Colombia-Venezuela Crisis Shows Human Cost of Illegal Economy Crackdown

The near complete closure of the Colombia-Venezuela border could spell disaster for communities reliant on the black market economy of smuggling, despite the efforts of the Colombian government to launch alternative employment programs.

Weeks after closing border crossings in Tachira state, Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro has extended the closure north to the nation’s most populous state, Zulia. 

The declared aim is to choke off the smuggling of subsidized fuel and other goods from Venezuela into Colombia, which will likely impact Colombians who live off contraband fuel sales, known as pimpineros, as well as a cross-border indigenous community, the Wayuu. 

Colombia is preparing to carry out a census to identify affected pimpinero families and offer them financing to set up alternative legal businesses, reported El Espectador.

“There’s between 4,000 and 6,000 families that live off this business, which means it’s important to offer them alternatives to this activity, which they’ve been pursuing for years,” Colombia’s Commerce, Industry and Tourism Minister Cecilia Alvarez-Correa told media. 

Meanwhile Wayuu indigenous leaders quickly denounced the recent closure. Hundreds of thousand of Wayuu live on both sides of the border, which they don’t recognize, and are involved in smuggling, which they don’t consider illegal.  

Venezuela’s government reportedly said it would respect the Wayuu’s nomadic ways, while simultaneously deploying an additional 3,000 troops in Zulia. 

InSight Crime Analysis

Although Colombia and Venezuela’s latest border crisis may have more to do with politics than tackling smuggling, cutting off the trade so abruptly could have unintended consequences. While there are powerful mafias and armed groups that run, regulate and profit from much of the smuggling trade, especially of contraband fuel, there are also thousands of ordinary people who view it as little more than the only work going. 

“People don’t see contraband as a crime, they see it as a way of life, a way of getting by,” a customs police (POLFA) chief in the border region told InSight Crime before the crisis began. 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Contraband

This dependence on smuggling also means local communities are prepared to fight back against efforts to police them. Past attempts to arrest or curtail pimpineros in Colombia have often been met with protests and riots. Meanwhile shootouts have occurred when Venezuelan authorities have attempted to police Wayuu smuggling operations. 

Aside from adding more potential violence to an already tense situation, immediately cutting off smuggling will create tens of thousands of unemployed people at a time when shelters and relief organizations are already struggling to deal with the nearly 15,000 people affected by the border closure and subsequent expulsion of many Colombians from Venezuela.