Huge amounts of Venezuelan banknotes have turned up thousands of miles from the country's border for the second time in a month, raising questions about the potential criminal uses of a currency that has otherwise become completely worthless.
Rio de Janeiro police officers, acting on an anonymous tip, seized 40 million Venezuelan bolivars hidden inside two stolen cars in the northern neighborhood of Caju, reported O Globo. The operation led to a shoot-out between state agents and a local drug trafficking gang, but there were no reported injuries.
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Officials are uncertain as to why the drug gang would be carrying around such a large quantity of Venezuelan currency, which has seen its value drop precipitously due to runaway inflation. The 40 million bolivars would be worth approximately $12,000 on the black market, but $4 million using the official exchange rate.
One of the possibilities authorities are considering is that the drug traffickers were using the money to purchase weapons from Venezuelan arms dealers. Two years ago, police found that Venezuelans had supplied over 100 rifles to Rio gangs, reported O Globo.
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The seizure in Rio comes one month after authorities in eastern Paraguay made a startling discovery: 25 tons of bolivars hidden on the property of an alleged arms dealer. As in the most recent case, it was not immediately apparent how the cash was intended to be used.
At the time, Paraguayan investigators suggested that the currency may have been acquired because the paper used to make bolivars can be bleached and reproduced as counterfeit dollars.
"One possibility is that [the money] was used to acquire dollars in the Venezuelan black market, or that it would have been used to counterfeit dollars given the high quality of the paper used for Venezuelan bills," reads a statement from Paraguay's National Police.
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Indeed, the 25 tons of bolivars were reportedly offered to counterfeiters for $1 million. That is probably the highest value that could have been fetched for a currency that has become largely worthless due to Venezuela's worsening economic crisis.
The country's downward spiral has given rise to a number of other criminal opportunities as well. The scarcity of US dollars on the open market has made Venezuelan companies increasingly vulnerable to money laundering schemes. And corrupt officials have reportedly turned to trafficking basic goods such as flour, which have become more valuable on the black market as food shortages worsen.