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Venezuelan Crack Down on Gas Smuggling Sparks Anger in Border State

A new government strategy to counter gas smuggling in the Venezuelan border state of Zulia has created a fierce backlash among locals and furthermore looks unlikely to be able to counter the main area of the trade controlled by large criminal groups.

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Workers in the public transport sector of Zulia’s capital, Maracaibo, are organizing a protest against the new electronic "chip" system (aimed at tracking gas sales) for July 18, reported El Nacional. Opposition lawmakers in the Maracaibo Municipal Council also say they are lobbying for a referendum over the use of the tracking system.

The "chip" is actually a barcode attached to car windshields. Each car is assigned a monthly quota of gasoline, which the chip tracks. Before buying gas at a station, the chip is scanned, and the sale is only completed if the monthly quota has not yet been met.

The system was first implemented in the border state of Tachira in 2010, home to one of the busiest border crossings in Latin America, between the Venezuelan town of San Antonio del Tachira and the Colombian city of Cucuta. 

The government hopes that by tracking gasoline sales, they will be able to cut down on the contraband gas trade between Venezuela and Colombia, a highly profitable industry due to the enormous price disparity; a gallon of gas sells for 18 cents in Venezuela, compared to $5 in Colombia.

While the illicit trade has become the livelihood for many small-time traffickers in the Colombia-Venezuela border region, many of these smugglers are extorted by larger criminal groups for the right to operate. Colombian drug trafficking organization the Rastrojos are currently thought to be the major criminal group controlling Zulia state, including the capital Maracaibo.

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It remains to be seen exactly how effective the chip will be in reining in the illegal gasoline trade. While it will certainly have an effect on the amount of monthly gas that individual buyers can purchase, the real money in the trade is made from the large containers of gas that are smuggled across the border with the complicity of Venezuela and Colombia border officials. A report released in April by Colombian think tank Nuevo Arco Iris foundation described how truck drivers smuggling gas must pay bribes at multiple police roadblocks from Venezuela to Colombia.

While the chip system appears to have been effective in reducing overall gas sales in Tachira, it is a method of control that focuses on individual gas buyers, not the organized smugglers who contribute the most to the problem, and who operate with the permission of the border security forces. The system is likely to continue to generate more discontent in Zulia, to the point where expanding the system nationwide may come with too great a political cost for the government.

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