‘Colombia Customs Official Got Rich Off Contraband’

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A former top official for Colombia’s customs agency reportedly increased his wealth exponentially by collaborating with smugglers, allegations that, if true, illustrate how the corruption fueling Colombia’s contraband boom extends far beyond the lower ranks of enforcement. 

Humberto Angulo Montero, the former tax and customs head for two of Colombia’s most important port cities — Cartagena, on the Caribbean, and Buenaventura on the Pacific side — was arrested earlier this month on illicit enrichment charges. 

Prosecutors said his assets inexplicably increased by 580 percent between 2003 and 2009.

The investigation into Angulo began in 2007, after a transparency watchdog notified prosecutors that he was allegedly creating a “hotbed of corruption for contraband textiles and liquor,” reported El Espectador.

According to the accusations, while running the customs offices in Buenaventura and Cartegena, Angulo would help his collaborators underreport shipments of shoes, textiles, alcohol, and cigarettes by as much as 50 percent.  

Angulo denies the charges, claiming the increase in his assets can be explained by the fact that he received an additional salary as a former Navy capitan, reported El Espectador. 

InSight Crime Analysis

Contraband smuggling is a hugely lucrative criminal activity in Colombia, especially along its eastern border where it is fueled by price controls in Venezuela. According to authorities, there is increasing overlap between established organized crime groups and the contraband trade, especially when it comes to money laundering. 

While some types of smuggling are more blatant — especially on land, where convoys of vehicles dash across clandestine border crossings — the bulk of the trade involves complicit officials who underreport how many goods are entering or exiting the country, as embodied by Angulo’s case. 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Contraband

This method of smuggling is known as “technical contraband,” and involves using forged or altered documents to move goods through legal channels in ports and airports (such as those highlighted in the map below) before diverting them into the black market. According to the Colombia’s tax and customs agency, the DIAN, this accounts for approximately 76 percent of the contraband trade.

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Enforcement agencies have freely admitted to InSight Crime that the boom in contraband smuggling has been facilitated by official corruption. Angulo’s case, while ongoing, may yet prove to be an important precedent in pursuing the upper echelons of those complicit in Colombia’s contraband trade. 

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