in Latin America do not have today. It will be critical to design and adopt heterodox systems of justice to repair the victims of corruption and re-establish the minimum levels of interpersonal and institutional trust necessary to guarantee coexistence in a functional, inclusive, and prosperous society, in accordance with its natural, human, economic and social potential of the country.


*Director, Vortex Foundation

** Scientific Director, Vortex Foundation

Photo: Shutterstock


[1] https://www.unicef.org/emergencies/yemen-crisis

[2] https://www.transparency.org/en/cpi/2020/index/ven#

[3] Garay Salamanca, L., Salcedo-Albarán, E., & Macías, G. (2018d). Macro-Corruption and Institutional Co-optation: The “Lava Jato” Criminal Network. Bogotá, Colombia: Fundación Vortex.

[4] Salcedo-Albaran, E., Garay-Salamanca, L. J., Macias, G., Velasco, G., & Pastor, C. (2019). Lava Jato Perú. Lima: Proética.

[5] Salcedo-Albarán, E., & Garay-Salamanca, L. (2016). Macro-Criminalidad: Complejidad y Resiliencia de las Redes Criminales. Bloomington: iUniverse, Vortex Foundation, Small Wars Journal. 

[6] In this case, the category of legal entities includes public entities involved or affected by the macro-corruption structure.

[7] https://poderopediave.org/organizacion/la-familia-cabello-en-el-seniat/

[8] Garcia, J., Correa, G., & Rousset, B. (2019). Trends in infant mortality in Venezuela between 1985 and 2016: a systematic analysis of demographic data. Lancet Glob Health, 7, e331–36.

[9] ACNUR. (07 de Jun de 2019). Refugiados y migrantes de Venezuela superan los cuatro millones: ACNUR y OIM. Obtenido de ACNUR.ORG: https://www.acnur.org/noticias/press/2019/6/5cfa5eb64/refugiados-y-migrantes-de-venezuela-superan-los-cuatro-millones-acnur-y.html.

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