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Brigadier General Gustavo Moreno is sitting behind a wide desk in his air-conditioned office. It overlooks the parade ground of the police compound which sits vacant, belted by the midday sun. A receptionist brings in cups of weak, sugary coffee that Colombians call tinto.
As the police commander for ‘Region Five’, General Moreno is in charge of security for one of the most sensitive areas in Colombia, a stretch of border with Venezuela which connects the Colombian department of Norte de Santander with the neighbouring Venezuelan state of Táchira. The police compound and centre of operations itself is based in the border city of Cúcuta, a small city in the eastern branch of the Andes that is often associated with cross-border contraband and violence.
Smuggling: the big fish move in
A mixture of systemic corruption and heavily devalued goods in Venezuela contributes to a vibrant smuggling trade, attracting armed gangs with origins on both sides of the border who operate with near impunity along the unstable frontier. Despite the demobilisation of the FARC, and the Ejército Liberación Nacional’s (ELN) current ceasefire, it is other armed groups such as the Ejército Popular de Liberación (EPL) and Clan de Golfo who are fighting for territory in the region. Norte de Santander’s faltering economy leaves many with no choice but to try to make a living on the black market. Smuggling is widely regarded as part of day-to-day life, an acceptable means of getting by.
“There have been many operations against narco-trafficking”, Moreno tells me, “but it’s not just cocaine we’re dealing with here; it’s everything from pharmaceuticals and pork to toiletries and petrol. Anything that can be bought cheaply in Venezuela is smuggled across.”
Since the 2014 crash in oil prices, political unrest and food shortages have plagued Venezuela. However, the markets of Cúcuta are awash with Venezuelan produce and one often finds food stuffs labelled as “only for sale in Venezuela”. Corrupt officials in the Venezuelan national guard divert flows of Venezuelan goods away from their intended destination. A bitter irony is that many of these basic essentials would otherwise be consumed in Venezuela, by Venezuelans who are now forced to cross into Colombia to buy products originally destined for their own supermarkets.
At the border and beyond, it’s the Colombian gangs, paramilitaries, mafia and guerrilla (all with their own relationships to Colombia’s on-going internal armed conflict) who shift the bulk of the produce into Colombia via illegal routes that cross the River Táchira.
“It’s an ongoing struggle”, says Moreno. “When we break up one armed gang they split into smaller groups who are even more rooted in the local community.”
The major concern of the police is the smuggling of combustibles which, given the ridiculously cheap price of Venezuelan petrol ($0.01 per litre), is even more profitable than cocaine. In collaboration with the army, POLFA, a highly-militarised anti-smuggling police, focus their energies on these petrol cartels.
But without co-operation from Venezuela it’s difficult to curb the supply. The last round-table discussion the police had with their Venezuelan counterparts was over a year ago and with the political crisis in Venezuela steadily worsening there are unlikely to be any more soon. In fact, tensions remain high between the two nation states and exchange of fire between security forces has been known to occur.
Most critically however, in his own attempt to prevent the smuggling of his country’s resources, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro shut the border allowing only a few primary crossings open only to pedestrians. In reality, the border closure has done nothing but prevent relatively harmless small-timers from operating, while increasing the primacy of armed gangs who manage the illegal smuggling routes. In the words of the Spanish saying: a rio revuelto ganancia de Pescadores– in choppy waters fishermen win big.
Before my conversation with the General I’d been researching those Colombians who make their living on the economic margins. Locally they’re known as pimpineros, named after the gallon bottles in which they sell petrol called pimpinas. Moreno makes it clear to me that the police are not ‘brutes’ and that a pluralistic, more sociological approach is needed to combat smuggling. Nevertheless many pimpineros still claim police discrimination against them while other more violent gangs operate unimpeded. The police are involved in everything from a scheme teaching pimpineros to make bio-fuel from restaurant waste, to creating an app designed to monitor taxi driver usage (by far the largest population of illegal petrol consumers). I ask the General if security in the region is getting better or worse, “Since the restructuring of the contraband laws, Cúcuta is a cleaner city,” he claims. “The city was ugly with petrol vendors literally everywhere, however with the continuing crisis in Venezuela the security situation in Colombia continues to be serious.”
The pimpineros organize
The pimpineros have formed official trade unions to help navigate the realities of life at the end of a long economic chain. I arrange to meet up with Yuliema Garcia, the leader of Sintragasolina, the main pimpinero trade union in the region. She arrives in a beat-up car with a driver and her personal bodyguard, David. She’s dressed in trendy jeans and a pink top, unexpectedly feminine given the macho world of contraband, but commanding no less respect from her colleagues. As we drive to the slums on the outskirts of town, Yulemia begins to tell me about Sintragasolina.
“We operate with nothing but the small monthly fees of our members who we represent. It’s not an easy life and people do it out of necessity, because they can’t find work anywhere else. There are gangs who demand protection money from pimpineros, we can help collectively negotiate with them as well as petitioning the state for educational retraining programmes. Education is very important to us and it’s our number one priority.”
“It sounds dangerous” I tentatively offer, “Yup and that’s why I have this” interjects David, showing me a concealed pistol strapped to his belt. “Don’t worry I have a licence” he says smiling. David had been a pimpinero before taking an intensive close protection course and now works full time as Sintragasolina’s security.
We get out and walk about a social housing complex built in the middle of informal slums. There are pimpineros waiting around to sell petrol. Hanging off a tree branch in the shade next to them is half a pig for sale, also smuggled from Venezuela. Everyone knows Yuliema and with her there all are happy to have their photos taken. “It’s important for us to give access to journalists and academics”, Yuliema says. “We want the world to see what we are going through, to see that we are not the criminals. We are the last link in a long chain, we earn virtually nothing but we’re an easy target for the police. It’s the violent gangs who cross the border who make the most money, we just buy from them.”
In previous years, you could have found pimpineros on every street corner of Cúcuta but since a recent restructuring of the contraband laws they can now face as much prison time as an actual smuggler and have been forced to the out-skirts of town or more clandestine spots.
“The day the law came into enforcement was crazy”, a pimpinero called Augusto tells me. “The legal petrol stations that were normally completely empty had queues kilometres long. Everyone normally bought petrol from pimpineros and no one was prepared for the sudden demand for legal petrol.” Augosto operates from a car park near a luxury shopping mall in the centre of town. He caters to the upper-middle classes who are willing to pay a little extra to buy petrol in a safer neighbourhood than the outskirts. “I won’t sell to kids on motorbikes, they have big mouths and like to snitch,” Augosto says. “I manage a list of respectable clients, I’ve even had politicians and policemen buy from me”, he confesses. “And why not? everyone knows Venezuelan petrol is the best quality in the world.”
I have lunch with Augosto and his family. As he has official status as an Internally Displaced Person he is able to live in social housing provided by the Colombian state. Augosto manages to support a family of five with his middle child just about to enrol at university, but there are many who can barely survive on what they earn. Several times recently Cúcuta has seen an exodus from Venezuela as migrants flood across the border, desperate for work they can’t find back home. The Colombian state is unequipped to deal with what is fast becoming a major migration crisis. I met many who’d only been in Colombia a few weeks, full of stories of hardship and political unrest from all over Venezuela.
In these borderlands, there is a shared sense of Colombo-Venezuelan culture that goes back to a time before the border existed. Smuggling here is more than a crime, and migration has always ebbed and flowed. Both are part of a deeply rooted cross-border culture that isn’t going away anytime soon. As the Simon Bolivar himself said of the River Táchira “This is a river, not a border!”
Charles Beach has just completed his MRes dissertation at UCL, London, and started on a PhD. He spent two months in the Colombo-Venezuelan border town of Cúcuta researching and interviewing the people who sell smuggled Venezuelan petrol. He also talked to policemen, academics and local journalists.