An investigative report by Semana magazine illustrates how contraband medication networks operate in Colombia and Venezuela by taking advantage of differences between healthcare systems, government regulations and pharmaceutical prices in both countries.
According to Semana, the contraband trade for counterfeit medications between Venezuela and Colombia — which includes expired, falsely labeled and falsified drugs — is a multi-million dollar business. The trade goes both ways, with authentic medications typically smuggled from Venezuela into Colombia, and falsified medications often moving in the other direction.
Venezuela’s Chamber of Medications (Caveme) estimates that ten percent of the country’s pharmaceutical drugs are falsified. According to Semana, the figure is believed to be similar in Colombia, which has ranked fourth in the world for falsified medications since 2005. So far this year, Semana says Colombia’s customs agency (DIAN) and police have confiscated 390,000 units of medication worth an estimated $6.2 million.
Semana reports that one of the ways in which contraband medical suppliers operate is by hiring Venezuelan doctors to write prescriptions for healthy patients, who then obtain medications from Venezuela’s state-run pharmacies and pass them on to criminal groups. Venezuela’s investigative police (CICCP) also believe the trade operates with the complicity of corrupt Venezuelan health officials.
Any medications obtained by criminal groups, whether in Venezuela or Colombia, are typically repackaged with new expiration dates and official labels and stickers, which, if necessary, also make them appear to have been legally imported.
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As demonstrated by Semana’s report, contraband medication networks are facilitated by differences in the health care systems of both countries. In Venezuela, the government controls the prices of medications, which have largely been frozen since 2003. This has put Venezuela’s government $4 billion in debt to the pharmaceutical industry — according to the president of Venezuela’s pharmaceutical federation — and resulted in a shortage of medicines. More than 20 high-cost pharmaceutical drugs are reportedly no longer available in Venezuela’s state-run pharmacies.
For its part, Colombia’s government subsidizes some high-cost medications, but the health care system is largely privatized. The country does not suffer from a scarcity of medications, but prices are higher than in neighboring Venezuela.
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In addition to these differences, the trade is also likely facilitated by the existence of well-trodden contraband routes between the two countries that feed a thriving black market that includes gasoline, food, and cigarettes.
As a result of these factors, contraband medication has become a lucrative criminal enterprise with serious health repercussions. In 2012 and the first half of 2013, Colombian authorities told Caracol that they had seized around five million units of counterfeit medication, which can reportedly be sold with profit margins of up to 1,000 percent. Worldwide, according to international police body Interpol, one million people die each year as a result of consuming counterfeit drugs.