Rivers of gasoline flow across the desert border from Venezuela into Colombia’s La Guajira department, nourishing an immense illegal market and enriching a new criminal group that has replaced the old “caravans of death” in the fuel smuggling world.
Afraid, people only whisper about the powerful criminal group known as the Contraband Cartel (Cartel del Contrabando). It controls the area’s lucrative fuel smuggling business, whose product travels from Maracaibo, the capital of Venezuela’s Zulia state, to the city of Maicao in La Guajira.
Currently, fuel smuggling can generate up to $3 million in a single day along the entire Colombia-Venezuela border, according to a report by Cali media outlet El País. Once Venezuelan gasoline enters Colombia, the price of a gallon skyrockets to 3,700 times its value in Venezuela, costing between $0.84 and $2.07 per gallon.
When you first step foot in Maicao, La Guajira’s last city before entering Venezuela, two things become immediately apparent: the oppressive heat and the sale of small quantities of gasoline in “pimpinas,” plastic containers or rustic tanks with up to a five-gallon capacity.
The pimpinas have flooded the entire city, and the people who sell them, known as “pimpineros,” are the last link in the fuel smuggling chain.
The Contraband Cartel has controlled the area’s fuel smuggling business for roughly the past four years, starting after former criminal leaders Francisco “Kiko” Gómez, ex-governor of La Guajira, and Marcos de Jesús Figueroa, alias “Marquitos,” were arrested in 2013 and 2014, respectively (although it was announced that Marquitos could be released in 2018).
Maicao is the perfect place for the Contraband Cartel to transport and sell Venezuelan gasoline in the north of Colombia. InSight Crime spoke to sources in the area who said more than 70 percent of Maicao’s economy could be devoted to smuggling.
The city shares an extensive border with Zulia state in Venezuela, which thousands of cars cross daily using the 200 or so unofficial routes known as “trochas,” residents say. According to area experts, about 25 cars could enter Colombia on just one trocha every day.
The same sources (who requested to remain anonymous for security reasons) have stated that at least half the trochas are used to smuggle gasoline, which adds up to potentially 2,500 cars headed for Maicao every day carrying an average of 47 gallons of fuel per car. That means approximately 117,500 gallons (434,750 liters) of gasoline could be entering the city on any given day.
The Contraband Cartel uses two main strategies to move its illegal product. It depends on cooperatives to legalize the contraband gasoline, a process locally referred to in Spanish as “lavar,” playing off the Spanish term for money laundering. They then sell each gallon at the retail price in La Guajira (currently around $2.07). The criminal group also sends gasoline-laden cars to a town in the same department called Cuestecitas, which is located in the neighboring municipality of Albania and has an enormous market for illegal gasoline sales.
The Legacy of the Old “Business”
But these strategies are not new; they were copied from the criminal organizations that had already run the region’s smuggling before: the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) and the criminal network headed by Kiko Gómez and Marquitos Figueroa, the latter of whom is a powerful criminal with ties to smuggling and drug trafficking in Venezuela.
In 1999 one of the AUC’s most important commanders, Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, alias “Jorge 40,” took over Maicao and seized control of all the contraband moving through its municipal borders. The paramilitary group turned criminal band controlled La Guajira until 2006, when it demobilized. As InSight Crime reported, Jorge 40 used a cooperative known as Ayatawacoop to launder his contraband gasoline. Because the co-op had legal permission to trade gasoline, it could sell the product to multiple filling stations throughout Maicao.
When the AUC demobilized in 2006, Gómez and Marquitos essentially continued with the same activities. But they did not use the cooperative just to launder their illicit gasoline, they also ran their own gas stations in the tiny border town of La Paz, in Cesar department, expanding their control of the contraband business until 2014.
The duo managed to move convoys of up to 150 cars from Maicao to La Paz. The massive lines of cars were known as “caravans of death” due to the inherent riskiness of the business they represented.
InSight Crime Analysis
Currently, the Contraband Cartel is capable of laundering a daily haul of 117,500 gallons for a profit of approximately $243,000 per day, which would yield the smuggling outfit more than $7 million in just one month. And the further out it can move the gasoline, the more money it can make. Any product that makes it to Santa Marta, the capital city of Magdalena department, further down on the Caribbean coast, would sell for $3.07, which would make the criminal group $360,000 in a single day for an $11 million payout in a month.
Even within Venezuela, the value of gasoline grows exponentially the further it gets from its source. At gas stations owned by Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PdVSA) in Maracaibo, a gallon of gasoline costs $0.00055. When it reaches Paraguaipoa, a town on the Venezuelan side of the La Guajira peninsula, the price of a gallon jumps to $0.40, more than 700 times its value in Maracaibo. And after crossing the border into Colombia, it ranges between $0.80 and $3.07.
Once the smuggled gasoline reaches the Colombia-Venezuela border, the Contraband Cartel takes control, but often in partnership with former allies of Gómez and Marquitos, or even the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN). The group also relies on criminal gangs that formed after larger organizations like the Curicheros or the AUC disbanded. They protect the storage areas and handle security for the routes from Maicao to Albania and La Guajira’s capital city of Riohacha, authorities in the region revealed to InSight Crime.
The Venezuelan government has attempted to take measures to combat the smuggling, but with disappointing results. In 2016 it implemented an electronic system to regulate the amount of gasoline each car can carry, but the military-controlled illegal structures that dominate the country managed to evade the monitoring, according to a report by Cali’s El País. More recently, President Nicolás Maduro announced an adjustment to the price of gasoline to the international standard specifically to put an end to the contraband mafias.
Meanwhile, the Colombian government remains so absorbed in its now decades-long drug trafficking battle that it seems to be ignoring smuggling activities almost completely, allowing them to continue flooding the desert of La Guajira with illegal Venezuelan gasoline.