In a bid to slow, if not stop, the massive flow of contraband fuels and foods to Colombia, the Venezuelan government has begun a nightly closure of all border crossings to its neighboring country.
The shutdown of the 1,370-mile border from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. was made official by the government Tuesday, after the border had been shut overnight. The action will affect all ground, air and river travel between the two countries.
Venezuela loses an estimated 14% of its gasoline production in contraband sales, mainly to Colombia, but also to Brazil, sources in state-owned PDVSA have told The Times. There is also a thriving black market for smuggled Venezuelan food items including rice, chicken, cooking oil and beans.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said in February that losses of food supplies to smugglers could exceed 40% of all imported goods.
The Venezuelan government says it has identified about 200 secret roads or paths that smugglers use to cross the border, mostly at night. Closing the regular border crossings will make it easier to identify and stop the smugglers at these clandestine spots, officials said, because it will limit traffic toward the border and cause illegal crossers to stand out.
Smugglers are motivated by the heavily subsidized retail prices of gasoline and food in Venezuela. Gasoline costs less than a penny a gallon at unofficial exchange rates, creating a huge profit potential for those who can ship it to Colombia, where gas costs upward of $5 per gallon.
Similarly, wholesalers can reap immense profits by diverting heavily subsidized foodstuffs from government-run Mercal grocery stores to Colombian smugglers.
The border closure was agreed upon in a meeting last weekend in Cartagena between Maduro and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. But anonymous sources in the Colombian government told local media that the rapidity of Monday night's closure caught them by surprise.
Venezuelan army Gen. Vladimir Padrino Lopez said Monday that so far this year his government has seized 10.5 million gallons of gasoline and 21,000 tons of foodstuffs from smugglers. He added that the closure would last for a minimum of 30 days and then be analyzed for effectiveness.
The siphoning off of food supplies by contraband mafias has contributed to the scarcity of basic food items in Venezuela, where consumers often stand in line for hours at the Mercal chain to make grocery purchases.