Tourism agencies and taxi cooperatives are the newest fronts being used to hide migrant-smuggling rings at the border between Venezuela and Colombia, a shadowy business that earns illegal organizations and corrupt authorities up to $500 per person smuggled.
In La Parada, a neighborhood located between the town of Villa del Rosario in the Colombian department of Norte de Santander and the Simón Bolívar International Bridge that links Venezuela and Colombia, rows of taxis and small, so-called tourist agencies sit along the unpaved streets full of migrants crossing the border in the hope of improving their living conditions outside of their country.
This is where criminal groups have installed false tourist offices and where “jaladores” -- those who scope out potential victims -- attract the attention of undocumented Venezuelan migrants. They offer the desperate “tourist packages” that include stays in transit shelters. Some depart from Venezuela to the border with Colombia, others from the border to the interior of Colombia, often to cities such as Cali, Medellín and the capital city of Bogotá. Still others go as far as the city of Ipiales in the department of Nariño on Colombia’s southwestern border, where Venezuelan migrants are then transported to Ecuador and Peru.
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The tourism plans can be offered by agencies but also by human smuggling networks in Venezuela. When they arrive at the Colombian border, the migrants must cross the international bridge on foot or use one of the many illegal trails that have been carved out between the two countries. One source in the field whom InSight Crime consulted said that undocumented people attempting to cross the bridge must pay bribes of up to $30 -- a large sum considering the current value of the Venezuelan bolivar -- to Colombian or Venezuelan officials with ties to criminal organizations. Using the illegal trails or crossing the river simply means they pay the same organizations directly.
In order to travel along the routes within Colombia and beyond, the agencies and bus companies charge fees with surcharges of up to 40 percent, money which is presumed to go towards bribes to authorities patrolling the roads.
One person could pay anywhere from $12 to $500, usually depending on the distance of their journey. Pepe Ruiz Paredes, mayor of Villa del Rosario, told InSight Crime that between 30 and 40 buses pass by in a single day, each one holding approximately 20 to 30 people who are believed to have purchased false tourist plans.
According to a document provided by Ruiz Paredes, during a March 2018 meeting, local and departmental authorities from Norte de Santander stated that among the transportation companies involved are Trasan, Coopetran, Omega Cotrans and the Catatumbo taxi cooperative. Approximately six travel agencies were also identified at the meeting, including Rutas de América, Turismo Jet Limitada and Agencia Travesias.
Authorities still do not know who is running the operation. While the Urabeños have the most control over the region, multiple criminal organizations are present in the region, which has led to disputes at the border for control of this and other illegal activities.
InSight Crime Analysis
The Venezuelan migration crisis has given rise to new illicit activities. Those well established in other criminal economies have adapted to fit the unique situation at the border. Of them, human smuggling and the various forms of modern slavery (human trafficking, sexual exploitation, and child exploitation, among others) all threaten vulnerable Venezuelan migrants.
Tourist transport is fast becoming a favorite front for migrant smuggling as well as drug trafficking to different regions in Colombia and neighboring countries. Despite the fact that authorities have repeatedly discovered illegal activities in the use of tourism buses, they continue to be one of the most popular means of transporting narcotics. And now, attracted by the business’ low risk, an increasing number of criminal groups are using them for human smuggling and trafficking as well.
Colombian authorities have also cracked down on the country’s border with Ecuador, where a serious collision occurred in August 2018 involving a bus full of tourists that was smuggling drugs.
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Two years ago, InSight Crime reported on a similar case at the border between Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina, where a sightseeing bus bound for Rio de Janeiro was stopped with 296 kilograms of Colombian cocaine.
While the use of tour buses and fake travel agencies is a common element between the two events, there are differences. Buses used for drug trafficking frequent less traveled roads to avoid the authorities. However, those used for human smuggling leave the border or even from the bus terminal in the city of Cúcuta in Norte de Santander to head out on major national roads.
High rates of corruption in border authorities or a simple inability to stop the criminal networks from operating are common threads that have buoyed a business which has victimized countless Venezuelan migrants.