At a conference earlier this month, top U.S. military officers identified what they thought would be the top threats to the U.S. as it draws down from protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, was unequivocal about a largely unreported danger:
"Narco-terrorism just on our south border: [it is] yet to be seen just how that is going to play out in our own nation, but it is an issue and it is something that our nation is going to have to deal with."
"Colombia is doing particularly well, but there is an insurgency growing," Amos continued. "They have been fighting it, probably the greatest success story in this part of the world."
The commandant's remarks came a week before the April 14 election where Venezuelans chose a successor to the wildly popular and charismatic Hugo Chavez, who died March 5. Amos indicated the outcome of this election would define much of future relations between the U.S. and Venezuela, located on a continent that has rarely appeared on America's foreign policy radar in the last decade.
Experts, analysts and pundits could not have predicted the election outcome: The establishment's Nicolas Maduro beat reformer Henrique Capriles by a margin of roughly 1 percent. Chavez's hand-picked successor inherited the presidency, but he would not enjoy a broad public mandate to get a teetering Venezuela back on track.
The situation in the South American nation remains dire amid skyrocketing inflation, largely due to Chavez's efforts to nationalize private industry and increase social benefits.
Maduro's immediate attention after claiming victory was drawn to remedying widespread blackouts and food shortages.
One expert on the region says the new leader may need to tap into a shadow world of transnational crime to maintain the stability his countrymen expect.
"Venezuela is a really nice bar, and anybody can go in there and pick up anybody else," says Doug Farah, an expert on narco-terrorism and Latin American crime.
He compares the country to the kind of establishment where nefarious actors can find solutions to a problem. Anti-American groups can find freelance cyber terrorists, for example, or potential drug runners can make connections with the FARC, the Colombian guerilla organization, he says.
"Sometimes it creates a long-term relationship, and sometimes it creates a one-night stand," says Farah, a former Washington Post investigative reporter who is now a senior fellow at the Virginia-based International Assessment and Strategy Center.
Under Chavez, Venezuela also created strong ties with Cuba, which for decades has navigated treacherous financial waters and desperate economic straits, all while dodging U.S. influence. But the help Venezuela receives is not limited to its own hemisphere.
Farah produced a research paper for the U.S. Army War College in August 2012 about the "growing alliance" between state-sponsored Iranian agents and other anti-American groups in Latin America, including the governments of Venezuela and Cuba.
This alliance with Iran uses established drug trade routes from countries in South and Central America to penetrate North American borders, all under a banner of mutual malevolence toward the U.S.
The results of this access are largely secret, though security experts who spoke with U.S. News believe the attempted assassination of the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington, D.C.'s Georgetown neighborhood was carried out by Iranian intelligence operatives.
"Each of the Bolivarian states has lifted visa requirements for Iranian citizens, thereby erasing any public record of the Iranian citizens that come and go to these countries," wrote Farah of countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia and Panama.
He also cited Venezuelan Foreign Minister David Velasquez who said, while speaking at a press conference in Tehran in 2010, "We are confident that Iran can give a crushing response to the threats and sanctions imposed by the West and imperialism."
These relationships are controlled by a group of military elites within Venezuela, Farah tells U.S. News. He wonders whether the 50.8 percent of the vote Maduro won in the April 14 election gives him enough support to keep the country – and its shadow commerce – stable enough to continue its usual business.
"[Maduro] has been and will continue to be forced to take all the unpopular macroeconomic steps and corrections that are painful, but Chavez never took," Farah says. "There is going to be, I would guess, a great temptation to turn to [the elites] for money."
"Most criminalized elements of the Boliavarian structure will gain more power because he needs them," he says, adding "it won't be as chummy a relationship" as they enjoyed with the ever-charismatic Chavez.
U.S. officials might try to engage the new Venezuelan president first in the hopes of improving the strained ties between the two countries.
But Maduro has never been close with the senior military class in his home country, and will likely adopt a more confrontational approach to the United States to prove his credentials to these Bolivarian elites.
"Maybe if he were operating in different circumstances, he could be a pragmatist," Farah says. "I don't think he can be a pragmatist right now."