The Colombia-Venezuela Border: Open To Smugglers, Closed To The Desperate | KUOW News and Information

The Colombia-Venezuela Border: Open To Smugglers, Closed To The Desperate

Jul 12, 2016
Originally published on July 13, 2016 11:07 am

As we drive from the coastal Venezuelan city of Maracaibo toward Colombia, we see dozens of trucks, some of them escorted by Venezuelan National Guard soldiers.

They've come from Colombia — laden with illegal contraband — even though the border is officially closed.

Regular people or smugglers who don't have deals with the military have to brave what my driver calls la carretera sin ley, or the lawless road.

We stop at a crowded strip mall where a group of smugglers is sitting. One of them agrees to talk, but he also doesn't want his name used.

He tells me that the smuggling routes have been reversed: Before, Venezuela had lots of government-subsidized food that smugglers would truck into Colombia to resell at a profit. Which is why the government says it closed the border.

Now, with Venezuela's acute shortages, gangs bring in cornmeal, oil, flour and other goods from Colombia.

"You see, every day, 150 trucks," he tells me.

He says he isn't part of the big smuggling gangs, but rather ferries individuals into Colombia who want to see family or to shop. He takes the back roads — secret routes where contraband comes in and out.

"It's very dangerous to make the journey," he says. "There are many attacks."

He says the irony is that regular people — who could most benefit from being able to cross the border — are being stopped, while trucks of illicit goods are being transported with the complicity of Venezuelan authorities.

The "flea market" of Maracaibo is where a lot of those smuggled goods end up. It's a vast space of tin-roof stalls selling everything and anything — especially Colombian products.

The prices are sky-high: 1,300 bolivars — about $1.30 at current black market exchange rates — for a small packet of cornmeal, a staple used to make arepas, corn pockets that often are stuffed with cheese. That's unaffordable for most people, equal to about three days' work for someone earning the nation's minimum wage — $15 per month. And inflation is running, by some estimates, at 700 percent.

We meet Eveline, a mother of three who lives with her husband and eight other members of her family, at her home with her pet parrot cawing in the background. She also doesn't want her last name used, so that she can talk openly about the government

She tells me that she has to stand in line for hours to try to get her hands on the subsidized staples she can afford — and that the last time she stood in line, a few days ago, a group of women cut in front.

"They took out knives and guns and told us to get back," she said.

Eveline did, and by the time she was able to enter the supermarket there was almost nothing left to buy — no soap, no rice, no butter, no mayonnaise.

And that left her either buying smuggled food at inflated prices or going hungry, along with the rest of her family.

Except for sporadic openings, Eveline can't legally cross the border into Colombia and buy anything herself. Meanwhile, the smugglers and middlemen continue their trade in contraband.

"I didn't make breakfast or lunch and there won't be dinner either," she says. "Another day of hunger. That's the way we are living now."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This next story takes us to a border. It's the frontier between Colombia and Venezuela. Those two countries sit side-by-side at the top of South America. One of them was deeply troubled years ago. The other is deeply troubled now. Usually, the border has been closed. When it opened briefly last weekend, tens of thousands of Venezuelans flooded into neighboring Colombia to buy food, which is not available in their country so easily. It's seen food riots. NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro reports the border traffic is benefiting criminals more than the hungry.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: As we make our way to the border of Venezuela and Colombia, we see truck after truck, laden with smuggled goods, even though the border is supposed to be officially closed. Our driver Marcelo, who doesn't want his last name used, has this warning.

MARCELO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's telling me this is the road without law. There's no law around here - no man's land.

Much of what's being carried by the trucks is illegal contraband. But we see some of the smugglers are actually being escorted by national guard soldiers. We stop at a crowded strip mall where a group of men are sitting. They're smugglers that ply these dangerous routes. One of them agrees to talk to us. Also, he doesn't want his name used.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He tells me that the smuggling routes have been reversed now. Before, Venezuela had lots of subsidized food, so smugglers would truck it into Colombia to resell it there for a profit. Now because of the acute shortages, gangs bring in cornmeal, oil, flour from Colombia to Venezuela. "You see it every day," he says, "a hundred and fifty trucks," he tells me.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says, "we take the back roads, the secret routes where the contraband comes in and out."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's "very dangerous to make the journey," he says. "There are many attacks."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says, "the irony is regular people who could most benefit from being able to cross the border are being stopped while trucks of illicit goods are being transported with the complicity of the Venezuelan authorities."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you only have to go to the biggest city close to the border of Maracaibo and the mercado de las pulgas, or the flea market, to see that. It's a vast space of tin-roofed stalls selling everything and anything, especially Colombian products.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I ask the stall-holder for the prices.

(Speaking Spanish). So 1,300 for cornmeal. That's unaffordable for most people, equal to about three days' work for someone on minimum wage.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARROT SQUAWKING)

EVELINE: Hola, mucho gusto.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hola, mucho gusto, Eveline.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Someone like mother of three, Eveline. She also doesn't want her last name used so she can talk openly about the government. We speak at her home with her pet parrot squawking in the background. She tells me she has to stand in line for hours to try and get her hands on the subsidized staples that she can afford.

EVELINE: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She tells me how the last time she stood in line, only a few days ago, a group of women threatened her with guns so they could cut in front of her.

EVELINE: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: By the time everyone was able to get to the supermarket, there was almost nothing left to buy.

EVELINE: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "No soap, no rice, no butter, no mayonnaise," she says.

EVELINE: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Which means," she says, "I have to buy those smuggled goods at inflated prices or we go hungry." Except for sporadic openings, she can't legally cross the border and buy anything herself while middlemen are making money from the contraband. She says, "ask me when was the last time I ate."

EVELINE: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "I didn't make breakfast or lunch. And there won't be dinner either," she says. "It's another day of hunger. That's the way we are living now in Venezuela," she says. Lulu Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Maracaibo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.