Colombian officials in cities along the Venezuela border have reported huge drops in contraband smuggling after six months of closed border crossings, but on the ground, smuggling networks appear to be evolving rather than disappearing.
Law enforcement officials from the Colombian border city of Cúcuta told El Tiempo that since the border with Venezuela was closed in August 2015, there has been a significant drop in contraband smuggling, including a 90 percent decrease in gasoline trafficking. In addition, police noted a considerable drop in crimes such as armed robbery and homicides, which they claimed was due to the inability of Venezuelan criminals to enter Colombia.
However, Cúcuta’s secretary of citizen security, Mauricio Franco, said that common crime — including cell phone and motorcycle robbery and drug sales — has increased. According to Franco this is because the border closure has left many Cúcuta residents who worked in the contraband trade without income, and common crime has provided an alternative.
Further to the south, in the city of Arauca, local authorities claim the closure of the José Antonio Páez Bridge, has resulted in an 85 percent decrease in crimes like extortion, contraband, cattle rustling and attacks against security forces, reports El Tiempo.
As a result, the governor of Arauca department, Ricardo Alvarado Bestene, asked the government to order the indefinite closure of the border. However, his proposal was criticized by the local chamber of commerce, which called for a gradual reopening of the border and restoration of commercial relations.
InSight Crime Analysis
The Colombia-Venezuela border closures began after a shootout that left three Venezuelan soldiers and one civilian dead. Since then, the two nations have been engaged in a political battle regarding who is to blame for contraband trafficking along with border, which has exploded in recent years as a result of Venezuelan subsidies on staple goods and the huge differences between official and black market exchange rates and is exploited by Colombian criminal and insurgent groups.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Contraband
There is little doubt the border closures had an immediate effect on the contraband trade, especially on what officials call “smurfing” — individuals making multiple trips carrying small quantities of goods. However, InSight Crime’s recent field research in Cúcuta and the surrounding area uncovered evidence that the criminal operations and armed groups involved in the trade have rapidly responded to the changing conditions and it is only these low level smugglers that are likely to suffer long term effects.
Larger, more sophisticated smuggling networks have simply increased their use of the countless clandestine smuggling trails located away from the main crossings. This migration to the trails drives contraband smugglers closer to Colombia’s armed groups; in and around the urban centers, smugglers using these trails are “taxed” by the criminal-paramilitary hybrid groups known as the BACRIM (from the Spanish for Criminal Bands), while in rural areas leftist guerrilla groups charge for the right to cross the border.