Cúcuta Chronicles

frontera_colombia_venezuelaA gringo crosses the border. A guest post from Jonathan Pfaehler.

The Colombo-Venezuelan border is a two-faced, majestic beauty burdened by the protracted armed conflict in Colombia, the massive drug trade, and the illegal armed groups that enter and leave both countries as if there were no immigrations controls in a European-like fashion. The palm trees and false calm that may appear on the way from Cúcuta to San Cristóbal at seven in the morning can mislead one into thinking this land is peaceful.

When I get into the car, Yimi – a friend of a friend taking me to Venezuela who has dual-citizenship and has lived here his whole life – tells me we may have to take one of the longer routes to San Cristóbal since the main highway has been closed for almost two weeks due to heavy rain and collapsing streets. The cities are only separated by about 50 kilometers, but the road we may have to take will delay us five or six hours. And, he says, those roads are more likely to have cobros de vacunas along the way. Luckily Yimi gets a call from one of his beat up cell phones – he has two for Venezuela and one for Colombia to assist people such as myself – and the main route from Cúcuta to San Cristóbal is a green light.

We stop to pick up his Aunt Vilma who lives in San Cristóbal, and just so happens to be chavista. Ah yes, the awkward chavista-anti-chavista ride. Before picking her up from the city center in Cúcuta, he warns, “Tenemos que darle la cola a mi tía, y la muy bendecida es chavista.” The issue of institutional incapacity in Venezuela with a simultaneous focus on the questionable social development of the country has led to ferocious political debates on a variety of issues, especially within families. In our car, though, Yimi was courteous enough to sympathize with Vilma each time she professed her anguish that she would stop receiving benefits from Chávez’s missions if anything were to happen to him. He broke the silence and had just announced his diagnosis of cancer days before.

When we pick her up we exchange warm greetings with sticky cheeks and half hugs in the small, gray Toyota two-door. She immediately starts speaking about the elephant in the country, lamenting his most recently revealed illness saying, “Está enfermito mi presidente.”

Yimi asks her, “El pobre, ¿estará bien?”

Vilma responds, “Ay, espero que sí. Si no, ¿quién nos cuidará?

With a sarcastic smirk on my face in the front seat, I stay quiet. Yimi responds, “Sí tía. ¿Y dónde te dejo hoy?”

“En Barrio Obrero, donde queda el banco del gobierno. Que tengo que recoger mi pensión y luego ir al hipermercado a comprar algunas cosas.”

As we leave Cúcuta, the streets five minutes outside of the city are dotted with several informal gas stations, known as pimpinas, where instead of spending fifty or sixty thousand Colombian pesos (COP) to fill up the tank, the cost will be just 20,000 COP (about $12). The wide acceptance of the informality authenticates the inherent illicitness of this economy. There are even bodyguards on watch at the San Andresito, the name for Colombia’s impressive informal market, to make sure business continues as usual in Cúcuta. Even the border guards advertently sanctify this downsized Mall of Latinoamérica, protecting it with automatic weapons. There are few news stories on this market because the contraband that arrives there – sometimes from Venezuela and sometimes all the way from Central America and includes libraries of Chinese shoes, birds, a plethora of DVDs, CDs, and USBs with hundreds of songs, etc. – is no longer news. It’s a part of the culture, too.

There is a symbiotic criminal relationship benefiting illegal actors on all sides here. From Venezuela to Colombia, it is estimated (if such a thing can be) that at least a million barrels of gasoline are transported a year, generating $500 million for illegal armed groups. Simultaneously, from Colombia to Venezuela there are hundreds of small containers and packages delivered to avoid detection and interception of a large-scale delivery of narco products. To give an example to those who are not familiar with the shrewd subtlety (or is it stark blatancy?) with which these criminals maneuver, take this case in point that is well-known to anybody that regularly travels along the Cúcuta-San Cristóbal corridor: any sizeable box truck or carrier is usually creeping slowly back to Venezuela. Why? Because a good portion of them have just siphoned the maximum amount of gas to pimipineros for profit just before entering Cúcuta to allow them to barely climb the mountains in their return to Venezuela and fill up again. La ronda infernal.

As we approach the first major stop, Yimi is calm and my hands are sweaty because I don’t know what to expect. I have my passport ready when Yimi says, “What are you doing? Put that away.”

“Why?” I ask. To which he gives me this face that tacitly asks if I’m an idiot.

“Le pasamos el billete y listo.”

I try to explain I wanted to get my passport stamped so I wouldn’t have to go to the DAS (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, which is like the Colombian diplomatic version of the U.S. DMV) in Bogotá. But he tells me, “Tranquilo, chamo. Los guardias no te van a ayudar si ven ese pasaporte azulito que tienes. De hecho, te puede ir peor. Aquí todo es una red de narcos, grupos armados y muchos guardias trabajan con ellos. Es mejor que le des 50 bolos que tener que pagar 300-400 de vacuna con el pasaporte americano si es corrupto, o que pasemos y luego les pasan tu información a algún malandro por ahí.”

And so I give him the fifty bolos. He folds it in half twice, and then places it on the face of his picture inside his red Venezuelan passport. Who would have thought? An illegal gringo dying to get in to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. But something has me excited – there is something about this culture that is within me but always escapes me. Then, as we’re getting closer, as I’m squinting beneath the Venezuelan sun, Yimi says, “Here, put these on,” and he hands me his San Andresito-bought Oakley’s. I tell him the sun is too bright and he is the one driving, so he should wear them. But he insists, patting my leg in encouragement, “Chamo, yo no tengo los ojos verdes. And,” he adds, “if you don’t mind, it’s probably better if you don’t look at the guards.”

When it is our turn to hand him Yimi’s and Vilma’s documents, the guard accepts them. He tells Yimi to park the car so they can have a little “talk.” Then, as they’re waiting he tells me not to worry, that the guards might come say something to me but that it’s no big deal. The last advice he gives me is to not look around, because then I’ll look nervous and suspicious. Yea, don’t want to get busted on illegal border crossing charges. I wait about five minutes. Then–

CRACK. Someone slaps the back of the car with their hand. Then a stern voice: “Señor, no te muevas.” Now, officially going to the bathroom for the first time in Venezuela in a car, I freeze. “No. Te. Muevas.” Then Yimi’s face appears in my window, which is open. “Ahhhh, ¡pensaste que te agarraron!” And they laugh and laugh. The next stops we were supposed to go through were a breeze because there were none. Tip for all those wanting to get into San Cristóbal from Cúcuta: if you don’t want to pay the extra fee to get past the next stop illegally, just go during lunchtime. What guard will take the time to put down their reina pepiada to check a gringo’s passport status?

We arrive to San Cristóbal in no time, moving carefully up and down the mountains like a game of crooked chess, avoiding obstacles as the rain falls. When we drop Vilma off at the Banco de Venezuela in Barrio Obrero, she strides happily to get in the long line that has already formed. I’ll never forget what Yimi said as soon as she got out of the car: “¿Ves por qué el progreso en Venezuela no es sostenible? Porque allí mismo es donde muchísimos trabajan – haciendo la cola, aún cuando no hay nada para nadie. Entonces el gobierno te da la cola, pero para hacer la cola.”