Police in Colombia have captured the so-called "fuel czar," the leader of a contraband smuggling operation along the border with Venezuela, in what could signal an effort to reduce the flow of illicit goods.
On February 19, Colombian police confirmed the capture of Pedro Enrique Ospino Cobo, alias "Balacho," in Venezuela, reported El Colombiano. Ospino was allegedly the successor to captured contraband boss Marcos de Jesus Figueroa Garcia, alias "Marquitos," and controlled the finances of Marquitos' operation, along with drug routes, gasoline smuggling, and extortion operations, reported Semana.
Ospino has also been identified as the alleged perpetrator of the murders of a mayor and city councilman in northeastern Colombia in 2012.
Marquitos was arrested in Brazil last October, after building a lucrative gasoline smuggling and drug trafficking operation allegedly facilitated by ties to local politicians including the former governor of Colombia's La Guajira province, Francisco "Kiko" Gomez. While not much is known about Ospino, Colombian police say he was one of three leaders who took over the criminal network after Marquitos was captured, according to El Heraldo.
InSight Crime Analysis
Ospino's capture suggests that Colombian authorities are turning their attention to contraband smuggling, a historically overlooked problem. In October, the head of Colombia’s fiscal police told Reuters that strides made against drug trafficking and progress in peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had allowed security forces to focus on combatting the contraband trade, a problem they previously did not have the resources to tackle.
The focus on contraband appears to be a new strategy. When InSight Crime visited the Venezuelan border region in September, officials said there was so much contraband moving across the border authorities had no hopes of stemming the flow. "We can't stop this. All we can do is try to make sure it is not out of control," one customs police officer told InSight Crime. Similarly, Reuters reported that officials are only able to inspect around two percent of goods crossing the border, enabling contraband to make up over 10 percent of Colombia’s imports in 2013. By mid-September last year, customs police in the border city of Cucuta had seized over $5.1 million worth of contraband.
SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles
Gasoline smuggling, the forte of Marquitos' former empire, is especially profitable. According to the Los Angeles Times, 16 percent of all gasoline produced in Venezuelan refineries ends up as contraband in Colombia, Brazil, and the Caribbean, and gasoline bought for 4 cents a gallon at Venezuelan service stations can be sold for huge markups in Colombia.