Authorities in Colombia have reportedly started using armed helicopters to stop gasoline smugglers crossing the border from Venezuela, an aggressive measure that underscores both the seriousness of the problem and the difficulties that security forces face in combatting it.
In a May 28 operation in Colombia's northeastern Cesar province, police, military, and customs officials employed two helicopters armed with machine guns to stop a convoy of 18 gasoline trucks, reported El Tiempo. Security forces placed barricades on a road near the Colombia-Venezuela border so that police could detain the smugglers with support from the air.
Security forces captured 19 individuals and seized over 33,000 gallons of fuel. However, as police transported the detainees to a nearby city, they were attacked by locals wielding rocks and sticks and had to call in the riot police.
The operation was the third this week targeting Colombia's lucrative contraband gasoline trade. In the first two operations, authorities arrested 15 smugglers and seized 13 vehicles and over 36,000 gallons of fuel.
On the other side of the border, in Venezuela, security forces have seized more than 317,000 gallons of gasoline in Zulia state so far this year, reported El Siglo. Venezuelan authorities are also attempting to control gasoline sales through the installation of electronic chips on vehicles.
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The use of helicopters armed with machine guns to combat the contraband gasoline trade is an example of the extreme measures security forces have had to employ in order to stop smugglers.
In the Colombia-Venezuela border region, gasoline smugglers typically travel in convoys known as "caravans of death" because of the speed and recklessness with which they drive (see video below). Armed escorts often accompany the convoys to protect them from security forces, and the drivers usually only stop if they crash.
In addition, locals who are financially dependent on the contraband trade also protect the "caravans of death," fighting with police when they detain smugglers, as illustrated by the recent operation.
The profits on offer in the illegal fuel trade -- due to the discrepancy in gasoline prices between Venezuela and Colombia -- have attracted narco-paramilitary groups known as BACRIM, in addition to the contraband families who have traditionally run the trade, and corrupted local politicians. Indeed, one of the major gasoline smuggling operations in the border region was allegedly run by the former governor of Colombia's northeastern La Guajira province, Francisco "Kiko" Gomez, who was arrested in October 2013.