Who won in Colombia - Venezuela border closure?

Venezuela's decision to close its border with Colombia in 2015 has been hugely profitable for criminal groups, who now have unprecedented control over contraband movements in the region.

Nearly 10 months ago, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announced that the country was shutting down its border with Colombia. Since then, former paramilitary groups (also known as "bandas criminales" - BACRIM) in the Colombian department of Norte de Santander have become more powerful than ever, according to an investigation by La Silla Vacia.

"The new form of income for the BACRIM on the border is the extortion of smugglers," the director of Progresar Foundation, Wilfredo Cañizares, told La Silla Vacía. "It's generating exorbitant earnings."

Border control officials report a 70 percent decrease in contraband gasoline traffic since the border closure and the accompanying security crackdown. Much of the contraband business is now controlled by the Rastrojos and the Urabeños BACRIM groups. These criminal organizations control unofficial crossing routes known as "trochas," where they tax individuals, vehicles, and smugglers of gasoline and other goods.

"Nothing moves here without them knowing," an inhabitant of Puerto Santander municipality -- one of the main contraband hubs -- told La Silla Vacía. "They maintain order and everyone obeys them."

Venezuelan and Colombian security forces are also profiting from the contraband trade, La Silla Vacía verified during its visit to the area in and around Cucutá, the capital of Norte de Santander.

Locals told reporters that an individual crossing clandestinely into Venezuela may have to pay five "taxes" per journey -- to the Venezuelan National Guard, the Colombian police, the BACRIM, the transport provider and the owner of the land being crossed. Including the bribes, a car crossing can cost $20.

According to reports, the Rastrojos have been active in Norte de Santander since 2007, while the Urabeños -- now stronger than their predecessors -- arrived in 2011. People in the area fear referring to the groups by name, instead calling them the guides, or "paracos," which is slang for paramilitaries.

Almost a quarter of all the 217 illegal crossing points identified along the Colombian border are located in Norte de Santander, where recent anti-contraband operations have resulted in the arrest of 50 smugglers, and in the seizure of 70,000 gallons of gasoline -- three times higher than during the same period in 2015.

Nevertheless, gasoline and diesel traffickers continue to traverse the border with ease, and illegal crossings destroyed by authorities are readily replaced by the BACRIM.

As La Silla Vacía's investigation clearly shows, the Colombia - Venezuela border closure has boosted the revenue of organized crime and stoked official corruption in the region. Norte de Santander is already one of most profitable territories in Colombia for drug trafficking and contraband activities, making it home to a number of criminal groups, including the BACRIM and several guerrilla factions.

These organizations' border presence became a huge asset for them after Venezuelan President Maduro announced that the international crossing was to be closed in August 2015, blaming violence and criminal activity in the area. InSight Crime field research in Norte de Santander determined that until that time, contraband had largely been a "mom and pop" operation, with individuals smuggling small quantities of goods into Colombia along both official and informal routes.

When this was no longer possible, contraband shifted to unofficial border crossings away from the main bridges, where organized criminal groups struck deals with corrupt elements of the Venezuelan National Guard and began to control and charge for the illegal transit. Here, goods are driven along hidden paths and shipped across the river border under the watchful eye of the Venezuelan military and Colombian armed groups.

Such arrangements can easily turn violent; Venezuelan military officials have been known to attack smugglers that refuse to pay them extortion fees.

These crossings are not exclusively controlled by the BACRIM, however. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) -- who are currently engaged in peace negotiations with the Colombian government -- also manage cross-border contraband in certain parts of Norte de Santander. Further east, in the department of Arauca, the National Liberation Army (Ejército Nacional de Liberación - ELN) guerrilla group runs similar operations.

As Venezuela's economic and social crisis continues to grow, criminal dynamics in Colombia's border region have mutated in other ways. The cheap Venezuelan produce that for years saturated local supermarkets and restaurants is now scarce, and there is evidence that foodstuffs are now being smuggled in the opposite direction to feed the socialist country's chronic shortages. There are also reports that BACRIM groups on the border have been recruiting Venezuelan migrants as smugglers and hired guns.

During a recent visit to Arauca, InSight Crime found that widespread poverty across the river border had caused an influx of Venezuelans working as prostitutes. Large-scale immigration has also allegedly provoked a rise in land invasions, unemployment and drug consumption.
However, border regions have also reported a drop in violent crimes such as homicide and armed robbery, which has been attributed to it being more difficult for Venezuelan criminals to enter the country.

Insight Crime |  by Mimi Yagoub

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