Cheese has increasingly joined oil and other commodities smuggled along the border between Colombia and Venezuela, and criminal groups are milking the profits.
Groups operating in the state of Apure, located in northwestern Venezuela, have found that the dairy product more than doubles in value after crossing the Arauca river and reaching Bogotá.
Traditional white farmer's cheese is ubiquitous at restaurants in Colombia and served with nearly all local dishes. In Arauca, informal merchants also sell the Venezuelan cheeses in the streets and at local shops.
Seizures of Venezuelan cheese in Colombia are becoming so frequent that Julián García, the chief of the Intelligence Section of the Colombian Police (Seccional de Inteligencia de la Policía de Colombia - SIPOL) in Arauca, compared Venezuelan cheese smuggling with the long-time and lucrative gasoline and diesel fuel smuggling business in the border area.
“In comparison with la Guajira or with Cúcuta, gasoline smuggling instances are very low here. The strong business here is cheese and meat smuggling,” he told InSight Crime.
A kilo of cheese is worth about 9,000 pesos (just under $3) in Arauca, whereas in Bogotá it is worth more than 22,000 pesos (about $6).
"The business lies in bringing the cheese from Venezuela to Bogota,” he said.
The price difference has led to massive amounts of contraband cheese being moved across this border. In just two operations that took place within the last quarter of 2019, Colombian authorities seized more than a ton and a half of Venezuelan cheese. The cheese had entered via boat through the Arauca River.
In December 2018, Colombian authorities dismantled a criminal organization in Arauca known as “Los Suizos" that had smuggled about 100 tons of cheese across the border.
Armed groups, including Colombia's National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) and dissidents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC),"make up part of the chain controlling this activity," García said.
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Essential goods will naturally be smuggled along the Venezuela-Colombia border. Illegal transport has become a survival mechanism for Venezuelans hard hit by their country’s humanitarian crisis and provides illicit cash to criminal groups operating on both sides of the Arauca river.
During a visit to the border area, an InSight Crime team learned how large quantities of gasoline, diesel, scrap metal, meat, livestock and cheese cross the border daily via 22 crossings located along the 300 kilometers of river between Apure and Arauca.
Although cheese contraband is not new, it has intensified as Venezuela's currency has crashed.
“The smugglers buy the cheese from agricultural producers at a wholesale price of about 160,000 bolívares (less than $3), much lower than the price in Colombia. They then pay the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana - GNB) so that they allow them to cross the border with the merchandise and they sell the cheese on the Colombian side for up to three times what they paid in Venezuela (more than $6), as if it were Colombian cheese,” a rancher from the state of Apure told InSight Crime, who asked that his identity not be revealed.
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Additionally, the mass arrival of more than 1.5 million Venezuelans to Colombia would also influence the increase in demand (previously non-existent) of typical products from Venezuela, such as the fresh cheeses. This growing market could be a stimulus for contraband organizations.“Those that buy (the most cheese), are Venezuelans here in Colombia,” according to García, the chief of SIPOL in Arauca. He said he believes the “cheese [business] could be more profitable (than gas).”
In Central America, several large drug trafficking groups started as dairy smugglers, particularly in western Honduras and eastern El Salvador. The Salvadoran group known as Los Perrones opened routes and established political contacts in order to guarantee the cheese contraband smuggled in from Nicaragua. Later, they would use those same routes and contacts to enter into the cocaine trafficking business.
In the case of the smuggled Venezuelan cheese, the big winner at the moment is the ELN, which taxes all contraband from Venezuela to Colombia. “The ELN controls the River (Arauca),” García said.
One resident of Apure, who admitted to working as a contraband smuggler, put it simply: "At the end of the day, we all work for the guerrillas."