The presidents of Colombia and Venezuela have reiterated their promise to crack down on contraband along their shared border. At the center of the crisis is the perennial illegal trade in cheap Venezuelan gasoline through the Colombian border province of La Guajira, where drought and starvation demonstrate just how little of the trafficking wealth trickles down.
President Juan Manuel Santos met this week with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to discuss measures to stem the illicit flow of products across the two countries' border. This may include Venezuela raising the price of gasoline in order to reduce the incentive for smuggling.
However, the criminal, political and social dynamics in the region are likely to serve as major obstacles to any such efforts, with an extremely corrupt local government and a population ready to strongly resist attempts to halt the illegal fuel trade.
What's more, a humanitarian crisis is brewing in La Guajira, the epicenter of the illegal gasoline trade. An average of two children die each day, principally of malnutrition and treatable diseases, in a situation one US pediatrician compared to Ethiopia. This crisis has been exacerbated by an ongoing drought and restrictions placed on food exports from Venezuela, but is also fueled by the complete absence of state services in a region where the elements of the local authorities work hand in hand with the criminals who run the gasoline trade.
According to Colombian newsweekly Semana, the gasoline trade in La Guajira -- which shares a border with Venezuela -- is now worth up to $2.6 billion a year. Authorities estimate that 1.5 million gallons of fuel enter Colombia via La Guajira daily, and that 15 percent of all fuel sold in Colombia is contraband, reported Semana.
The regional trade in contraband fuel has existed for many years. However, Semana's research highlights how this has morphed from a small-scale criminal activity controlled largely by members of the Wayuu indigenous group into a massive illicit industry run by armed criminals who operate with impunity.
The caravans carrying gasoline into Venezuela are now made up of as many as 150 vehicles, including tankers capable of carrying 4,000 gallons. These "caravans of death" -- so-called because of the high risk of an explosion as they travel at top speeds on back roads -- move in broad daylight and refuse to stop at checkpoints. Semana recounted one incident in which gasoline smugglers entering the country from Venezuela ran over a high-level customs official when asked to stop. There have been other cases of officials shot at or killed.
The caravans also include what are known as "kamikazes," operatives who carry firearms with the intention of blowing up any gas loads that are stopped. Smugglers pay off scouts to inform them of any potential trouble coming their way.
Despite the suspected size of the trade, officials seized just 123,000 gallons of gasoline in La Guajira's three principal cities between December 2013 and June this year. Only 162 police are assigned to patrol the border, which has some 192 illegal crossings.
Police also lack the power to stop contraband gasoline sales within the province. Indigenous communities in the area organize against them, and certain territories are off-limits because they are controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
InSight Crime Analysis
Thanks to its strategic location on the Venezuelan border, the coal-rich province of La Guajira has long been an important center for the contraband trade in products ranging from clothing and food to drugs, arms and gasoline. The profit margins for the illegal fuel trade are huge, given that gasoline can be bought for under 10 cents a gallon in Venezuela and resold for over $4 in Colombian cities. The trade is an important source of income for many in the region. RCN reported in 2012 that an estimated 25,000 families in La Guajira and the neighboring Cesar province lived off the contraband gas trade.
The trade was traditionally controlled by certain families of the indigenous Wayuu ethnicity. This changed over time, however, and by the 1990s two paramilitary leaders from the Northern Bloc of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) -- Hernan Giraldo and Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, alias "Jorge 40" -- were competing for control of the region.
Jorge 40's victorious paramilitary faction began calling themselves the Wayuu Counter-Insurgency Front and took over Ayatawacoop -- a fusion of three Wayuu cooperatives dedicated to gasoline transport, storage and distribution. Ayatawacoop became a key cog in Jorge 40's business, allowing him to legitimize illicit funds and activities. During this time, the contraband gasoline trade expanded. Jorge 40 began to ship Ayatawacoop fuel outside La Guajira, and charged a "security tax" from drivers of both legal and illegal fuel shipments.
Since the formal dismantling of the AUC and the 2008 extradition of Jorge 40, the criminal landscape in La Guajira has changed again. The dismantling of the AUC saw the emergence of various BACRIM (from the Spanish "bandas criminales," meaning criminal bands). As of 2011, intelligence sources had identified five such groups operating there. Since then, key criminal leaders have fallen, and Colombia's most powerful BACRIM crime syndicate, the Urabeños, appears to have seized near-total control of the region, though their power is still contested in some areas by their greatly weakened rivals, the Rastrojos.
Marcos de Jesus Figueroa Garcia, alias "Marquitos," is the nominal head of the Urabeños in much of the region, according to Semana. Marquitos, of Wayuu descent, is a powerful Guajira underworld figure who has developed a number of close political ties, most notably with ex-Governor Juan Francisco Gomez, better known as "Kiko Gomez," who was arrested last year for alleged BACRIM ties and accused of various murders.
Marquitos (pictured here) began as the head of security for a powerful local businessman with strong paramilitary connections, and later created his own criminal group dedicated to drug and gas smuggling that included longstanding contraband heavyweights. This group is thought to have been largely absorbed into the Urabeños structure. An underworld contact in La Guajira told InSight Crime that Marquitos remains a key player in the province for drug trafficking and other criminal activities, but that he had fled to Venezuela following Gomez's arrest -- news also reported by El Tiempo -- from where he was running his criminal empire. Marquitos has a $150,000 price on his head.
SEE ALSO: Marquitos Profile
The FARC also operates in La Guajira. The guerrilla group's 59th Front has established itself in several rural sectors outside the cities of Maicao and Albania, taxing contraband gas shipments. The group reportedly charges around $500 for tankers carrying 3,000-7,000 gallons crossing the border into Colombia, and lower sums for smaller vehicles. Police say there is also evidence that smugglers pay the FARC for armed assistance -- one 2013 attack that resulted in the deaths of three tax and customs police was attributed to the 59th Front.
The BACRIM also tax gas smugglers. This is reportedly done once the caravans take off along nearly 200 routes headed to various parts of the province. However, the BACRIM also offer up vehicles and logistical support to smugglers, and most contraband runners now reportedly work directly with them. Additionally, Marquitos allegedly uses the gas tanks of outbound vehicles to traffic cocaine into Venezuela, before they return full of fuel.
Failure to cooperate with the FARC and the BACRIM can be deadly for the "pimpineros" -- the people who buy the smuggled gasoline once it has crossed the border. Between the beginning of 2012 and mid-2013, six pimpineros were murdered for not making the required payments.
In La Guajira, the criminal world is nearly inseparable from the political, and the support of local officials is an important part of what has allowed the region's criminal activities -- including the fuel trade -- to flourish. In his time, Jorge 40 had corrupt officials from the intelligence and migration agency (DAS) and the customs police (DIAN) behind him, ensuring investigations into Ayatawacoop's activities would fall flat. All three of the region's principal political movements have alleged ties to criminal groups. As well as being linked to Marquitos, former Governor Kiko Gomez was allegedly a local contraband boss involved in the gasoline trade before coming to office, and negotiated a power-sharing agreement with Jorge 40's paramilitaries.
Kiko Gomez's political rivals in the New La Guajira Movement have been linked to Rastrojos drug money, in addition to the now-dismantled BACRIM of Alta La Guajira -- the remnants of which are believed to have been absorbed by the Urabeños -- and Jorge 40's AUC unit. A university director in La Guajira recently claimed that he had received death threats from the movement, and referred to them as the "BACRIM Nueva La Guajira." The third political structure in the province is run by current Partido de La U Senator Jorge Ballesteros. It is allied with Kiko Gomez's structure, and has been linked to former local contraband leader Samuel Santander Lopesierra, known as the "Marlboro Man."
This toxic mix of organized crime and politics has given rise to a thriving criminal industry, but the profits have clearly remained in the hands of the political and criminal elite at the expense of the rural poor.