MEXICO & THE AMERICAS

Venezuelan gasoline and goods still sold in Colombia despite crackdown

Colombians traffic in gas, beef ... diapers? It's lucrative because they are subsidized items from Venezuela

Miguel is a pimpinero, a curbside vendor of contraband Venezuelan gasoline that he sells at two-thirds of the going price at Colombian gas stations.

Despite a professed government crackdown, hundreds of bootleggers openly hawk their black market fuel on the streets of this sun-bleached border city.

The nickname comes from pimpin, the slang word for the 6-gallon plastic containers that Miguel stacks on a busy street corner. A steady stream of cars and cabs stop for a fill-up, which he pours with the help of a makeshift funnel of a bottomless plastic Coke bottle fitted to a hose. The cost: $2.75 per gallon rather than $4.25.

"It's cheaper and it's good quality," Miguel said after pouring the contents of a yellow pimpin into a newish Hyundai SUV. "The police have become a little more bothersome, but they leave us alone if we give them a little for their motorcycles or whatever."

Miguel occupies a strategic corner in downtown Cucuta, Colombia's sixth-largest city, near the Simon Bolivar international bridge. About half of his clients are return customers.

"Sure, this gas costs more than it used to," he said. "But people here were born to this and so they buy it."

Selling smuggled Venezuelan gas is big business in Colombia. An estimated 4.2 million gallons per day, or 16% of all gasoline produced in Venezuelan refineries, is sold as contraband in Colombia, northern Brazil and Caribbean island nations, according to Venezuelan sources.

It doesn't take a criminal genius to see the profit potential. Because highly subsidized gasoline is practically given away in Venezuela — a gallon there costs 4 cents at official exchange rates at service stations — organized crime groups, corrupt government officials and almost anyone else with an oversize gas tank can make huge windfalls by reselling it in Colombia.

Cucuta thrives on contraband, and not just bootleg gasoline. Since Venezuela's socialist government began selling deeply discounted groceries to gain favor with voters a decade ago, a large percentage of rice, diapers and other items are trafficked here. The devaluation of the Venezuelan currency, the bolivar, has only deepened the discounts.

One recent morning , the 20-block Sexta shopping district just east of Miguel's corner resembled a Middle Eastern bazaar, overflowing with Venezuelan goods. A 2.2-pound bag of rice packaged in Venezuela cost 50 cents, one-quarter of the price at a supermarket in Bogota, the capital.

Venezuelan beer was marked down 80% from typical retail prices to 20 cents a can. A pack of 28 disposable baby diapers cost $3.50, a steep discount from $9 at supermarkets, and the prices of milk powder and sugar were similarly slashed.

The winners in this not-so-underground economy are consumers like Andrea, a Cucuta caterer. As she made her weekly purchases of sugar, corn flour, beer and rice in Sexta, she said she gets high-quality Venezuelan beef delivered to her house every Friday at half the price charged by Colombian butchers.

"My day job is an auxiliary nurse, but I make meals at home for shut-ins to make ends meet," Andrea said. "That business wouldn't be worth doing if I had to pay typical butcher prices."

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, his government's finances a shambles and his constituents angry about scarcity caused by the massive contraband rackets, announced in August that he was cracking down. He formed a National Commission for the Struggle Against Contraband and assigned a military task force to restrict border traffic. Among the measures: closing all crossings along the 1,200-mile Colombian border from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who needs Venezuelan cooperation to keep peace negotiations in Cuba with rebels on track, promised his support. Colombian retailers, he said, were being hurt by the flood of "laughably priced" Venezuelan contraband.

In November, the Venezuelan government announced 1,600 arrests and the seizure of 44 small aircraft and 14,000 tons of food. Vice President Jorge Arreaza said about 2 million gallons of gasoline had been confiscated from smugglers since the crackdown, which as some analysts pointed out is less than a day's volume of the cross-border gas trafficking.

Pimpineros say the effect has been minimal.

"A campaign to restrict contraband? I guess that's what causing the higher prices," said Miguel, who spoke on condition of not using his last name. "A year ago I was charging $1.50 a gallon, but even with the increase to $2.75, business is still good. There are no shortages."

Nohora Oliveros, a top assistant to the governor of North Santander province, of which Cucuta is the capital, said at least 140 Colombians are in Venezuelan jails on smuggling charges. As many as 42 are truck drivers, whose arrests sparked a one-day strike Nov. 25 by the local truckers union.

"Contraband is hard to stop because the people of Cucuta have been living for many decades on an informal economy based on Venezuelan goods," Oliveros said.

Bogota-based political scientist Ariel Avila said too many government officials, police, rebels and criminal gangs are getting a piece of the action for smuggling to cease.

"This is a desperation move," Avila, author of a book on smuggling, said of the crackdown. "Corruption is too rife on both sides of the border. It might have worked over the short term, but by now the smugglers have all established alternative routes."

Kraul is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Mery Mogollon in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.

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