Video Shows Colombia Police Take on Contraband with Tear Gas

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Police footage shows how Colombian police confront contraband runners along the Caribbean coast, from chasing down speeding trucks loaded with gasoline to shooting tears gas at the drivers. 

The smuggling of contraband gasoline from Venezuela to Colombia has evolved into a sophisticated and highly lucrative criminal economy worth billions of dollars – and everyone wants their cut: corrupt security forces, leftist guerrillas, narco-paramilitaries and contraband cartels.

The smuggling operates on several levels, from individuals packing their cars with jerrycans to organized criminal groups managing convoys of tankers loaded with thousands of gallons of gasoline.

As the video below shows, smugglers along one contraband route in the Caribbean state of La Guajira will frequently travel in convoys dubbed “caravans of death.” These flotillas of tankers, trucks and cars earned this nickname by hurtling through the countryside at reckless speeds, stopping only when they arrive at their destination — or when they crash, as shown in the police footage obtained by InSight Crime. These “caravans of death” are often accompanied by armed escorts, who open fire on the security forces to try and throw them off the chase.

Police rely heavily on tear gas to try and bring smugglers to a halt, often by firing directly at or into their vehicles, as the video depicts. They also use tear gas liberally to disperse crowds of protesters, who often gather if the police manage to detain the trucks loaded with contraband gasoline. Smugglers frequently mobilize local communities that are dependent on smuggling for their livelihoods. The locals descend on the scene and try to prevent seizures by blocking vehicles or even fighting with the police.

Colombia’s Contraband Trail

The first step of the smugglers’ journey is to cross the Venezuelan border using one of the estimated 170 clandestine dirt track crossings that run through the La Guajira desert. To do so, the smugglers must either avoid or pay off the Venezuelan National Guard (GNB).

The GNB prowl the area hunting smugglers, and InSight Crime heard from numerous sources that if they are not bought off, they will seize and torch smugglers’ vehicles.

The border region on both the Colombian and Venezuelan sides is a stronghold of guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), as shown in the map below. Anyone moving contraband through the territory also has to pay the insurgents’ import “taxes.” Those that fail to pay tribute to the rebels risk being kidnapped and even murdered.

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Once in Colombia, some smugglers head to the town of Maicao, where they can unload in storage yards. The yards operate openly, as the police know that any raids will result in violent protests. When the police arrive, the yard operators rally smugglers, gasoline vendors, and anyone else that relies on contraband gasoline for a living, who erect burning barricades and hurl missiles at the police to try and prevent seizures.

The storage of hundreds of barrels of gasoline in sites with little oversight or care for safety precautions is a major fire risk, and blazes are a common occurrence.

Territory in Maicao is divided up between FARC militias and criminal gang the Urabeños. Smugglers, vendors, and managers of the storage yards all have to pay the “taxes” of one group or the other.

From Maicao, some smugglers then head deeper into Urabeños territory by taking the westward road along the Caribbean coast, where the gasoline can be sold on in cities such as Santa Marta and Barranquilla.

However, the most popular route for gasoline smugglers is to cross the border in the sparsely populated region below Maicao, then head south towards the state of Cesar and into the domain of the recently captured contraband kingpin Marcos de Jesus Figueroa, alias “Marquitos.” It is along this road where the convoys dubbed “caravans of death” most commonly pass.

The convoys are usually organized by Marquitos’ organization or other criminal groups dedicated to the contraband trade. However, anyone who moves or sells contraband gasoline along this route — whether they are associated with organized crime groups or not — must pay Marquitos a toll.

At the end of the road lies La Paz, a town in the state of Cesar that acts as the region’s hub of sales and distribution. According to the town mayor, 80 percent of La Paz residents live off the contraband gasoline trade. But as along much of the smuggling trail, while contraband gas brings easy money, it also brings organized crime and violence. La Paz has witnessed violent confrontations involving Marquitos’ gang, and there have been warnings that the Urabeños are beginning to move into the area.

This article is the third part in a four-part series looking at contraband in Colombia. Read part one, a report from Colombia-Venezuela border town Cucuta, a major smuggling hub; part two, on how contraband politics took over northeast Colombia, and part four, which traces how contraband became Colombian organized crime’s tool of choice for laundering money.

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