In Colombia, just over the border from Venezuela, you can tell how long a petrol bootlegger has been in the business by looking at his hands. They're dark and stained from smuggling fuel in dirty plastic jugs called pimpinas. The old men selling it, known as pimpineros, all have the same hands.
The word pimpinero seems to have some correlation to pimp, but only by coincidence. There is nothing pimp-y about the vendor end of the trade. As you drive to Cúcuta, the Colombian city closest to the border, roadside stands selling petrol at a third of the official Colombian price litter the highway. It's hot, hazardous, and illegal work.
A classic car used by Venezuelan smugglers
It's a very different story on the Venezuelan side. They smuggle petrol across the border in big buckets called tres tetas, which translates to three tits, driving the sort of 70s era American cars associated with LA gangs. This may seem a little unnecessary, but the older cars have larger trunks and fit more fuel. They are also easier to break up to create more cargo space, so it's more function over style.
"Cars like Malibus, Caprices, and Dodge Darts are everywhere. It's like a gangsta movie," one bootlegger explains. But not all the smugglers are associated with gangs. According to him, a lot are actually wealthy older women from Venezuela. "These good-looking ladies, or sometimes men, make at least three trips a week," he says.
Javier I. Soledad is a Colombian economist from the University of Pamplona. He explained that the pimpinero trade originated from the considerable difference in petrol prices in Colombia and Venezuela. "Basically, Colombian petrol prices are calculated according to the changing international price of petroleum, while Venezuelan petrol prices haven't been adjusted since 1996."
On top of that, petrol smuggling is a profitable business in an area lacking other opportunities. Colombian border towns often have a history of armed conflict which means traditional industries are scarce, forcing locals turn to informal means of employment. And of all the imports, pimpinero is the most profitable.
Not that there aren't risks. The petrol is stored in plastic jugs in the sunlight, an obvious explosive hazard. Then there's the illegal paramilitary groups violently collecting tariffs from the pimpineros who sell in their territory. Transporting the petrol from the border to the stands is also a long trip by foot, and if anyone is caught with more than six pimpinas, the authorities make arrests and confiscate the fuel.
These risks are present but manageable. Police enforcement is patchy and a lot of them accept bribes. Also, while some of them are caught, the ones who make it can make up to $200 per trip.
Despite this, the Colombian side is mostly clear of police interference. The reason for this is that so many families live from the pimpinero trade — at least 7,000 people by latest estimates — which means the government is now regulating this informal occupation in hope of stabilising the influx of money through the border.
pimpinas by the roadside
The first pimpinero cooperative, Coomulpinort, was encouraged by the government of ex-president Álvaro Uribe to tax the pimpinero trade, and to hopefully get pimpineros into legitimate oil jobs. But the strategy wasn't successful, and most of the vendors went back to illegal trade. Soledad concluded this was for a lack of financial incentive, and he has the numbers to back it up. "The activity is profitable enough to satisfy the basic needs of the population," he says. "That's why three quarters are not willing to quit and 78 percent remain sceptical of cooperatives."
Interestingly, oil companies support the legitimisation of petrol smuggling, but with an ulterior motive. According to Carmen E. Jiménez, from the University of Granada, most companies are more heavily invested in Venezuela than Colombia, where they are selling large quantities of petrol to subsidise their neighbour.
Jiménez's opinion is that pimpineros are here to stay. According to him violence from criminal groups who were once involved in the pimpineros trade, creates a viscous cycle of poverty and inequity. As says "before any of these issues are solved, the pimpinero business will keep growing."
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