If You Outlaw Border-Crossing, Only Outlaws Will Cross the Border

La Silla Vacía explains how, ten months after the border with Colombia was officially closed, the whole border region around Cúcuta has turned into a vast safe haven for organized crime.

Ten months and one day ago, the Venezuelan government closed the border with Colombia. After the immediate crisis, coverage about the border region died down. That’s why I really liked this piece in Colombian alpha-blog La Silla Vacía where they go to the Colombian border city of Cúcuta and its environs and get an in-depth look of what’s going on. 

The major finding is that the border isn’t really “closed” in any meaningful way, closure is just a euphemism for saying that criminal gangs and corrupt officials are now in control:

Illegality is the norm in the border region; legality the exception. The crossings between the two countries have become corridors for drug trafficking, with an ongoing presence by FARC, ELN, EPL and various criminal gangs. Smuggling is part of the economy’s DNA. 

Though the border has been closed for ten months, illegal gasoline and diesel is still so common that the “pimpineros” (as fuel smugglers are known) go back and forth undisturbed, like they’re just any traveller.

Border traffic has always been a mix of formal, informal and outright illegal, but with the official crossing closed it’s violent armed groups who now have the upper hand. They get their money by trading gas directly and also by extorting the informal pimpineros.

I found this testimony about armed groups especially telling:

“Nothing moves around here without their knowledge. They’re the ones who keep order and everyone obeys them,” said a man in Puerto Santander, a municipality an hour away from Cúcuta and one of the main smuggling hotspots. 

In Cúcuta and its rural hinterland, just as in neighboring municipalities on the Venezuelan side, nobody refers to criminal gangs with their given names, and if they do they lower their voice. Some talk about “los tales”, others “los guías”. The truly daring say “los paracos” (paramilitaries). The fear they instil permeates everything.

It’s scary how close we are from a Voldemortian “they-who-must-not-be-named.”

Fuel has always been the main feature of the cross-border trade, given the galactic price differentials involved, but the closing of the border has changed the game. Getting people and other products across the border is now profitable, and gangs have gone as far as building backcountry tracks (known as trochas) across the border using heavy machinery.

All kinds of things make it through the trochas. As well as gasoline, smugglers come over with meat (which is becoming a public health problem, since it represents 70% of the captured smuggled goods), toiletries and sometimes canned goods or staple foods, which is what you find on the shops near the border. A new market involves smuggling people and cars across the border.

Here’s how I see this: price and currency controls are so crazy that even if you have to deal with inflation, shortages, long lines, illegal crossings, extortions from armed groups and bribes it is still profitable to buy goods in Venezuela and sell them in Colombia. Even if it’s meat that has been sitting in a van for hours under the tropical sun.

Of course, you can also go across the ‘official’ crossing if you cough up a bit of cash for the officers:

You have two options. If you go over the bridge, the deal goes through the Venezuelan National Guard. I put you on the bus and give you a password so the Saime officials (Venezuelan immigration service) know who you are. That costs 30,000 Colombian pesos ($10). I wouldn’t recommend going through the trocha, the price is about the same and you have to wade over the river.

For context, 30,000 pesos in Cúcuta gets you two movie tickets and a coke on a weekend. How much can you get in Venezuela for the equivalent of ten dollars? I never ever imagined that the Colombian peso would be considered ‘hard currency’, but here we are.

The Venezuelan border has been a source of economic development for Cúcuta for many years, Venezuela’s GDP per capita has always been bigger than Colombia’s. A closed border and a Venezuelan economy in a dire crisis have changed the landscape of Cúcuta in these past few months:

Practically all the chain stores are shut down. For instance, only a very few forex agents are still operating along the border: out of the 80 that use to ply their trade on the bridge to San Antonio del Táchira there are just five left. Taxi drivers have seen their business shrivel up and their incomes reduce drastically.

Many who used to have shops have begun to shut them down, travel agents are on the verge of bankruptcy after being deprived of the dynamism the border brought. Restaurants, hotels, commerce have all slowed down.

Cúcuta’s downturn has very real consequences for people on the Venezuelan side. Many families are binational and may be split across the border or even live in one side and work on the other. For Venezuelans in the region access to foreign currency (working in Cúcuta, remittances, selling bolivars or gasoline) and to Colombian shops and pharmacies was a small escape valve from the economic distortions.

Everybody loses, except for the guys with guns.