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A Contraband Crackdown Is Rattling the Border Between Colombia and Venezuela

Colombia's black market for dirt-cheap Venezuelan gasoline and goods has turned the border between the two nations into a high-stakes conflict zone.

by Meredith Hoffman
Sep 23 2014, 11:45pm

Photo de Meredith Hoffman

Venezuelan soldiers have been on an aggressive hunt for smuggled gasoline along the border with Colombia in recent weeks, contraband that Remedio Pana, a 42-year-old indigenous woman who lives on the Colombian side of the shared border, stores in her front yard.

Pana has watched Venezuelan soldiers sprint into her border town and rough up her neighbor, and she's heard their gunfire. But, as she explained to VICE News outside her hand-built mud home in Paraguachon, in northeast Colombia, she needs money from the illicit sale of fuel to feed her ten children. 

Pana is just a tiny part of the massive contraband industry that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro blames for his country's current shortage of food and consumer goods.

Since August 11, Maduro's government has tried to seal the roughly 1,300-mile-long Colombia-Venezuela border by closing it at night, between 10pm and 5am, and also by deploying troops and dynamiting illegal border crossings. Maduro's government has also said it will launch a plan to fingerprint shoppers at supermarkets to discourage hoarding and smuggling.

VICE News has learned after more than two dozen interviews with officials, residents, and smugglers that, despite Maduro's efforts, corrupt guards, as well as determined traffickers and guerrillas, have turned the border into a high-stakes conflict zone where contraband continues to flow.

The runners are moving gasoline, food, and hygiene products, the result of extremely low prices in Venezuela as the government struggles to contain disturbances amid ballooning inflation and political unrest. Colombia's government disagrees with the closure, and the countries' foreign ministers plan to meet this week in New York to discuss the move.

Want milk or toilet paper? The Venezuelan government wants your fingerprints. Read more here.

People selling contraband detergent under a tree in Paraguachon, Colombia, near the border with Venezuela. (Photos by Meredith Hoffman)

In communities such as Paraguachon — a dusty, derelict village with no schooling available past fourth grade, no formal businesses, only eight police officers, and walls of trash lining dirt roads — contraband is the only viable livelihood, village president Yudi Peralta told VICE News.

"If I don't work in this, how am I going to survive?" Pana asked, standing with her gasoline jugs. She stores the jugs temporarily in her house for $0.25 each per day, a service she provides for men smuggling the fuel from Venezuela. From her village, smugglers move the gas deeper into Colombia in smaller batches.

Venezuela Rising. Watch the full documentary here.

The wealthy and powerful are also involved in the trade.

The governor of Colombia's La Guajira province, where Paraguachon is located, is behind bars facing charges of ties to paramilitary groups and trafficking in drugs and gasoline. With Venezuela's gas prices pegged as the lowest in the world, at about $.05 a gallon, or a penny a liter, incentives are high to bring the product across the border into Colombia, where it can be sold for several times the Venezuelan price. Venezuela's government, which subsidizes food and other necessary goods, has estimated that 40 percent of those products are trafficked into Colombia daily.

There are only four legal crossings between the countries, but hundreds of illegal ones, the ombudsman for the border in the La Guajira province, Lina Murgas, told VICE News.

At some crossings, guards demand bribes before letting travelers pass, sources said.

One such spot is River Sardinata, where Maicao resident Phaola Torres said she recently crossed by canoe and had to pay 400 bolivars, about $64, to the Venezuelan army. The practice appears to be widespread. Fifteen Venezuelan soldiers were recently jailed for opening an illegal crossing for contraband.

Even at the official crossings, bribes often overpower the rules.

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A Colombian military vehicle patrols the border in Paraguachon, near the city of Maicao on the Colombian side. (Photo by Meredith Hoffman)

It is currently illegal to transport even a bag of rice for personal consumption across the border, but VICE News witnessed civilians accepting cash in exchange for stamping passports for people with food at the official Paraguachon-Paraguaipoa border crossing, suggesting a criminal link with corrupt Venezuelan border guards. These men said they worked with the Venezuelan guards, giving them a portion of the money they take from travelers.

Crossing the border these days is always a gamble, even if you're breaking no law, distraught residents of the region said.

David, a 19-year-old binational citizen of Venezuela and Colombia who supplied only his first name, was held for six hours in detention at the border when he tried crossing one day earlier this month, he told VICE News. Venezuelan guards made him strip down to his underpants and took away his cell phone, accusing him of transporting contraband, although he carried nothing into Colombia. David, a Wayuu native, said he believed he was profiled for being indigenous.

"The Venezuelan authorities do whatever they want," said David, wearing jeans and a plain white t-shirt.

Other Venezuelan residents also told VICE News they had to wait hours for car inspections on the Lake Maracaibo bridge so that authorities could check each vehicle for contraband. And taxi drivers who had just crossed the border into northern Colombia last week said residents in Paraguaipoa, Venezuela, were enacting a village-wide protest against a continued lack of food and necessities.

"Lots of people work in contraband, because there's not another form of work," David shrugged.

'It's like destroying a tunnel Mexicans use to cross the border into the US. As long as there's an economic need, people will find a way.'

President Maduro's press office did not return requests for comment on the situation at the Colombian border. On September 11, Maduro announced that more than 830,000 liters of contraband gasoline and 2,500 tons of consumer goods had been confiscated in the first month of the government's border closures.

The program will continue for at least three more months, he said. Some store owners in the Maracaibo area told a local newspaper they've seen positive results since the closures began, suggesting there has been some dent in the flow of contraband of goods to Colombia.

Vendors in Colombian border towns said smuggling had indeed gotten riskier — but that they didn't plan to stop. The black market for Venezuelan goods even draws kids into the work.

In northern Colombia, contraband gasoline, shampoo, and other toiletries still abound in downtown markets, remote villages, and along highways. Girls as young as 13 told VICE News they crossed dangerous mountain passes to transport hygiene products from Venezuela.

A 15-year-old boy in the town Cuestacita who has been in the gasoline business since he was nine years old said contraband fuel prices have nearly doubled, and a fuel seller in Cuestacita calling herself "Señora Gasolinera" said the trips had gotten more dangerous, but that she'd continue smuggling gasoline out of necessity.

"I've always known this was illegal, but if you cross your arms and don't do something because it's illegal, what are your kids going to eat?" the 40-year-old woman, who makes the trip three times each month, told VICE News. "I do this because of the hunger of my kids."

The crackdown may have hurt individual vendors, but gangs, guerrilla fighters, and other armed groups have remained relatively unscathed, Murgas said. "The new rules haven't hurt the people at the top," she said.

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Contraband Venezuelan gas being sold in Cuestacita by a 15-year-old boy who said he has been in the business for six years. (Photo by Meredith Hoffman)

Violence is often involved in the gasoline trade, with Colombian guerrilla fighters patrolling much of the border and requiring contraband smugglers to pay them fees as they pass, Murgas said. Guerrilla fighters dominate the border, and charge about $500 per truck that enters Colombia with gasoline, sources told a local paper.

The contraband groups have amassed so much power that Murgas said she believes they may be responsible for the assassination of a regional director in Colombia's immigration agency in Paraguachon last year. He was killed after performing vehicle inspections on the Colombian side of the border.

"He started the car inspections here, but after he was killed, those inspections stopped," Murgas said. "There are a lot of interests involved in contraband here — armed groups, and most people who live here."

Jose Rodriguez, director of Maicao's non-profit Center for the Migrant, said the contraband industry was so strong that patrolling the border would only lead to more desperate attempts to circumvent the authorities.

"There has always been contraband between these countries. You can dynamite one illegal crossing, but people just build another," he said. "It's like destroying a tunnel Mexicans use to cross the border into the US. As long as there's an economic need, people will find a way."

But border resident Alejandro Guerrero, who studied at a university in Venezuela and now works as a biologist in the southern Colombian city of Cúcuta, argues that people in his community should seek other work besides the black market trade in contraband goods.

"I don't want my city to rely on Venezuela, to buy or to sell," he told VICE News. "Contraband is not a stable or legal way to make money. What we need is industry. I wish my city could develop, to rely on itself."

Missing Colombian pilot might be a victim of Venezuela's drug war. Read more here.

Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter: @merhoffman

Tagged:
COLOMBIA
VICE News
Border
venezuela
Nicolas Maduro
Maicao
La Guajira
contraband
Cúcuta
lina murgas
paraguachon
paraguaipoa