crime without borders
A team of journalist from El País traveled for two weeks on the trails, rivers and through the deserts of the Colombian-Venezuelan border to document how the current largest smuggling operation in Latin America is being carried out. During this journey they obtained the first ever documented evidence about the coordination between Colombian guerrillas, criminal gangs and the Bolivian National Guard of Venezuela. This is the story of a trip to the border of everybody and nobody.
The only time we encounter the presence of the state is when members of the Bolivarian National Guard appear to bribe us. Moreover, it is the different Colombian illegal armed groups that exercise control not only on the border, but also in large areas of Venezuelan territory.
That is why this two-week trip, a journey of 1,790 kilometers from Táchira state, crossing Zulia, to the high Venezuelan Guajira, was interrupted. First, by ELN men, who after the FARC disarmament became the oldest guerrilla in Latin America, heavily armed and controlling the river located at the south of Lake Maracaibo in the state of Zulia.
Then came the extortion of men who claimed to belong to Colombian criminal gangs escorted by the Bolivarian National Armed Forces. Forced to pay 'toll' to walk the illegal trails or roads dominated by dissidents of the EPL guerrilla and 'vaccinated' almost at every checkpoint of the National Guard.
Exclusive images will reveal throughout this special report how the Colombian illegal groups act in association with the Venezuelan military in a territory where sovereignty is exercised by the organizations dedicated to extortion, smuggling and drug trafficking.
The journey starts in the municipality of Puerto Santander, 64 kilometers north of Cúcuta. We've only been on the borderline for a few hours and suddenly we are standing in front of what looks like a giant relocation. Entire families, in the face of the political, social and economic crisis, cross with their suitcases and supplies to Colombia willing to stay while smugglers enter by rivers and trails with everything they can take out of Venezuela.
In the last six years, 350,000 Venezuelans have crossed over to Colombia to stay
An activity that has generated border tension in the last few weeks has been the Venezuelan military’s use of tear gas as well as firing at and stripping several people of their belongings. Another example is the incursion of a helicopter in Paraguachón, that the Government in Caracas has claimed is a provocation strategy of the Colombian government.
From the municipality of Northern Santander the prevailing feeling is that the border traffic is dismantling the country from within. Not only do food and fuel come in but also railroad tracks, scrap metal, electrical installations, copper, road signs, livestock, advertisements, car parts, heavy machinery, antiques and other goods are among the list of products seized by the Colombian authorities.
The figures are eloquent. In the last six years, the National Tax and Customs Division of Colombia (DIAN) has seized items worth more than $291,340 million pesos at the border with Venezuela, about 100 million dollars.
However, Vladimir, a sun-tanned Venezuelan with more than 10 years of experience smuggling fuel and meat to Cúcuta, says, "what the Colombian authorities seize is not even 2% of what comes out of Venezuela."
The smuggling has intensified in recent years as a result of price controls set by the Venezuelan government for basic food. Ridiculous prices for various goods, such as gasoline, massively encourage the passage of food and medicine to Colombia, received by mafias, who cheat the local customs agents and charge between 10 and 15 times more.
Colombian authorities estimate that every day smugglers illegally pass 16 tons of food and about three million dollars in fuel across the border. As a result, the guerrillas and criminal gangs have found a border business equal to or more lucrative than drug trafficking.
This is to say that 1,125,000 gallons of gasoline pass through an estimated 192 trails that exist at the border. It is as if every day, from Venezuela, enters a total of 112 tank cars with a capacity of 10,000 gallons of gasoline, like the ones owned by the PDVSA.
A tank car with a capacity of 10,000 liters of gasoline (2,650 gallons) costs 10,000 Bolivars in Venezuela, equal to less than $2.
By the end of the afternoon the roads of Táchira and Zulia become the scene of an unusual dance of lights. The luminous spectacle is produced by hundreds of motorcycles known as the ¨moscas¨, which are in charge of guiding the tank trucks of the state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) and other trucks driving the trails to illegally sell gasoline and price controlled basic products.
While in Caracas, in the name of sovereignty, the National Guard has repressed with excessive force, to the point of being accused of several homicides of students and young people who protested against the government of Nicholas Maduro. In the frontier states, officials of the military act like another criminal group, according to El País, extorting and in close relationship with guerrillas and criminal gangs, such as Los Rastrojos, Los Pelusos and El Clan del Golfo. The aforementioned gangs fight a war amongst themselves for territorial control of the states of Táchira, Apure and Zulia, as well as the uncontrolled areas left by the FARC after their demobilization.
This was the journey made by El País, in alliance with the Latin American platform for journalism CONNECTAS and with the support of the International Center For Journalists (ICFJ), in the boundaries of a territory where illegality prevails.
The 'sovereignty' of the ELN
Presidents Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro have not entirely lied when they assured their Colombian counterpart, Juan Manuel Santos, that the ELN is not hiding on the Venezuelan border. More than hiding, this organization, with 54 years in the armed conflict, remains several kilometers inside the dividing line and exercises territorial control with uniforms and weapons on Bolivarian soil.
El País found them a couple of hours inside the Zulia state, supplanting the Bolivarian National Navy in their role of monitoring and controlling the rivers.
Positioned with semi-automatic weapons and long-range rifles, as we confirmed, they have set up command posts on the Tarra River, one of the tributaries most commonly used for food and gasoline trafficking, and whose waters flow south of Lake Maracaibo.
In this area we traveled by boat, trying to record the illegal activity, when we were forced to leave the river. We were held for 20 minutes in one of their camps, very close to the checkpoints of the Bolivarian National Guard, which seem to function more like security rings of the ELN.
Venezuelan journalist Sebastiana Barráez, who has been closely following the phenomenon of border crime in recent years, says that it is not strange to see guerrillas and paramilitaries deep inside Venezuelan territory "because their presence has already been detected in states such as Barinas and Guárico, which are not frontier states, but these groups have been penetrating territory, trying to get away from those who rule over in the borderline.”
"The Bolivarian National Guard is the military component in charge of the border and they have a type of coexistence deal with the FARC and ELN guerrillas, as well as with Los Rastrojos, Los Urabeños and Los Pelusos. Although there is a greater relationship between the military and paramilitary groups who control the fuel and food smuggling at the border", Barráez said.
Los Pelusos displaced to blood and fire to the Rastrojos of the sector of Llano Jorge, in San Antonio del Táchira
Rocío San Miguel, director of the Venezuelan NGO Control Ciudadano, adds that this level of corruption and cohabitation has been reached with these groups because "the same State acts as a cartel."
"It is a structure in which facilitates, by a state route, the trafficking of drugs, gasoline, food and minerals are shared by three-armed corps: the Bolivarian National Armed Forces, the guerrillas and the paramilitaries," said San Miguel.
The government of President Nicolás Maduro blamed this gigantic smuggling ring to be the cause of the shortage in Venezuela and paired with the problems of insecurity led to the closure of the border with Colombia in August 2015.
That decision, according to Jose Roberto Concha, director of the Foreign Trade Office of the Icesi University of Cali, was nothing more than a desperate measure. "The problem of shortages in Venezuela is simply economic mismanagement."
Much of the profit from the fuel that passes through the departments of the north of Santander, Cesar and La Guajira is taken by the ELN guerrilla, who would operate on the border with a structure of about one thousand men.
Since the Maduro government ordered the closure of the border, and until the end of June, the Colombian Customs Department (DIAN), seized contraband and gasoline during illegal crossings controlled by criminal gangs and ELN valued at more than 87.000 million pesos. About 30 million dollars.
The final destinations of these products were the cities of Cúcuta, Valledupar, Maicao and Riohacha, according to official information.
For the ELN guerrillas, this territory between Colombia and Venezuela, where the Catatumbo region is situated, is one of much interest. Here operates 66% of its structures in all Colombia, including the Northeast, East and Magdalena Medio.
"The Catatumbo is a very complex area; The ELN and a dissident group from the EPL have a presence there. They specialize in drug trafficking, extort smugglers and oil theft from the Caño Limón Coveñas oil pipeline, from which they extract a product they call 'Pategrillo', serving as an input for the drug trafficking and to be sold as fuel for motor vehicles", General Gustavo Moreno, commander of the North of Santander Police, told El Pais.
The ELN and Los Pelusos share territories and drug trafficking businesses in Catatumbo
But the work of the ELN is not limited to drug trafficking in the Catatumbo region. This guerrilla group also exercises control of the Venezuelan side in the Perijá Mountains, near municipalities such as Machiques, in Zulia state, where small marijuana, coca and poppy crops have been located, as well as laboratories for drug processing.
But when the borders were closed, the communications circuit between the Armed Forces of both countries was cut off, and without that binational cooperation, guerrilla and criminal gangs have been acting on the Venezuelan side without pressure, according to military sources in Colombia.
Meanwhile, the Venezuelan Ministry of Defense has denied such alleged permissiveness with these groups and although El País tried insistently to get a comment or an official statement on its part, it was not possible.
‘Welcome to Venezuela’
The border at the junction of the International Bridge La Unión, which connects Puerto Santander with the Venezuelan town of Boca de Grita, is a hive that is controlled by the criminal gang Los Rastrojos, according to Military Intelligence in Colombia. The wads of money in bolivars are transported in boxes and briefcases, in light of the declining value of the currency. Just when the big cities are in crisis due to lack of cash, trade is crammed with everything that is scarce in Venezuela and thousands of people arrive every day ready to do many things cornered by hunger.
Since the closure of the border, according to the Anti-Narcotics Police, 49 Venezuelans have been captured in Colombia trying to get their drug to the United States and Europe, many women have ended up in Colombian prostitution rings, others in informal jobs, and women arrive at the border line to sell goods and their hair.
On the international bridge, two Venezuelan women try to convince a Colombian to pay them more than the 70,000 pesos that she was willing to pay for their hair. But because of the crisis in Venezuela the supply has been increasing and that has lowered the price. The money they receive, at exchange rate, is 175,000 bolivars, equivalent to five months minimum wage, which was established two months ago.
Without hair, but with rice, diapers and flour, one of them returns to Venezuelan soil. We try to get closer to talk to her, but at the end of the bridge a man approaches her, three members of the Bolivarian National Guard surround her and after a dialogue of a couple of minutes she gives some of her money to them before going into Venezuela. We presume that it is extortion.
Our turn comes. We bring food with us. A soldier of the Venezuelan Guard asks how much we pay for food in Colombia and alerts a sergeant that we do not have a receipt. With a gesture, a Venezuelan noncommissioned officer gives control of the situation to a man dressed as civilian with a Colombian accent sitting among them. Those who visit the border constantly claim that they are part of a criminal gang.
Intelligence information from the Colombian authorities indicates that on the border and on Venezuelan soil operates the Clan del Golfo, a criminal gang formed by paramilitaries who remained at the service of drug trafficking and of Don Mario, present in the Venezuelan area of El Guarumito, between Colón and La Fria, in Táchira state.
Likewise, another group that acts closer to the Bolivarian National Guard is the criminal band of Los Rastrojos, whose main chief Wílber Varela, alias Jabón, was assassinated in Mérida state and Diego Rastrojo, the second in command, was captured in Barinas. This band is present in Puerto Santander and on the Venezuelan side in Boca de Grita, Garcia de Hevia and Orope.
Los Rastrojos exert control of territories in Venezuela since 2002
In fact, was in Orope, the second legal stop on the way to the interior of the country, but illegal in its proceeding. This time the Bolivarian Police orders us to open the trunk of the car and in a low voice asks the driver a fee to let him continue without checking the vehicle.
He proceeds with the purpose of showing us how the law works in Tachira; the money must be delivered to a civilian man who hides it in a bag hanging behind a tree. That scene is repeated hundreds of times a day and many more during this series.
Conscious that we will enter no man's land and that the only protection we will have will be the divine, the guide recommends us to remember, to reduce risks, that in El Guayabo, Encontrados and Santa Barbara (Zulia) criminal gangs have the control; while in Casigua-El Cubo and El Cruce, are the ELN guerrillas and Los Pelusos, a denomination that has been given to dissidents of the Ejército Popular de Liberación (EPL).
On one side and the other of the road the facts can explain much of the shortage. The grass has hidden what before were palm and banana crops and the productive enterprises remain abandoned. There is no one who cultivates the land anymore.
"No one is going to work on a farm for 30,000 bolivars a month when you can earn the same amount in a day selling gasoline or lining up to buy regulated products and then sell them to smugglers," argues the guide, referring to the so-called bachaqueo, that consists of buying large quantities of subsidized products and selling them in Colombia.
While inflation in Colombia in 2016 was 5.7%, in Venezuela it was 550%
The salary for a Venezuelan has fallen 88 percent since 2012. At the time minimum wage was $295 dollars, in June 2017 it was barely $36 dollars, according to a Harvard University study. Representing a tragedy for Venezuelan families.
Many of these new impoverished families have been tempted to become part of the smuggling structure, including the family of the guide who accompanies us, a thin man impregnated with nicotine, who tells us that occasionally, him along with his wife and children get into the line several times to buy subsidized products in considerable quantity and sell them in Colombia.
The trails or illegal paths are a tangle of narrow and dusty roads that leads to different parts of the side of the river at the border and on them disappear daily dozens of trucks that mock the order to close the border.
General Antonio Beltrán, commander of Brigade 30 of the Colombian Army, explained to El País that "We have been developing joint tasks with the National Police and intervening in these trails. Last year we intervened in 17 trails and so far, this year we have intervened in 29; in total and thanks to the services of Intelligence we have at this moment more than 55 georeferenced trails", in the North of Santander, of the about 200 that exist along the border.
The Men of Megateo
El País toured the trail known as the 'Pika del Dos', an illegal crossing point controlled by Los Pelusos, a dissident group of the EPL guerrilla who demobilized in Colombia in the 1990s, commanded by a man with the alias 'Megateo' until the day of his death in October of 2015. This criminal gang acts on the border in close alliance with the ELN guerrillas, according to the Colombian Army.
This illegal crossing reached the municipality of Tibú, North of Santander, from the Machiques´ road, in Zulia state. Tibú is located near where the ELN kidnapped two Dutch journalists in mid-June and a few months ago the Spanish journalist Salud Hernández.
Curiously, the first thing that we found a kilometer inside the illegal crossing point is a National Guard checkpoint and forty minutes further appears an area with a pass controlled by alleged guerrillas.
Around this route we can see along the road several trucks with construction materials that are also scarce in Venezuela and trucks transporting meat or livestock for the Colombian market, which costs up to three times more than what is earned per kilogram in Venezuela.
A phenomenon that not only affects local commerce in Colombia, but also caused an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, according to Agriculture Minister Aurelio Iragorri, when the country was already declared free of the disease since 2009. Only between January and July of this year, the Ministry registered the confiscation of 1,143 head of cattle and 130,340 kilos of meat brought illegally from Venezuela.
The contraband meat that enters Cúcuta is made through tingling; many people with small amounts.
In Cúcuta, according to the Ministry of Finance, 193 head of cattle are consumed daily, but only 120 are sacrificed. It means, that the remaining 73, or even much more, enter illegally from Venezuela, where a kilogram has an average cost of 6,000 pesos, against the 18,000 pesos that are paid on the Colombian side.
But even though the 'Pika del Dos' is considered an illegal trail, it is the most active way to go from one country to the other by vehicle, even though legal binational crossing points are closed. Through this trail, the Colombian authorities confirm, they smuggle in addition to gasoline and food; arms, drugs and even kidnapped people.
Seizures by economic sectors on the border with VenezuelaView infographic
With the GNB stamp
El País toured the trail known as the 'Pika del Dos', an illegal crossing controlled by Los Pelusos, a dissident group of the EPL guerrilla who demobilized in Colombia in the 1990s, commanded by a man alias 'Megateo' until the day of his death in October 2015. This criminal gang acts on the border in close alliance with the ELN guerrillas, according to the Colombian Army.
The route continues through the high Venezuelan Guajira where the smuggling and fuel business no longer belongs to big bands but to individuals who, under the modality of an anthill, liter by liter, take enormous amounts of gasoline towards Maicao (La Guajira) and el Cesar.
The clock strikes 3:00 in the morning and we start the tour in a caravan of smugglers to the city of Paraguaipoa, where gasoline reaches the highest price in this area of Venezuela before going to Colombia: 14,000 bolivars for a container of 23 liters. About two dollars.
Before crossing the bridge over Lake Maracaibo, we should find a service station where you can fill the tank without the required chip. That is an electronic device, implemented by the Maduro government to avoid smuggling, controlling the gasoline that each person consumes.
Locating that unlimited fuel-loading site ensures that the Ford Bronco vans or Caprice Classic vehicles will come out with their maximum capacity or even more, because most have inflated tanks with compressors to expand their size.
"What is usually done is to blow the tank with a hot air compressor and when it inflates it reaches its maximum capacity allowing you to put up to 20 liters more," explains one of the drivers with whom we made the route to the upper Venezuelan Guajira.
In each of the checkpoints the members of the National Guard are accompanied by civilian men, whom the smugglers call paramilitaries. They are in charge of receiving the money of the quota that is to pay for the vehicles that they know are transporting gasoline to sell.
According to a database build by El País with about 500 cases of police and military personnel involved in various crimes throughout Venezuela, the Bolivarian National Guard is the most corrupt branch, based on press releases from the Attorney General's Office. Of the 500 uniformed men arrested, 180 belong to the GNB; 36% of the cases.
Of these 500 cases analyzed, 462 were documented in the last five years; that is to say, 92% of them. Also, 2016 was the year in which the corruption in the chavistas´ troops overflowed, shortly after the closing of the border, when 313 members of the Armed Force, Police, Technical Investigation Body (CICPC) and the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN) were captured in adherence to various crimes.
The biggest cases of corruption in the uniformed are in Táchira, Zulia and Caracas
Most of these cases involve detentions in border states with Colombia and criminal alliances with drug traffickers and groups dedicated to the smuggling of gasoline, meat, food, construction materials and theft of small planes and medicines.
"I have no doubt that this is happening and I believe that this is what the government bases on, the demoralization of troops and the surrender of sovereignty because if we go to the financial issue and the monumental looting, you realize that then you need a conflict to cover what is happening", said the retired general of the Clíver Alcalá Army, one of the high military commanders of Chavismo, who distanced himself from the decisions of Nicolás Maduro regretting that crime in all its forms has permeated into the troops along the border.
In Paraguipoa we abandoned the caravan of fuel smugglers after their hydrocarbons sales and we headed towards Colombia in the old jeeps that are packed with products of all kinds to sell in the departments of the north coast.
Unlike the interior of the country, in the upper Guajira Venezuelan smugglers have the freedom to choose the person who will extort them: the Bolivarian National Guard on the roads or the indigenous Guajiros who charge for use of the dusty trails in their territories.
"For the trails of the Guajiros you swallow dust, but a good amount of money is saved because the natives are satisfied with 300 or 500 bolivars, for the Guardia, as you saw, 3,500 or 4,000 bolivars is very little", says the old man born in Maracaibo who accompanies us on this journey.
Of these 500 cases analyzed, 462 were documented in the last five years; that is to say, 92% of them. Also, 2016 was the year in which the corruption in the chavistas´ troops overflowed, shortly after the closing of the border, when 313 members of the Armed Force, Police, Technical Investigation Body (CICPC) and the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN) were captured in adherence to various crimes.
Enabling trails in the upper Guajira of Venezuela is one of the main means of sustenance for the indigenous Wayú
Minutes later, another guard from the National Guard appears on the road and without stopping the vehicle, the uniformed man asks the helper of the campero "How much have you collected?". The money, in the guard´s point of view, is not enough and threatens to requisition everyone; in the midst of despair, the travelers contribute more to increase the stash.
The car is full, so you can appreciate, fruits, meat, clothes, shoes and toys; people joke with the fate they are living.
"At this rate, in Venezuela there won´t be any birds left," says a smuggler with knowledge of the facts and who is sitting at our side on the roof of the campero (a 4x4 type vehicle). Under the wooden box on which he is sitting he has 80 canaries for sale that he has already closed in advance in the city of Barranquilla.
Data from Immigration Colombia shows that in the last six years, 350,000 Venezuelans have arrived to stay in Colombia in the face of the political, social and economic crisis in their country.
"At the pace we are going, the last one leaving Venezuela will have to turn off the light and nail a sign in Paraguachón saying: 'This country is for rent' because there is nothing left," he says.
Almost two hours after starting the boat trip along the Tarra River in southern Zulia state, we recorded what some know, others presume, and presidents Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro have for years denied: the territorial control of dozens of kilometers in Venezuela exercised by the Colombian guerrilla of the ELN.
After the demobilization of the FARC, the ELN became the oldest illegal organization in Colombia and Latin America, with 54 years of armed actions highlighting its main economic activities are: kidnapping, smuggling and drug trafficking.
The Tarra River is a huge river corridor that connects the Colombian municipality of Tres Bocas (North of Santander) with the southern end of Lake Maracaibo, in the Venezuelan state of Zulia, and by its course locals assure that runs as much water as the transported gasoline that smugglers take into Colombia.
Due to the military pressure in Colombia, since 2000 the ELN has been settling within the Venezuelan territory
We knew from previous information that the route involved risks. Some rumors were pointing out Colombian guerrillas, but it was a remote probability because we were two hours deep in Venezuelan territory. The danger was in fact the discomfort that the presence of some unknown fishermen could cause among the bands dedicated to smuggling.
Thus, it was established in a script that we prepared the night before to face some eventuality. We are fishermen, who are carrying bait for bocachico and paletón, going towards Tres Bocas, that borders with Colombia, and that we come from El Pato, a village in the Municipality of Casigua, in Zulia, one of the states with the greatest reserves of oil in Venezuela.
With the script learned, the engine lights up before 9:00 a.m. on a day in late July, we start the journey through the Tarra. It doesn’t take long before we see the dance of the canoes that slide towards Colombia with provisions and dozens of containers of 23 liters of gasoline.
But it was impossible not to draw attention when you travel in the only empty boat through this river corridor. All we carry are fishing gear and an old cooler with the purpose of hiding from the other boatmen and our intention to register the illegal movement by the river.
Intelligence sources say that the ELN leaders have moved through the Apure and Táchira states
With a hidden recording device, we tried to shoot some images when two boats appear in front of our boat as closing off the path and then open it to force us to cross through the middle. Apparently, someone is not happy with our presence and the boat's assistant asks us not to take our phones out or take photographs.
A couple of curves further up we focus our attention on a sandbar where several men are loading a boat with more than 20 containers with capacity for 55 gallons of gasoline each and we try to get the images with our cell phone. Suddenly a whistle appeases the roar of the engine and the boat slowly laps against the ravine.
Then the voice of the boatman alerts us and, without being able to hide the phone, we faced a short man, military boots, tank top, shaved hair and clutching an M-4 rifle in his right hand. Despite the heat in this oil zone, adrenaline freezes the body and the air seizes.
We mentally reviewed the fishermen script that we prepared for a verbal duel with the smugglers or the Bolivarian National Guard, but we did not know how effective it would be to deal with a group of men armed with semi-automatic rifles, such as those carried by the most advanced armies of the world.
The sun hurts our skin, it is 37 degrees out and we have been waiting for ten minutes without knowing for what or whom we are waiting for. The boats continue down the river, greet the men on the ravine and although we wanted to go unnoticed, now we are the center of the gaze.
From the maps we reviewed previously, we know that the nearest populated center is approximately 40 minutes from where we presume to be at and only a group of journalists on both sides of the border know of our presence and they are awaiting for our signal. But now they ignore the risk we face in this no man's land. Or, better yet, in no man’s water.
At one point, we thought that it was the Bolivarian National Guard acting as civilians, because of the power of the weapons they have and because part of yesterday´s journey was carried out by land and to reach that point it was necessary to cross seven military checkpoints or roadblocks.
Suddenly the man orders us to step off the boat and climb up to his position, where he checks the only bag we carry and asks some questions. From an old house located a few meters away, completely surrounded by the forest, four other men carry AK-47, M4 and Galil rifles approach to watch with long-range binoculars the activity by the river.
The ELN company, Comandante Diego, is one of the busiest on the border of Norte de Santander
Apparently, there is a village nearby because in the distance you could see three more people and a couple of children playing barefoot with a plastic cup. On one side of the old house, which we believe serves as a camp; several gasoline containers and some provisions appear scattered.
Minutes later, licking his lips like someone who just let go a plate of food, appears a man with a beard and black hair who the armed subjects refer to as the 'commander' and that the Military Intelligence in Colombia has reported has the alias of Cristian.
With a marked Colombian accent, he can only ask for the names of each one of us and he looks at us from head to foot when his telephone rings. On the other side of the line, problems seem greater than those that can represent artisan fishermen and with a hand gesture authorizes that we follow our way.
Without the slightest clue that allowed us to know whom these armed men were on the side of the river Tarra, we descended again to the boat and we distanced ourselves from the area.
Even with the nerves sharp, 15 minutes later appear another group of armed men; this time we pass without any problem because their priority, according to the guide, is to charge the toll to the boats that go with food and gasoline to Colombia. The boatman, an old man of about 65 years of copper skin, salute, raising his hand and that gesture is enough to open that imaginary door on the river Tarra to continue without setbacks to the nearest village.
Given a few opportunities we try to know who the men are, but the boatman responds with evasiveness. Surely he knows, but we do not insist because it is clear that in places like this silence is synonymous of life.
On the sides of the river dozens of boats are parked on improvised jetties and remain full of gasoline containers waiting for the descent of the daylight and with it the caravan that is to arrive only a few meters from the border with Colombia.
After 28 kilometers of travel we arrive at Tres Bocas, a village where in every corner illegality leans; where the devaluation obliges the transportation of bills of hundred bolivars in briefcases and large bags (the government prohibited sending high denomination bills to the border sites) and contraband is the master of the place. A remote place to where not even the arm of the institutions of the Colombian State could reach.
Before returning in the afternoon, the boat's guide voluntarily tells us in a low voice that the armed men may be from a group that has arrived in the region named 'Los Pelusos', which he believes is another guerrilla group that came from Colombia to reinforce the armed struggle that the ELN holds against the "paramilitary groups" in Venezuelan territory.
The inhabitants of the states of Táchira and Zulia use the term 'paramilitary' to refer to any group other than the guerrillas. In this case they allude to the war waged by the ELN with the criminal bands Los Rastrojos and the Clan del Golfo in several Venezuelan municipalities for the control of the criminal economies.
In Tres Bocas we bought some of the fish from the fishermen that reside in the area and with the cooler full we started our return. In a friendly gesture, and hoping to know more about the armed men, we voluntarily decided to stop at the camp to leave some of the fish that we pretended to catch and then the unexpected came.
As of June 2017, 29 ELN members were seized at the border and 89 weapons and grenades were seized.
The men who provided security on this river artery came to receive the fish wearing a camouflage uniform similar to those of the Colombian Army, with red and black stripes on his left shoulder with the initials 'ELN'. Finally, our fish.
Capturing some images of the Colombian ELN guerrillas working uniformed on Venezuelan soil and with high caliber weapons; exercising territorial control, was an unprecedented opportunity for an independent media like us.
Sebastiana Barráez, an analyst and Venezuelan journalist, has closely followed the situation on the border for several years. She explained that the presence of the ELN in Casigua and Foundados is because criminal gangs have already taken the space on the border and they have to move more towards the interior of Zulia state looking for territories to control.
"The ELN guerrillas have acted very comfortably there, but we didn’t have knowledge of military-type operations. It is surprising the images taken because what we know is that they walk as civilians and the population of these sectors know who they are because they act as a kind of authority in the area," explained Barráez.
Military intelligence sources in Colombia affirm that the ELN's Special Troops Capitán Caribe operate on Venezuelan soil under the command of 'Alexis'. They operate in northern Tibu on Colombian soil, and in the municipality of José María Semprum, in the Zulia state and El Cruce.
Also, a group of special forces in charge of providing security to the leaders of the Central Command of that guerrilla group, under the authority of a man, alias Jhoany, with a strong presence in municipalities like Cacigua - El Cubo, where they sustain a confrontation with the criminal bands by the territorial control.
Lying against the border with Venezuela, the ELN guerrilla group has 60% of its troops along the states of Apure, Táchira and Zulia. On the borderline is a man who goes by the alias 'César', of the Northeastern War Front, makes his presence with men of the Luis Enrique Leon War Front.
The ELN has had close ties with the Venezuelan guerrilla group of the Bolivarian Liberation Forces
As in Colombia, in Venezuela the ELN guerrillas have also been financed by crimes such as kidnapping. In fact, earlier this year, Javier Tarazona, president of the Teachers' Association of the state of Táchira, remarked that this illegal armed group is being strengthened by the recruitment of Venezuelan children in border municipalities.
In addition, on several occasions has been reported that in the state of Táchira three stations of this guerrilla are tuned into the stations: 96.7 FM, 95.5 FM and 90.1 FM with the name of Antorcha Estéreo as well as another station of the Eastern Front. Despite the allegations, the National Commission of Telecommunications of Venezuela (Conatel) has done nothing to remove them from the air.
The retired Army Major General, Clíver Alcalá Cordones, who supported Hugo Chávez and has distanced himself from the actions of Nicolás Maduro, acknowledges in an interview with this newspaper that the guerrilla groups had a pact with the Government in Caracas since the former president's government Hugo Chavez, but regrets that this agreement has gone too far.
"In the past, I have no doubt that the Government of Venezuela had a kind of political pact with such groups, but now they are allowed to move forward and control territories. We are becoming a contradiction, losing sovereignty on the border and on the other hand asking the international community to respect our sovereignty," says General Alcalá.
Rocío San Miguel, director of the Venezuelan NGO Control Ciudadano, clarifies, for its part, that "the Bolivarian National Guard is not defending sovereignty or independence in the cities of the interior. What it is being defended is the permanence in power of a corrupt system".
Official sources say that the ELN receives medical attention in the municipality of José María Semprum, in Zulia
Additionally, Vicente Torrijos, internationalist and professor of the Universidad del Rosario in Bogota, has views contrary to the general Alcalá Cordones. Torrijos believes that all the responsibility of strengthening of the Colombian guerrilla groups in Venezuela belongs to the ex-president Hugo Chavez. "He not only opened the border and protected them from the action of the Colombian Armed Forces, but also allowed them to control illicit economies."
Barráez adds that it is undeniable that there is a coordinated work on the border between Colombian armed organizations and the Bolivarian National Guard "which at the beginning just charged the smugglers a vacuna or a toll, but now even control some illegal trails or crossing points."
Surely, this coordinated action between the military and guerrilla of the ELN will facilitate that with their consent, tonight the caravan of boats loaded with gasoline and food will leave again in the direction of Tres Bocas, in the border with Colombia, where the price of the fuel reaches up to one thousand times its initial value.
The power of the criminal
It looks like a scene from another world. Three soldiers of the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) escort a civilian man, who waits at the end of the Union International Bridge to extort those arriving with food from Colombia to the municipality of Boca de Grita, in the Táchira State.
With food shortages in Venezuela, 15,000 to 20,000 people from the states of Táchira, Mérida and Zulia arrive daily to this international crossing point in the municipality of Puerto Santander (North of Santander). Everyone is aware that in addition to their expenses, they must separate the money to pay this sort of 'starvation tax' to alleged Colombian criminal gangs.
We had tried to cross to Venezuela once, but while we were complaining about the long lines and the high temperature, we noticed that the uniformed Venezuelans separated a woman from the road. They checked her packages and before letting her continue on her way she had to pay a man of short stature, generous belly, thick necklaces that cover his neck and a backpack in which he is depositing the 'tax'.
Los Rastrojos and Clan del Golfo face confrontations in Venezuela over territorial control
Estimates by Venezuelan authorities indicate that 40 percent of the commodities under price control in the country get smuggled into Colombia and that a good part of them end up being commercialized in the municipality of Puerto Santander.
The explanation for the markets and stores that are all packed with products with the stamp of Retail Price (PVP in its Spanish acronym) registered in Bolivars and with the name and flag of 'Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela': is simple. In Colombia, they reach up to 20 and 30 times their real price.
Criminal gangs know this and therefore their actions are not limited to collect income tax to enter Venezuela. Merchants from Puerto Santander assure with a palpable fear that they are not the only ones paying extortion to these gangs, but also the smugglers, the formal and informal sellers in both countries and people engaged in currency exchange.
In order to understand what is happening, we decided to return to Puerto Santander to buy basic necessities and try to know what happens to the uniformed.
After finishing our express shopping, in the event that the military decided to stop us, we prepared everything to try to record what happens on the other side of the bridge with a hidden camera. In total, we carried four packages with flour, sugar, milk powder, rice, toiletries and a pair of motorcycle tires that our guide bought to fix his motorcycle, which has been parked for two months because of lack of tires.
As soon as the guide knew that our purpose is to capture images, he tries to persuade us not to do so and warns us that if these are our intentions he is not willing to walk near us for a matter of survival. In that case, he would cross before or after us.
"Are you crazy, boy? You think someone is going to dare to video here where the paramilitaries have everything under control. If you just take out a mobile phone, immediately you´ll have someone on your back to watch if you are recording or to read your chats. They say they control even with surveillance cameras," warns the man, referring to criminal gangs.
We decided to go through with one of the recording devices on. In front of us people walk with similar packages and we slow down because we want to know exactly what is happening and what the uniformed men talk about with the other people. While people move away, we stay on the bridge watching the boats that pass from Venezuela to Colombia with provisions, before the eyes of the world.
Colombian criminal gangs extort merchants in Táchira and Zulia states
Shortly after the road is cleared, it feels like we walk as convicts straight to the firing line. In the distance, a tall and languid soldier sees us coming and immediately stands up from his chair, while the civilian man who was with him takes away the money from a woman who proudly wears a T-shirt with the Venezuelan flags colors.
The first thing the uniformed asks is how much we paid for the products we are carrying into the country and alerts a sergeant named 'K. Martinez' that we carry provisions. The non-commissioned officer looks at us fixedly and with just a glance back gives control of the situation to the civilian man of short stature and a generous belly.
With an intimidating look, a pair of gold neckless that cover his neck and without putting away the wad of bills that the last victim has just handed him, the man asks us where we are going and what are in the packages that we are carrying. He then decides that in order to continue, we must give him two thousand bolivars for each package, while the National Guard officers stand beside us as simple notary witnesses of the extortion.
For more than two minutes we count and recount the 80 bills we will have to pay to get the required sum. At this point of the border, higher bill denominations are scarce and everything works around the one hundred bolivar bills. In the meantime, the man stands up and the guards stand at our sides like a security belt.
The guide and others who have had to pay extortions to the military post ensure that the Bolivarian National Guard acts alongside with criminal gangs. We tried to corroborate this information with the Venezuelan Ministry of Defense, but we never got a response.
With eight thousand bolivars less in the budget, we picked up the packages and are on our way; meanwhile the officers of the National Guard are retaining their next victim. Convinced that the situation had been overcome, we continued on the path but this experience with members of criminal gangs on the international stage was far from over.
Venezuela insistently links Colombian paramilitaries with an attempted coup
Intelligence information compiled by the Colombian authorities indicate that along the border and within the Venezuelan territory operates the criminal gangs of El Clan del Golfo, also known now as the clan of Los Urabeños, and the criminal band los Rastrojos.
The Clan del Golfo is a criminal organization under the command of a man by the alias 'Chulo' and according to the reports of Military Intelligence in Colombia it is composed of 104 men. Its range of action goes from Cúcuta, Villa del Rosario and Puerto Santander and extends to the Venezuelan municipality of Guarumito, between Colón and La Fría, in Táchira state.
On the bridge, the authorities say, the criminal band Los Rastrojos operates on both sides of the border and has a long trajectory of links and coexistence with the Bolivarian National Guard. The organization is in this area under the command of a man with the alias Necoclí.
This structure of 83 men, according to sources of military intelligence in Colombia, would have expanded its range of action by recruiting young Venezuelans, and have a strong presence in Puerto Santander (In the areas of Banco de Arenas and Vigilancia) and in the Venezuelan municipalities of Boca de Grita, Garcia de Hevia and Orope, the same area where we are at.
Against these criminal gangs and over the course of this year, 23 joint operations of the Colombian Army and Police have taken place, as well as the capture of 76 people related to these organizations and the seizure of 58 firearms and 11 explosive devices.
On the Venezuelan side, the figures do not exist. El País tried for three weeks to talk with the governor of Táchira, Jose Gregorio Vielma Mora, but the person in charge of communications limited himself to saying that "there is a tendentious handling of the Colombian media towards Venezuela" and that he hopes that "the images that we obtained are not only of the ELN but also of the Colombian paramilitaries, there are more than enough around this area."
"The situation of the presence of Colombian paramilitaries is concerning, they cross the border in both directions constantly smuggling gasoline, cattle, food, asking for illegal tolls (vacunando), killing for money (sicariando), participating in opposition protests, etc. I hope you have also recorded that," replied the person in charge of communications in the Táchira Government.
Extortion in two acts
A hundred meters ahead of where we have paid an extortion to criminal gangs, already in the center of Boca de Grita, Táchira, we have not noticed, but two men located next to the police headquarters await our arrival.
We are called from a plastic chair in the middle of the main street and the guide tries to explain that we have already paid for the passage of the products on the bridge to the man who is accompanied by the National Guard, but it is useless.
"If you want we will go to the bridge again so you can see that we have already paid for these packages", insists the guide in front of the men, who surprise us even more with his response. "What they paid there is for the Guard and for the SENIAT (entity that collects taxes in Venezuela), what is paid here is ours," says one of the men lying on a chair and who refuses to say to whom he refers to when he says "we".
It is an extortion in two acts and now the men demand three thousand bolivars more to pass with the bags; everyone knows that the figure is not negotiable and trying to avoid the payment is a bad idea, warns the guide, suggesting that there is no option.
When we look at the images, we realize that a few steps beyond where the National Guard kept us, two women and a man in Venezuelan SENIAT uniforms, were watchful of the movements of the civilian man; we assume that is like auditing and recording the irregular payments that have been made.
The creator of Los Rastrojos, Wílber Varela, alias 'Jabón', was murdered in Mérida in January 2008
For the corruption and complexity of the area, new elements are added according to military authorities in Colombia. The Clan del Golfo and Los Rastrojos are in the process of strengthening their bands and have increased their force with the arrival of new members from the departments of Chocó and Antioquia to position themselves in the fight between each other for territorial control and the illegal economies.
The presence of the band Los Rastrojos in Venezuela is not new. In 2008, in the state of Merida their main leader, Wilber Varela alias Jabón, was assassinated. He created this organization in the service of drug trafficking in order to confront Diego Montoya, alias Don Diego, and his criminal band Los Machos in competition for the Colombian drug routes.
Also in mid-2012 in the state of Barinas, far from the border with Colombia, a man was captured known as Don José, the owner of one of the largest rice estates in the state where former President Hugo Chávez was born.
Diego Henao, aka Diego Rastrojo, confessed to being the murderer of his former boss, Wilber Varela. He spoke during his trial about two summits of drug traffickers that were made in Barinas along with Javier Antonio Calle Serna, aka Comba, Daniel 'El Loco' Barrera and Juan Carlos Rivera, alias 06.
The Venezuelan authorities themselves have ensured that dozens of Colombian paramilitaries have been registered in the states of Táchira, Zulia, Apure, Barinas and Mérida, acting as part of criminal economies such as smuggling, drug trafficking, extortion, the trafficking of weapons and fuel.
It is enough to take a look at the press reports of the Venezuelan Prosecutor's Office to realize that in the few actions in which criminal gangs captured have been registered, members of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB) are also involved.
The criminal bands compete with the ELN for the territories left by the Farc in Venezuela
But all action has its reaction and one of those consequences is the current closure of the border ordered from Caracas, following an alleged attack by Colombian paramilitaries against three Venezuelan army officers, according to President Nicolás Maduro.
It happened on August 19, 2015, when three members of the Bolivarian Army were ambushed and injured by alleged paramilitaries. However, the Venezuelan ex-Ambassador to the United Nations Diego Arria said after seeking refuge in Spain that the reason that led to the closure of the border was a settlement of score between the National Guard and the Venezuelan Army.
Arria told the media that several days ago the wounded military had detained a van of two National Guard agents, who refused to be searched and asked for the presence of a prosecutor. Hours later, before a delegate of the Public Ministry, the van was opened and inside drugs were found, 47 million bolivars and 3 million dollars.
At the time, Arria said that the attack against the uniformed men was a vendetta for drug trafficking and control of gasoline.
"The dirty work of the Bolivarian National Guard in this area of the Venezuelan geography is done by the Colombian paramilitaries. It is not a coincidence that the brain of the criminal structure of Los Rastrojos has been assassinated in Mérida, knowing that they share the scene with the Bolivarian National Guard; that gentleman moved without problems by the areas controlled by the Guard," said a Venezuelan analyst who asked not to reveal his identity.
"They are rotten apples, individual actions," affirmed a few weeks ago Gen. Vladimir Padrino Lopez, Venezuelan Defense Minister, after an anti-narcotics operation that revealed that several uniformed officers were on the side of Colombian drug cartels.
However, the images taken by El País during this trip to the heart of contraband and illegality in Venezuela reveal that the whole package is rotting.
of Los Pelusos
Although it doesn’t appear on any map and the geography books officially speak of only seven international crossing points between Venezuela and Colombia, the 'Pika del Dos' is unofficially crossing number 8 and is the only way, although illegal, by which you can go in vehicle from one country to another since President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of the border.
The 'Pika del Dos' is one of the 57 illegal trails or crossing points that Colombian authorities have located in the department of the north de Santander (In total there are 192 along the entire border). And through those trails smuggling, drug and fuel trafficking, and any activity that represents a criminal economy move without major obstacles.
Here a passport is not necessary to go from one country to another and those who act as 'consular agents', that from time to time show up, are members of the criminal gang Los Pelusos, a dissident group of the EPL guerrilla that was commanded by Víctor Ramón Navarro, alias' Megateo, until October 2015, when he died in a joint operation between the Police and the Colombian Army.
The People's Liberation Army, EPL, demobilized on February 15, 1991
The Pelusos have more than 400 men between the Catatumbo and the Venezuelan territory, according to military sources in Colombia; they obey orders of a man who´s alias is Pácora and this criminal organization is dedicated especially to drug trafficking, the trafficking of fuel and the extortion of smugglers.
No signal on the road leads to the 'Pika del Dos'. To find the road it is necessary to take the road that goes from Táchira to Maracaibo and only those who have rubbed shoulders in illegal activities know exactly where to take the detour that in 20 kilometers leads to the Colombian municipality of Tibú, Noth of Santander, considered the Capital of the Catatumbo.
With no more excuses to be on the road than a false prescription to go to the Colombian side to get some medicines, which are also scarce in Venezuela, we take this illegal crossing point after 2:00 pm on a motorcycle and with a sun that gives ambiance to the hellish road.
At the point of entry, and beneath a generous shade palm, four men on motorcycles serve as hosts for the road. Two of them drive in front of us for a couple of kilometers, watching every movement through their rearview mirror, until we reach a rudimentary post where we met some old acquaintances of the route made only through the entrails of smuggling: officials of the Bolivarian National Guard were waiting for us.
-"Who do you work for?" Was the initial question of the uniformed.
-"For no one. We are going to Tibú to buy an urgent medicine for an aunt and to look for a lateral cover for the motorcycle that we lost", explained the Venezuelan guide, who also has the responsibility of being our spokesman as to avoid being given away by the Colombian accent.
In contrast to the other vehicles that are parked next to the checkpoint, we don’t have fuel, food, meat, copper, nor building materials. With nothing to draw his attention, the uniformed turns his back on us and focuses on his mobile phone.
We haven’t walked 20 meters when on the other side of the road one of his comrades in arms seems to disagree with how fast the stop was, whistles to us and makes us return again.
-"Where are you going," he asks.
-"What are you going to do there?"
-"To buy medicine for an aunt and a cover for the motorcycle."
-"Have you already been registered?"
-"Yes. We must be in the lists because we come around here a lot," replied the guide.
The man is convinced by the explanation and we continue on our way to Colombia, while truck drivers and vehicles continue to arrive religiously to make the stop in front of an old table with two chairs, in the front, where every person that comes to 'dialogue' with the members of the Bolivarian National Guard must visit.
After the demobilization of the EPL, 160 men under Francisco Caraballo were in dissidents
-"What's the census for? I asked the driver of the motorcycle." “For money,” responded the driver, because the smugglers must leave part of their money there. All these cars that come empty from there to here is because they already went to smuggle something to Tibú," he replies.
The dusty road is as busy as any international border. Dozens of Ford Bronco vans and Chevrolet Caprice cars, preferred by fuel smugglers for their ability to store up to 160 gallons of gasoline in their tank, come and go.
Cargo trucks also parade along this yellow dirt road with food, scrap, fuel tanks and construction materials to Colombia during the day and part of the night.
According to the guide, in this illegal trail "even the sign that reads 'Welcome to Colombia' is false." Here we are still in Venezuela. What happens is that if they are stopped with all these illegal businesses on the Colombian side, the Army or the Police will capture them and fuck them. But they know that the Army won’t come all the way here and that the National Guard protects them," he says.
To demonstrate that here Los Pelusos not only control the territory and dictate their rules but decide, at their will, as to where the borderline is drawn, would be a great find. However, at this point in the geography, in the heart of the convulsed Catatumbo, trying to figure it out would be as bad an idea as walking down this trail with a coordinate reading device.
About 300 meters ahead, on the left side of the road, there is an improvised checkpoint that according to the announcements is part of a communal council, although the drivers assure that nobody builds a ranch in the 'Pika del Dos' without the approval of Los Pelusos. A woman comes out when listening to the noise of the motorcycle and charges us two thousand pesos or four thousand bolivars each.
A little further, there is only a trace of the place where smugglers say Los Pelusos come to control illegal activities, such as smuggling of aluminum, which has increased on this trail.
Los Pelusos have active presence in the 11 Colombian municipalities that make up the Catatumbo
Victor, who actually has another name, has been an acquaintance of illegal adventures with our guide. When we found him on this path he claimed to be making cobres (money) with aluminum.
"After I pay Los Pelusos there is no problem. What I do is I sell aluminum, and from Tibú I make a transfer to the bank in Venezuela. That way they pay you better by weight and you do not carry a lot of money and as a result they take less, "advises Victor.
The Catatumbo region is a mountainous extension over Colombia and Venezuela
Over the course of 2017, aluminum smuggling has increased by 629%, according to the National Tax and Customs Division of Colombia, compared to what was experienced in 2016. It went from 1445 kilos throughout the country in 2016 to 10,536 kilos in July of 2017.
Aluminum traffic has become another appealing source of income for smugglers, who buy a kilogram in Venezuela for 2,500 pesos, just under a dollar, and sell it in Colombia at 4,500 or 5,000 pesos, about two dollars, which represents a gain of 100 percent.
Less than a kilometer after the checkpoint of Los Pelusos, is a seesaw-style oil pump with no safety system. On the side of the road it is pumping oil through three pipes, one of them ends next to a house covered with a black membrane that prevents us from seeing what is behind it.
In addition to the terrorist actions to extract oil from the Caño Limón-Coveñas pipeline, Colombian authorities and smugglers, who tend to move through 'Pika del Dos', ensure that on this side of the border wells like this pump for different employers.
"This may be Ecopetrol or Pdvsa, but here too Los Pelusos and the ELN are fed," says the guide, who says he knows the issue well because his father-in-law was a "technician" of the Venezuelan state oil company and they fired him because of his daughters’ closeness to sectors of the opposition.
Colombian guerrilla groups have the capacity to refine that oil through an illegal/artisan method and extract from it a product known as 'pategrillo', which not only serves to process cocaine but also extracts gasoline for fuel smuggling.
The process, as explained by a military source, is to deposit the oil in huge metal containers called marcianos and expose it to high temperatures to get the 'pategrillo' to refine cocaine and gasoline for vehicles; the surplus ends up in rivers and mountains causing serious environmental damage.
"The Catatumbo is today a very complex area. There we have the presence of the ELN and Los Pelusos, who are especially dedicated to drug trafficking and to extorting oil smugglers. Likewise, the theft of fuel from the Caño Limón-Coveñas pipeline, from which you can make the so-called 'pategrillo', serving as an input in the drug trafficking," said General Gustavo Moreno, Police Commander in the North of Santander.
Just a few meters ahead and after almost an hour on the trail, we found two huge compounds that are used to gather and smuggle gasoline, where several trucks with 55-gallon containers and larger ones with 1,000-liter containers are parked, waiting to be able to cross during the night in caravan to Tibú.
Inside the first of these places, several Chevrolet Caprice cars and other similar types arrive to sell the fuel that they have acquired at the service stations in the municipalities of the states of Zulia and Táchira.
The road is wide and the ground is witness to the liters of gasoline that for some reason have been poured down this road, henceforth as tar coated, where the smell of fuel dominates the environment and the vision becomes diffused by the effect of the gases roasted in the heat of the region.
The 'Pika del Dos' is just one of the 57 trails identified in Norte de Santander
One hundred meters ahead is another even bigger complex on a dirt floor blackened by the fuel that, according to the escort, is oil they are taking to artisanal refineries. At the sides, a fleet of old trucks about to become scrap, are parked. These kinds of trucks are preferred by the smugglers because they can be acquired at a low cost and the losses will be minimalized if they are seized by the Police or the Colombian Army.
About a dozen of these artisanal refineries have been destroyed in the last year by the Public Force, all in the Catatumbo region, in the municipalities of La Gabarra and El Tarra, where the laboratories for the production of cocaine, property of the EPL and the ELN, are located. A container (caneca) of 'pategrillo' costs around 180,000 pesos, 62 dollars, while the gasoline sells for about 250,000 pesos, which is equivalent to 86 dollars.
The inexplicable thing is that the thousands of gallons of fuel that we have in front of us, a ticking bomb that can explode at any moment because of the heat, have not been seen by the uniformed National Guards stationed kilometers down at the entrance of the ´Pika del Dos´ as they pass by.
From here on, and already near Tibú, every inch of the road announces that we are entering the territory of the EPL, who the authorities have named ¨Los Pelusos¨ with the purpose of identifying them as a criminal band. They prefer to be seen as a guerrilla group.
According to the graffiti on poles and walls, Los Pelusos are the same as the EPL´s Libardo Mora Front. This is a way for them to remind occasional smugglers and visitors like us that this is their territory.
On the Colombian side, National Police sources say, "this criminal gang is dedicated to stealing fuel from the pipeline between Tibú and El Tarra to supply the large laboratories located in areas such as Filo Gringo.
Filo Gringo is the area where a couple of months ago, two Dutch journalists, who were recording a program where families reunite after time apart, were kidnapped and where the Spanish journalist Salud Hernández was also captured, who was preparing a special report on Catatumbo, which is very close to the place to where we are now.
It is an inevitable feeling that everyone in Tibu looks at you; everyone talks in secret about the people on the bike that they have never seen in the region before. The guide's advice is to go into the pharmacy and buy any medication because he is sure that 'Los Pelusos' know about us from the moment we entered the 'Pika del Dos' and surely someone in Tibú will be aware of whether or not we search for the medicine for which we supposedly came. With several pills and syrup that we did not need we started the return after eating in Tibú.
The resurgence of the EPL
The EPL guerrillas demobilized on March 1, 1991 and although 2200 combatants surrendered their weapons, a reduced unit of 150 men under Francisco Caraballo were grouped around the Libardo Mora Front and settled in the Catatumbo region.
Documents from the Attorney General's Office indicate that this dissident group was strengthened on the Venezuelan border with the help of the ELN, with whom they have jointly attacked military units, pipelines and police stations.
Likewise, in Venezuelan territory they have joined forces in the last year to dispute territorial control and the management of illegal economies to the Colombian criminal bands in several municipalities of the Táchira and Zulia states. Among them are the sectors of Casigua El Cubo (Zulia) and Orope (Táchira).
In that dispute, say the military strategists, it is crucial to keep control of Catatumbo, which is where the product that fuels and has maintained the war in Colombia literally germinates: cocaine. An area, that as a result of the state abandonment, has turned it into a field for criminality.
John Marulanda, an international consultant on security issues, points out that with the political and economic crisis in Venezuela, corruption has increased and the Armed Forces itself have felt the lack of supplies and the problem of low wages and that is an incentive for them to dedicate themselves to illicit activities at the border.
He adds that the strengthening of Los Pelusos (EPL), a group that the Colombian government insists on saying is extinct, is a product of the suspension of aerial spraying of illicit crops, "agreed at the negotiating table in Havana" and that generated so many crops and so much cocaine that they pass to Venezuela and then by airways to the Caribbean.
The EPL, together with the ELN, extract fuel from the main Colombian oil pipeline
"Los Pelusos maintain control of eleven municipalities of the North of Santander and there they dictate the laws of cohabitation, order curfews, they control the territory. All this is fueled by coca and all this is the fault of this government that has not taken radical measures and has allowed uncontrollable growth of coca leaf and that is how Los Pelusos, the EPL guerrilla, have been growing and have risen from the shadows," says Marulanda.
A capacity that can intensify, since Los Pelusos are in the process of increasing their members, recruiting young people between 15 and 20 years old, and occupying spaces that the FARC guerrilla left after submitting to the process of peace with the Government of Colombia.
This closeness between Los Pelusos and the ELN also makes them allies of the Bolivarian National Guard. In Colombia several members linked to Los Pelusos have been captured who were in charge of purchasing arms from the Venezuelan military.
Among them was Camilo Barrera, captured in April of this year in Villa del Rosario, and who was the logistic leader of Los Pelusos and the one in charge of distributing the armament that he acquired from the Venezuelan military, like rifles, sub-machine guns, guns and grenades, according to military sources.
Many of these Venezuelan weapons have been found by Colombian authorities in operations against this illegal group, which together with Los Rastrojos and the Clan del Golfo, based in Venezuela, are part of the objectives to dismantle according to military sources.
Los Pelusos are for the authorities of Colombia and the United States one of the main groups dedicated to transnational drug trafficking, exporting cocaine to North America and Europe, using Venezuela and the Caribbean Sea as platforms.
The drug and smuggling business, according to US authorities, would not have reached these levels without the help of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB). That is why they have opened proceedings in several courts against more than twenty Chavez officials, most of who are involved in arms and cocaine trafficking with Colombian criminal organizations and Mexican cartels such as the Sinaloa cartel.
Los Pelusos in the Catatumbo would have at least eight enormous complexes for the production of cocaine, according to the State Intelligence, and with a capacity to produce about one ton each month, that goes to Venezuela by illegal trails like the 'Pika de Dos' and arrive to the embarkation points in the Bolivarian coasts, after the challenge of crossing the whole country.
On our return to Venezuela, and after the afternoon has fallen, the activity is increasing and the agents of the National Guard remain lying under a palm, from where they raise their hands in greeting, while vehicles and vans rush from their country with as much as they can.
It is as if the 'happy hour' for the smugglers has arrived on this illegal trail that, apparently neither the Colombian or Venezuelan authorities have seen, since October 2015. When Maduro ordered the closure of the border, it became one of the most active international cross points in of all America, after the border between the United States and Mexico.
The route between the Táchira state and the high Venezuelan Guajira must be one of the few places in the world where the smugglers can decide which group extorts them: the indigenous Guajiros on their trails or the Bolivarian National Guard in their military checkpoints.
At this point in the Venezuelan geography it is almost impossible to get away with an unharmed pocket after passing through the twenty military checkpoints that we encountered on our way. That is why we abide by the advice of the driver who takes us to Maracaibo, to take a wad of bolivars to distribute proportionately along the way.
Just an hour ago we left the municipality of La Fria, in Táchira state, and in two of the four checkpoints of the National Guard we already have paid 4,000 and 5,000 bolivars respectively as if it was a habitual act; patented by custom.
With the argument of "preserving peace", Nicolás Maduro has filled the border with people of the Bolivarian National Guard
A uniformed man orders us to get off the vehicle and open the trunk, where he makes a thorough review. We always thought that at some point the Colombian accent would put us in trouble and that moment had arrived.
He takes the Colombian passport, as if embracing a check, and again goes back to inspection of the trunk. Apparently, his own review was not exhaustive enough when dealing with a Colombian.
-"How much do you have in cash?" Says the uniformed man.
-"I have a question, why do you want to know how much we carry in cash?", the driver asks in defense.
-"You're not declaring anything to me, and you have not told me where you got the money," said the uniformed man, who takes his cell phone to multiply the figure we gave him.
As a result of the devaluation of the bolivar against the peso, the screen is filled with zeros and without saying a word he crosses the street, shows the figure to his superior and gives him the passport as a great booty.
For some minutes, they talk in the distance and suddenly the head of the checkpoint calls us and starts the outdated and embarrassing interrogation.
-Here's a problem because this passport does not have a visa.
-"I do not need a visa to enter Venezuela," I reply.
-"Here you have a visa, but it's from Cuba," he insists.
Suddenly the driver tries to explain to him that we have passed several checkpoints and that nobody has said anything because the visa is not necessary.
-"Are you the driver, the lawyer, or the brother?" What are you? Replies the uniformed man and asks him to leave so he does not complicate things even more.
Another military man at the checkpoint decides to intervene as well. "Here we have seen cases where they have already passed other checkpoints and they do not review them and when we review them, we find drugs and contraband."
The official opens a blank page of the passport and ensures that it is right there where the visa should go to enter Venezuela.
Since 2011 Venezuela has eliminated the visa to Colombians who enter by land, as part of the agreement that allowed the entry of the Bolivarian country into the Common Market of the South, Mercosur.
Precisely, the man who signed that decree was President Hugo Chávez, whose photo hung in a huge painting behind the back of the National Guard officer.
Convinced already that the argument of the visa didn’t have any weight, he continues detailing one by one the pages of the passport, even the empty ones, and says another pearl.
-"Where's the DAS card?"
-Long ago they passed a Judicial decree and they removed it and the DAS was abolished, I reply.
-Ahhh, it was abolished. And why?
-They eliminated it because there were many corruption scandals.
-Ahhh of course ... And I see here in your passport that you traveled to Spain and did they not give you a hard time even though you do not have a visa?
-It is no longer a requirement for the Colombians to have a visa to go to Spain, I answer and I notice how the anguish begins to change his face.
-Ahhh yes? But before Spain asked, more than any other country, that Colombians have a visa as a result of the constant flow of drugs.
-Ahhh In Spain and without a visa? Says the woman in uniform and looks at her superior with a face of astonishment.
-But Spain is a pain in the...
And by what airline did you travel there? Asks the commander after going through all the pages of the passport again and verifying that the arguments are scarce.
-"Ahhh Avianca, repeats the Guard and closes the passport and returns it to me.
"You see, sir, things are settled by talking," the uniformed driver tells him, accusing him of trying to complicate things.
MILITARY AND SMUGGLING
As a result of the corruption that involves the National Armed Forces and the Bolivarian National Police, El País created a database containing information of about 500 public records of the Attorney General of Venezuela and the result is that the vast majority of the detentions for corruption were within the Bolivarian National Guard.
The crimes for what they are being judged or have been convicted middle and high-ranking officers run from smuggling of fuel, tractors, motorcycles or theft of meat and food to gold traffic, assault on vehicles for loading, seized drug and drug trafficking.
Former magistrate Eladio Aponte said he was ordered from the Presidency to release the military for drug trafficking cases
Only between March 2015 and June 2016 ten members were captured from the Bolivarian National Guard, eight sergeants and two lieutenants, in three operations regarding a shipment of about 1,500 kilos of cocaine to airports in Mexico and the Dominican Republic.
Of the 500 cases analyzed, 462 were register in the last five years; that is to say, 92% of them and the year in which the corruption in the chavistas troops overflowed was in 2016, shortly after the closure of the border, when 313 members of the National Armed Force, Police, Technical Investigation Unit and the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN) were captured.
The international security adviser John Marulanda assures that everything that happens with the Armed Force and the Police in Venezuela is with the consent of the Government. "I have first-hand information, from Venezuelan official sources, that both the National Guard and the Army are sharing profits from the border."
"Drug trafficking is the business of the Bolivarian National Guard and everything related with the smuggling of food, and the rest of the products belong to the Bolivarian Army; the heads of the units of these border regions charge a quota to the men who are in charge of the border control and those quotas are paid according to what they charge for letting contraband or drugs pass", says Marulanda.
A military source, whom requested to keep his identity unknown, said that "there is no greater prize for a member of the National Guard than being a prominent figure on the border with Colombia. "That's where the cobres (money) are made ... many people and high military commanders have become millionaires on this border."
"There have always been officials on the margins of ethics and unfortunately, above all, in the Bolivarian National Guard. And it is not that there are not any in the Army either, but in the Army it is less probable. And I do not want to justify what happens, but is that they have strategically strengthened the National Guard in recent years with people from low quality upbringings who fall easily into these criminal actions," said the Venezuelan army general Clíver Alcalá Cordones, who accompanied Hugo Chavez during his term.
"Unfortunately, in these last two years, the de-professionalization grew to levels that we have never seen before with the increase of manpower with up to more than 70,000 troops without proper preparation," explained Rocío San Miguel, director of the NGO Control Ciudadano.
Since the 90s there has been talk in Venezuela of military links with gangs of contraband and drug trafficking
Another relevant fact in the database is that one of every three crimes committed by a uniformed man in the last few years, 36% of the total, were committed in the states closest to the Colombian border.
"In fact, the military go to the border not to take care of the territoriality of Venezuela, but to make money; and among other things because it is the only part of the country where they can act in that manner, "says Marulanda.
But judging by all the facts that we are going to witness during the trip to the upper Venezuelan Guajira, in the midst of the caravans carrying smuggled fuel to Colombia through the departments of La Guajira and Cesar, what remains in evidence is that the figures have been too generous with the National Guard.
The other Maracaibo
It is 3:00 in the morning of the next day and as we agreed, a man dedicated to smuggling picks us up at the hotel and we leave to the other side of the Maracaibo Bridge to find a service station where a chip is not needed to buy fuel.
The chip is a control mechanism set up by the government to prevent smugglers from filling their tanks several times a day or a week to sell that surplus on the border with Colombia.
Few of those who at this time of the morning already make huge lines at the gas stations will go in the direction of the high Venezuelan Guajira to earn in a single trip the equivalent of three monthly minimum wages in Venezuela.
When we made this trip, the minimum wage in Venezuela was $30,000 bolivars and to date it has increased 300%; just over $ 90,000 bolivars.
With hundreds of vehicles with tanks overflowing we headed towards the desert, with heat at 5:00 in the morning that already exceeds 30 degrees.
Walter and Mario, who travel with us in the old Ford Bronco pickup truck, have similar features. Both of short height, thick build, with a mouth like a burst that shoots dozens of words per minute and it is almost impossible to understand what they say.
More than a score of senior Venezuelan military commanders are on the Clinton list
Before leaving Maracaibo, they take out the same 'wad of bolivars' to distribute it proportionately along the way, as we had been recommended by someone who brought us to Maracaibo, and separates them by small bands of 500 bolivars. One for each of the military checkpoints that we will encounter in the four hours that await us on our journey.
Judging by the bands of money, which he is fitting one by one in the vent where his truck used to blow cold air years ago, there will be dozens of checkpoints that we will have to cross.
The gasoline dance also begins along this route, next to the Gulf of Venezuela, and before half an hour's journey the first wad with five bills of 100 bolivars is left in the hands of a civilian man, Venezuelan paramilitaries, who receives it and he immediately hands it to the guard.
The strategy in the upper Guajira is to use binomials: a man dressed as a civilian in charge of collecting money from smugglers extortion to not directly involve the uniformed men, and a National Guard receiving the money from the intermediary.
The situation is repeated along the way in Venezuelan municipalities like Santa Cruz de Mara, San Rafael and Sinamaica, and until arriving at Paraguipoa, the closest municipality to Paraguachón and to Maicao, in the Colombian Guajira.
However, the Bolivarian National Armed Forces has reported this year the seizure of thousands of liters of gasoline on the border of Táchira and Zulia states.
"It is impossible that thousands of cars pass by every day and that nothing is seized; we put together operations for the Guards and we gave them a few old vehicles, which are worth nothing, with a few thousand liters of gasoline, which are worth much less and they show results," says one of the men who leads the caravan.
In Paraguaipoa gasoline arrives to huge deposits where it is bought by the biggest smugglers for $14,000 bolivars per 23 liter container.
One of the men who accompanies us offers to guide us to Maicao, in La Guajira, Colombia, to show us how the smuggling business of extracting products and everything besides gasoline operates.
"If you have to record get ready, let's say that here you will see the little shame of the Bolivarian National Guard; but be careful of getting caught because they will screw you," says the man, with whom we are now sitting on the roof of an old Jeep that does not carry people inside because that place of privilege is occupied by the packages with products subsidized by the Government of Venezuela that are smuggled into the Colombian market.
The first checkpoint after Paraguaipoa proves him right. In the military checkpoint a sergeant of the National Guard surprises us by its capacity of synthesis and without many detours, as soon he stops the vehicle, he asks the old Jeeps assistant:
-"How much did you collect?"
-There are 3,500 bolivars
-No. That's a lot of money. Will be better to step out of the vehicle for a requisition, says the guard.
Immediately people get desperate and one of the passengers asks to make a fast second round to collect money to be able to go. Some put 300, another 200 and we put 500 more. In total, there were more than 6,000 bolivars in the round.
Analysts say that there are soldiers who pay to be sent to the border because they make a lot of money
The car assistant, with all the money in his hands, delivered it to the uniformed man through the side of the car and he seems satisfied, without saying anything, the car starts while the uniformed man enters into a motel located in front of the checkpoint to leave the money there.
"That guard is complicated," the assistant smiles letting the other travelers know that he hid some money and gave him less than he believed.
In many of the checkpoints you won’t be allowed to continue without paying quotas much higher than those and that is where the illegal Guajiro trails appear. Roads through the desert where you pay around 100 or 200 bolivars for the Indians to drop the rope that allows you to go somewhere on the road where there will be no National Guard.
The trails in the desert have as much or more traffic than the main road and in some cases, you pay 500 bolivars per person to continue on your way.
"These are the two lies of the National Guard: defend the sovereignty, but in reality it is handed over to Colombian armed groups, and to collaborate with the protection of the State and they themselves are the first ones to not comply," says the guide, who has already noticed that someone knows that we are not habitual smugglers and that since a few kilometers ago we were being followed and watched by four men on two motorcycles.
I must admit that 'El Flaco' was right when two days ago, in the middle of a discussion in the courtyard of a house in the small village of El Pato, in the town of Casigua, in the state of Zulia, intransigently insisted that there is no crisis in Venezuela.
Crises only exist for those who suffer from them and obviously El Flaco, 43 years old, with a caricatured face and a long squalid body, has not experienced any difficulties himself. By contrast, the situation in Venezuela opened doors for him that were closed to many others.
‘El Flaco’ has perhaps, one of the newest jobs that has been created in the Bolivarian country: something like a manager or fuel agent. Since the government introduced the chip in vehicles traversing the border to ensure that no one can hoard fuel supplies and to allegedly control smuggling efforts, those who turn to him have run out of fuel before their next permitted trip to the gas station, which is once a week, among ordinary citizens, public service drivers and of course, smugglers.
Venezuela produces 2,530,000 barrels of oil each day, according to Petróleos de Venezuela, PDVSA
And here we are, two days later, at the service station where ‘El Flaco’ is selling his services, which are not cheap, to continue the journey through this porous border where a pillage for fuel has begun to unfold.
With the introduction of the chip, which automatically tells the machine the amount of gasoline you can pump and determines whether or not a filling turn is needed, the profits generated by the fuel traffic is not exclusive to the smugglers. Now it is distributed among many people like El Flaco, members of the National Guard, service station employees, controllers and police officers.
The script is well known by all. Filling a vehicle costs between 80 and 120 bolivars that barely reaches the price of a caramel; however, in order to gain access to El Flaco, you should have 30,000 bolivars in hand, with which he guarantees: you can skip in front of those who have been waiting hours for their turn, that there will not be any interference by the uniformed men and direct access to the machine that distributes the gasoline.
Those 30,000 bolivars that are given to El Flaco, would be enough for an average Venezuelan to buy three tanker trucks loaded with 10,000 liters of gasoline each (the equivalent of 2,645 gallons), but in this counter economy, that is only enough to circulate for a week. The same amount of fuel in Colombia will have a higher value of more than 21 million pesos.
With the wad of bills in his bag, El Flaco goes to the service station guarded by the Police and National Guard and checks the lists where several men operate the access point for those who have no choice but to wait their turn because of the chip. On an attached piece of paper are the names of the uniformed men and the order in which each of them is entitled to the profits generated by the quotas sold by El Flaco and another dozen men who work like him.
Although the gas stations close at 6:00 in the afternoon, the fuel is still sold until early in the morning
From the 30,000 bolivars received by the 'agent', 10,000 bolivars will remain in his wallet and the others 20,000 will go directly into the pocket of the National Guard or Municipal Police Officer appearing next on the list.
It is 9:15 in the morning and the phone’s screen reports that it is 34 degrees out, a hot day in the state of Zulia. The car is parked several blocks away and there is traffic congestion because no fuel has arrived in Casigua for two days.
"They do send a large quantity of fuel, what happens is that the gandola´s drivers (tanker trucks), before arriving in Casigua, go through all those trails and roads that lead to the river and there, they sell everything they bring with them because they get paid millions", says the guide who accompanies us.
As has been happening since the border closure in August 2015, any spark ignites the fire in the gasoline stations, turned today into scenarios of dispute; suddenly school-bus drivers and public transport officers scold the uniformed men and they threaten to block the station access if they keep serving the "exclusive" customers of El Flaco and his clique.
With a semi-destroyed economy, only smugglers can afford the 30,000 bolivars to access the service station at any time they want. Two days ago, El Flaco proclaimed himself to be, in spite of not having finished high school, the 'author' of the collection of 30,000 bolivars.
"Simple. The smugglers sell three or four fuel containers and they get paid 20,000 bolivars for each one. Then, they should give the police or the guard the profit of one container and for us another half; there you have 30,000. This is how socialism works," he says with an expression of mockery on his face.
On the shores of Lake Maracaibo one of the main oil industries of Venezuela is developed
But now the atmosphere is tense and El Flaco suggests that we should leave and be ready for his call when he has a moment. "This is a nightmare my brother ... all of these just for 40 fuel liters which is what they sell to us," says one of the men out of the queue.
After 4:00 pm the phone rings and in 10 minutes we are located in the front of the line and only three cars separate us from the dispenser. The number of vehicles waiting appears to have doubled and we still don´t seeing him coming, the back door opens and El Flaco enters to count and split the money.
In the bag that he carries around his neck, he keeps the 10,000 bolivars that correspond to him and in the back of his pants, for all to see, he puts the remaining 20,000 bolivars and goes out to deliver the money to whom the quota corresponds; in this case, it was an agent of the Municipal Police, who orders to lower a rope in order for us to access.
The chip only allows 90 liters of fuel and the dispensing machine displays 90 bolivars as value to pay. The cars go in and out, and the wads of bills can be noticed over the military uniforms, the same driver enters up to four times in different vehicles and suddenly, those who legally follow the procedure, incited by the afternoon heat, explode again in rage after the announcement made by a man wearing a white shirt and a cap with the Venezuelan flag, saying that the machines will be turned off because it is 6:00 pm and the gasoline was sold out.
The insults and complaints go directly against the uniformed men who had control of the situation. "It's okay if for every ten cars in line you get in a transport and two favors... two transports and two favors, but they are getting in six favors and a transport, so we are never going to get fuel," says a man sitting on the floor, referring to 'favors' as the bribes paid by people to get gasoline without being in the queue.
Nearly one hundred drivers screaming and protesting, force a service station employee to come with a stick to measure the remaining gasoline in the underground tanks. There are 65,000 liters in one of them and 38,000 in the other one and the anger returns again.
"They are waiting for us to leave to start getting their cars in; at night there are a number of smugglers filling up, but we are not leaving, we will spend the night here and we are going to block this shit because if there is no gasoline for one, there is none for anyone.
The man with the Venezuela cap in charge of the service station, who they call “Campino”, also reacts with an angry tone and assures that he is going to ban the company of which the man who insults him works for, and that he will also not sell him gasoline tomorrow.
Around 9:00 p.m., we passed by the service station again and as promised, several old Chevrolet cars were parked at the entrance, blocking the access to the station and their drivers, acting like guards, discuss in the surroundings the situation of the country.
These scenes are repeated daily by all the service stations located along the border with Colombia, the locals assure, in order to quickly access without the chip, they must move an extra hour following the path to Santa Bárbara del Zulia.
The explanation for what has been happening, according to the Venezuelan journalist Sebastiana Barráez, who has been working on the borderline for years, is that gasoline smuggling became a far more lucrative business than drug trafficking.
"Smuggling gasoline is an old situation, but it used to be something sporadic and carried out by small groups; it had never been seen as massive as it is now. I understand that at the border the fuel business is more profitable than the drugs and the risks involved are less than those assumed with drug trafficking, "says Sebastiana Barráez.
The chip in the cars is intended to stop smuggling, but there is also a business around that chip
Translated into pesos, the gasoline price rises since it leaves the service stations in Venezuelan territory until it crosses to Colombia, that explains the reasons why smuggling became an easy way of life for thousands of families.
At the service station, a gallon of gasoline costs less than two Colombian pesos and after transporting it to the illegal deposits, near the rivers, its value rises to $1,228 pesos. On the border, the price of a gallon reaches the $1,500 and once it is in Colombian territory costs $ 4,500.
For a single trip of 200 gallons of fuel, smugglers receive $900,000 pesos, which they then transfer through bank deposits to Venezuela for a price of $0.39 pesos per bolivar. Thus, for those $900,000 pesos they obtain in Venezuela 2,307,692 bolivars, where that gasoline never reached the value of one thousand bolivars. Revenues exceed 1000%.
According to unofficial numbers from both governments, oil smuggling carries around 70,000 barrels per day to Colombia, equivalent to 3,010,000 gallons of gasoline per day. A business in which illegal armed groups, who receive the profits at the end of the supply chain, are moving about three million dollars daily.
Numbers that coincide with the losses reported by the Government of Venezuela, who reports to invest more than US $12.59 billion a year subsidizing the fuel. The explanation is that refining a liter of gasoline costs 2.7 bolivars and what people pay is 1 bolivar per liter. The Government subsidizes the 1.7 bolivars remaining.
The image of people selling dozens of containers in the streets with a capacity of a gallon of gasoline each may well be from the illegal sale on the Colombian side; in Puerto Santander, in Cúcuta or in Tibú, but not here, we are in the city of Maracaibo.
Until a few years ago, it was unthinkable to believe that inside Venezuelan territory, where gasoline is practically free, illegal fuel sales could operate, but it is happening and much more than people can imagine.
About 200 of the 256 gas stations installed in Maracaibo, supply exclusively those with the chip and their lines are usually between 50 and 100 cars or trucks long. Lines where the chip is not yet required can reach up to 200 cars and takes between four and five hours to get your turn.
The chip is another business. The renowned Chavistas, tells us a smuggler that accompanied us a day before on a route to the Colombian border in upper Guajira, can have a chip to fill up a car two or three times a week with 140 liters; but people who are not part of their group, get a chip for 40 or 50 liters which does not allow them to work (smuggling) and then they have to buy a chip in the black market for 40,000 or 50,000 bolivars that gets them at least 100 liters.
Behind one of these illegal sales, in flip-flops and without a T-shirt is Don Rafael*, a 61 year old man from Machiques, who has lived the last 42 in Maracaibo.
In the back of his house, where you can see several ads alluding to Chavismo, he has an old Chevrolet Malibu, the chip that the government gave him allows him to put 100 liters of gasoline twice per week and that's what he does for a living.
From the tank of his car, he gets 20 containers of 3.78 liters that later he sells outside his home for 1,200 bolivars each and thanks to the fuel shortage, the business has been increasing. So much that he helps his child sell the surplus of gasoline that is left in his car when he gets his turn to go back into the station to fill up.
Producing a liter of gasoline in Venezuela costs almost three times more than the price at which it is sold
“I sell gasoline to everyone. With the shortage and the mess in line, people prefer to come and get four or five containers, which are 18 or 20 liters and pay me 6,000 bolivars. With that you cannot even buy a kilogram of rice and you avoid a half day-line, which is what it takes them to fill up their tank " says Rafael.
Rafael's car is part of the old vehicle´s museum in which the streets of all the municipalities bordering Colombia have become. With tanks capable of storing up to 140 liters of gasoline, the old 70's and 80's models of Chevrolet Malibu or Caprice are the kings of the road. Although in the interior of the country you can buy one for four million bolivars, on the border, the ones that hardly move cannot be found for less than 10 or 12 million bolivars.
“Everyone says how much they want for a car like these because there is no price control, but the ones who have a car like these don’t want to get rid of it. This is more than a car, it is an ATM that gives you money every day," says Rafael, for whom two cars are already waiting for him to refuel at his homemade service station in the street.
Meanwhile, the service stations are still crowded, people illegally filling up their reserves, the country lying on the border living exclusively from the smuggling of gasoline and the State increasingly broken with tied hands because it is almost a taboo to talk about raising the price of the gasoline.
The small villages in the upper Venezuelan Guajira hide behind their walls, made of a mixture of mud and cane, the most perverse phenomenon of gasoline smuggling from Venezuela to Colombia: the sucker children of Paraguaipoa.
A group of little boys between 8 and 16 years old stationed on the side of the road to negotiate with the smugglers the price of the fuel that they bring in their tanks after a three hour journey from Maracaibo to this point, near the border with Colombia.
It's been 10 minutes since we entered Paraguaipoa, the last city in La Guajira, Venezuela, before entering Colombia, and a child with a cheerful gesture moves a piece of cardboard desperately, like frightening thousands of mosquitoes, with the number '14' painted on both sides.
Unofficial figures indicate that 40% of Paraguaipoa's children have dropped out of school in recent years
The clock strikes just passed 9:00 am and the temperature already exceeds 35° degrees Celsius in this enclave desert in front the Gulf of Venezuela. The heat is suffocating and over the hot door lays a child that we will call Jimaai (in Wayú language means young man between 12 and 14 years).
-"14 where?" Asked the smuggler that we are travelling with.
-"There, behind the hotel," Jimaai points out, with an unclear Spanish accent.
-"Give it to me a little higher, tries to negotiate the driver".
-"I cannot man," Jimaai replies, this is perhaps the only place in the world where smuggling is a child's business.
The '14' refers to the 14,000 bolivars that they will pay for a container of 23 liters of gasoline. It is the highest price we have found and after the driver accepts, the child hangs on the back of the truck to guide the ride.
His smile of satisfaction in contact with the wind is contagious. The white of his enormous teeth glows in contrast with the coppery tone that the sun tattooed on his face. Now he leads us through a tangle of small villages turned into a time bomb, where several gasoline barrels of 55 gallons each can be seen under the thatched roofs.
Fuel smuggling on the border is a lucrative business that moves more than three million dollars every month and Jimmai is evidently not the one who profits from it. With his torn shirt, a green cap with an old puma and pants with a missing button, it is clear that he is at the lowest level in the supply chain of smuggling, even if on the road he is the face of the crime.
After ten minutes of walking through the dust, Jimaai hits the roof of the car sharply and quickly, as a sign that we have arrived and tells us to enter a house where three children under two years old take their first steps around 21 gasoline barrels of 230 liters each.
“These guys are a fundamental part of the smuggling chain; they end up handling everything because you barely see an adult face in this business," explains the guide as we get off from the car to try to get some pictures.
Jimmai ran to the back of the house and brought a plastic hose longer than him and two empty containers to extract the fuel. I have an intuition about what is going to happen, but for a few seconds I hope that the same smuggler will take control of the hose.
But it was not like that. The man takes out the lid of the gasoline tank, Jimaai introduces the plastic tube and with all his might, he sucks the liquid up, trying to extract the fuel.
The scene is painful. However, in this area, one of the most depressed of Venezuela, seeing children sucking gasoline is as natural as seeing in any city of the world a child in an ice cream shop with his straw sucking down a sherbet. The hose covers Jimaai’s whole mouth.
As much as his lungs and rib cage contract as he gives his greatest effort, the first two attempts were not enough to achieve the purpose. The third was the definitive one and gasoline appears; the reflection of the gases distorts the hot environment and Jimaai, after spitting the fuel that reached to his mouth, starts to fill the first container.
His child instinct remains intact. No matter how fast poverty matured him, while the container is getting full, he is playing with the lid of the gasoline tank. I try to ask him about his age, but with his silence he shows clearly that he is not interested in talking to me. Nothing around the house is arranged in case of an emergency.
From time to time he bends to make sure the liquid rises up to the 23-liter mark and when the first container is full, he bends the tip of the hose to prevent spills and quickly pass it to the second container. On his way, he carries the gasoline to the place where the 55 gallon containers are stored, that will leave at 10:00 pm along the trails to Maicao, in the Colombian Guajira.
Paraguaipoa, in the language of the indigenous Wayú, means land facing the sea
The weight exceeds the size of his body and each clumsy step he takes, the fuel starts spilling on his hands and his clothes. Beside this, three more children run to clear another truck that just arrived from Maracaibo.
Normally, smugglers manage to reach Paraguaipoa with between four and five gasoline containers in their tanks, for which they have paid 100 bolivars in Maracaibo (a coin of 50 Colombian pesos or three cents of a dollar) and at the border they receive 70,000 bolivars profit. Enough money to buy seven tankers of 10,000 liters of gasoline. That is, in a single day they get the equivalent of about two minimum monthly wages, by the time we did the tour they were worth 40,638 bolivars.
After filling with his small lungs four containers of 23 liters, Jimaai authorizes the payment by raising his thumb up and two indigenous women sitting in the back of the house, that we never knew who they were, take the money from black plastic bags and cardboard boxes to pay the 56,000 bolivars for the fuel that we brought.
This gasoline will leave tonight, as it has historically been leaving, in truck caravans between illegal trails towards the community of Maicao, in the Colombian Guajira, or Cesar’s department.
Before leaving, Jimaai goes again to the back of the truck to later jump to the road hoping that more smugglers will be tempted by his price. Although his smile remains as a drawing on his face and his pocket has just added a few more bolivars, he also accumulates less seconds in his life and an inevitably bleak future.
By the gas inhalation effect of the solvent, he also accumulates cerebral microdamage that can even cause death, according to Dr. Jorge Quiñones, director of the Toxicology Unit of the Hospital Universitario del Valle, HUV, in Cali.
“But also, in the short term, when these inhalations or ingestions of large quantities occur, they will present lung and kidney injuries, which are the two most affected organs. There are two types of intoxication that these children are exposed to daily: an acute one by passive ingestion and a chronic intoxication from staying where the gases are, in very saturated gasoline atmospheres", explains Dr. Quiñones. At this moment, the sucker children of Paraguaipoa are in a desert zone of more than 36 degrees Celsius, thermal sensation that exceeds 45° where the sun burns with rage.
In each ranch where gasoline is collected in Paraguipoa, Sinamaica and Los Filúos, it is estimated that between three and five children are working. Hundreds of boys dropped out from elementary school to face the University of Life.
All of them will receive the lowest economic profit in this supply chain, but will pay the highest cost, their health. Because tonight, hopefully they will return to their homes with around 5,000 and 8,000 bolivars that they can use, by the time we finish the ride, to buy a kilo of rice.
But in the middle of the economic crisis and the shortages in Venezuela, that kilo of rice will be needed in the Jimaai´s house and his road adventure colleagues will be missed if today they decided not to go to work in order to attend school.
The social reality in the Venezuelan and Colombian Guajira does not offer them many alternatives to choose from. They are either part of the 30 percent of the child population that dies every year in this zone because of malnutrition or they are part of the record of intoxication and risk of death that exists from gas inhaling or gasoline intake.
Few people are interested in his and other children’s fate in Paraguaipoa. In fact, the newest official numbers on children's conditions date back to 2011, when information sources from Chavismo, ensured that Venezuela is one of the five countries in the region with the lowest rate of children malnutrition and that between 1990 and 2009 malnutrition numbers fell 58 percent.
There are no official figures in Venezuela on health conditions of Paraguaipoa's children
Regarding the educational issue, according to the National Institute of Statistics, the state of Zulia, to which Alta Guajira belongs, has one of the highest numbers of school dropouts during the period of 2011-2012, with 27,778 elementary and middle school children who dropped out of school without any apparent reason but part of them are waving cardboards on the roads.
However, the Sindicato Unitario de Magisterio from Zulia, has its own numbers and ensures that the school dropouts during 2016 reached an alarming 60 percent.
“That's a small amount because with the hunger in Venezuela right now, and especially in this area, the boys did not go back to school and everyone is dedicated to making money", says another of the smugglers, who will guide us to another place in Paraguaipoa to sell gasoline.
Fifteen minutes down the road, we diverge to enter a huge yard in another black Ford Bronco, behind an abandoned building where the price paid for gasoline equals Jimaai's 14,000 bolivars.
The spill of fuel over the dirt floor and the incessant smell of gasoline perfectly delimit the road. However, another boy, older than Jimaai, explains to us how to access and where to park.
The place is a huge and an abandoned yard where there are more children than there are in the classrooms of the schools in the village, which went into crisis for lack of students. There was a holiday the day before and those who knew how things operate, say that today there is more action than usual and someone should have gone out to look for more children to meet the demand.
Under a thatched roof hut that safeguards him from the sun, a man with a shirt that reads 'Messi' and with the number 10 of Barcelona from Spain, controls the whole fuel business and the payments to drivers and children.
Ironically, the star of Barcelona is one of the Unicef ambassadors, the organization that based on the Convention on the Rights of the Children, works to ensure the welfare and education of children in developing countries.
But this white-skinned Messi, wavy hair, who speaks the Wayu language with the accent of those who live in Maracaibo, makes his living out of the exploitation of dozens of lungs from poor children in La Guajira. Around his neck he also carries a traditional backpack that seems to be bottomless from where he pulls out the wads of bills to make all the payments.
Every night Paraguaipoa leaves the caravans of trucks with contraband gasoline to Colombia
Minors go from side to side with hoses and containers, ready to empty hundreds of vehicles that arrive daily to this place to sell gasoline. Everyone already knows what to do; seems to be a learned lesson.
Within minutes, public service vehicles, official cars, top range vans, the old Ford Bronco, the Chevrolet of huge tanks, buses and trucks get inside. Children go from side to side; it seems like playtime.
During the 23 minutes that we were in this illegal deposit, 31 cars went inside to sell gasoline and every minute the smell becomes stronger and creates dizzy feeling.
As we walk along the side of the enormous courtyard, a child much younger than Jimaai appears among the distorted environment by the gasoline gases. He even looks younger than the 8 year old children I know, and he takes several pieces of hose around his neck.
The driver of a Chevrolet Caprice lowers the plate and the little one inserts a hose and sucks the liquid strongly. Meanwhile at his side, four other children do the same work. The inhalation and intake of considerable amounts of gasoline seriously affect the nervous system in the short term, according to the World Health Organization.
As if it were a classroom chalkboard, behind 'Messi', a boy makes a sequence of lines on the wall with a piece of charcoal. These lines represent each of the containers he has extracted to later receive his payment.
On a lower level, the minor, who empties the car in which we arrived, points at the five containers that he sucked. It is about 11:00 in the morning and in his personal accounting already has up to 19 lines. While the last container is being filled, he runs with the hose to empty a taxi that is right next to him. Here the recess bell won’t ring because the one who rests, loses.
The effects of gasoline on humans can be deadly, according to the World Health Organization
And yet, the children show deep respect and almost a great admiration to Messi; in the midst of their poverty they believe that this anti-hero is here to help them out, but based on scientific research, in this smuggling supply chain the number '10' is just the person who is killing them.