Combustible Contraband—Makeshift
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One-fifth of Venezuelan fuel exports leave the country illegally

— Combustible Contraband

Gregorio speeds his Ford 350 at 100 kilometers per hour down an unpaved road through the bushes. His truck and two others behind him are each smuggling 100 barrels of Venezuelan gasoline into Colombia—their destination a small ranch near Santa Rosa, in the Caribbean state of La Guajira. Gregorio catches word that the Venezuelan military is closing in on his caravan. “The guards had closed several back roads, so we had to invent new ones,” he recounts from an open café in Maicao, Colombia, the main city in the area.

For a year and a half, Gregorio has smuggled gas through clandestine routes along the inhospitable frontier, marked only by the desolated ranches of indigenous Wayúu people. He can earn up to 20,000 bolívares a week (USD 300 officially speaking, or USD 2,000 on the black market; Venezuela has several exchange rates).

His operation is bolstered by this simple fact: in Venezuela, a liter of gasoline officially costs a cent and a half, thanks to heavy government subsidies that make it the cheapest gas in the world. But at black market prices, a liter costs next to nothing: a tenth of a cent. In neighboring Colombia, by contrast, gasoline runs USD 1.20 per liter.

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Many residents along the 2,219-kilometer Venezuela-Colombia border have turned to fuel smuggling to earn a living over the past decade. They siphon off fuel and pour it into tanks, plastic drums, and bottles, which are then slipped under car hoods, tucked above tires, and hidden behind car seats. It’s a predictably dirty job. Gas often leaks from plastic jerry cans and into local creeks. Smugglers can develop throat and stomach illnesses because they use a straw-like hose to shuffle fuel from container to container, and they sometimes swallow it. Charred remains of vehicles litter the sides of roads, oil drums visible from the back seat or trunk.

Still, the illicit industry “provides a profit that you can’t even get in the drug trade”, José Guerra, a Caracas-based economist, says. “Venezuela’s economic policies in the last 15 years have created such distortions.”

Ricardo, a young man in San Antonio, a border town in southwest Venezuela, says he earns around 5,000 bolívares (USD 800, officially) a week by lugging a 19-liter tank of gas into Colombia on his Yamaha 250 motorcycle. That’s about five times what he could make as a bike messenger at home. Nearly every day, he rides the two kilometers into Cúcuta, the main city in northeastern Colombia, and his haul can fetch around USD 8 for the whole tank.

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Altogether, around 25,000 barrels, or nearly 4 million liters, of Venezuelan gasoline are smuggled every day into Colombia, Brazil, and the English Caribbean, officials estimate.

Rafael Ramírez, Venezuela’s former energy minister, figures that the country loses about USD 1.5 billion in annual oil revenues because of the illicit trade. As President Nicolás Maduro struggles to adopt a policy to fix the gas price problem, he is stepping up enforcement. Maduro recently ordered 17,000 troops to police the border with Colombia, and frontier entrances are now closed at night.

Each day, thousands of barrels of illicit fuel sneak through this border checkpoint between San Antonio, Venezuela, and Cúcuta, Colombia.

Like Gregorio, Ricardo is finding ways around the human roadblocks. “At the border checkpoint, the National Guard will take away half of my gas tank,” he says. “I have to come up with another route to cross, one where a guard will take USD 50 or 100 to let me through.”

Danilo, who rides in Gregorio’s truck, similarly carries a stack of cash to grease palms along the way. The crew is often intercepted by civiles demanding bribes from 1,000 bolívares (USD 12) on up. Civiles include military and police from both countries, as well as armed men from the left-wing guerrilla group FARC, paramilitary gangs, or Wayúu people who control certain swathes of land.

“I have to come up with another route to cross, one where a guard will take USD 50 or 100 to let me through.”

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If and when the smugglers get through, their fuel finds its way to pimpineros (roadside vendors) like Edgar Medina. A 17-year-old dressed in shorts, a T-shirt, and sandals, he parks himself near the entrance to Cúcuta, an astoundingly toasty city. He sells around 40 pimpinas (23-liter jerry cans) a day along the road that connects to San Antonio in Venezuela.“

Up until July, I was buying pimpinas at 22,000 Colombian pesos (USD 11) and selling for 28,000 pesos,” he says from an improvised hut made from logs, scrap plastic, and zinc. Since Venezuela’s National Guard has started cracking down, however, less fuel is pouring into Colombia, enabling him to raise his prices. He now buys at 28,000 pesos and sells for 33,000 pesos.

Even at the higher cost, a car owner in eastern Colombia can still get gas for half or one-third of the price he would pay at an actual service station. About 15 percent of all gas used in Colombia is contraband, customs officials estimate.

How the fuel gets from the smuggler to the pimpinero is somewhat murky. Edgar says he gets his supplies from a wholesaler, who delivers a batch of pimpinas by van. “I just know him as Alfonso, and I don’t ask him many questions,” he says. In Maicao, up to 200 enclosed lots receive gasoline drums and send them to unregulated selling stations. Colombian and Venezuelan media both report that paramilitary troops—now “demobilized” from Colombia’s armed conflict with FARC—are the main shareholders in this illegal fuel trade.

Reflecting on what he does, Danilo maintains that the frontier has been a source of livelihood for generations. “Folks have always profited from the border trade. Long ago, it was the other way around—people smuggling from Colombia to Venezuela. It’s always been a way to make money.”

Fuel smuggling in the region could not thrive without the complicity of formal gas distributors in Venezuela, who are part of Venezuela’s petroleum monopoly PDVSA. Nor could it succeed without the secret support of the country’s armed forces, according to civilian opposition figures. In late August, 21 military officials were taken to court because, while their colleagues were closing off some of the 400 informal roads crossing through the Venezuela-Colombia border, the officials were opening up new routes for the smugglers and their trucks.

Several names in this story are pseudonyms given to the writer due to security concerns.

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