Colombia’s Congress has passed a new law that increases penalties for those involved in running contraband, raising concerns that small-time smugglers and local communities that depend on the trade for economic survival will be persecuted.
On June 16, by a vote of 100 against five, Colombia's House of Representatives approved a new law increasing penalties and prison time for those found guilty of contraband smuggling and customs fraud, reported El Heraldo.
The so-called Anti-Contraband Law defines contraband as the illegal importation of goods worth more than 50 times the minimum wage (roughly $11,800). Those convicted now face prison sentences from four to sixteen years, and fines worth 200 to 300 percent of the contraband’s overall value.
For instance, those found smuggling 1,000 or more gallons of fuel can now receive up to 16 years in prison.
According to El Heraldo, official figures estimate contraband’s value in Colombia at over $6 billion. Cecilia Alvarez-Correa, the Minister of Commerce, Industry, and Tourism, said this makes contraband equivalent to two percent of GDP and 10 percent of all imports.
Antenor Duran Carrillo -- a Congressman from La Guajira, a region known for its significant contraband trade with Venezuela -- was among those who voted against the law, saying it could result in the unfair persecution of small businesses and families dependent on the buying and selling of goods. Additionally, Colombia’s Federation of San Andresitos (FESACOL) -- which represents the informal sector -- estimated over four million informal workers will be affected by the new law.
Santiago Rojas, director of Colombia’s tax and customs agency (DIAN), said the law is “not aimed at shopkeepers” but rather Colombia’s larger contraband networks; of which he estimates there are around 20 in the country.
InSight Crime Analysis
Contraband smuggling is widespread in Colombia, and some authorities have even called it a threat to national security given that it provides income for criminals and guerrilla groups and a means for them to launder drug money.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Contraband
Textiles, cigarettes, alcohol, and gasoline are among the contraband items most commonly smuggled into the country. This illicit trade is especially concentrated along the porous Colombia-Venezuela border -- particularly in the state of La Guajira -- where groups stand to profit by smuggling subsidized fuel and other goods from Venezuela into Colombia -- where they fetch a much higher price. Colombian authorities have even reportedly begun using armed helicopters to patrol the Venezuela border in an effort to combat fuel smuggling.
Many Colombian officials, however, protect and profit from the massive flow of illicit goods into the country. Recently, the former head of tax and customs at the Cartagena and Buenaventura ports (two of the most important in Colombia) was arrested for collaborating with smugglers.
This raises concerns as to whether or not the new law will actually result in the dismantling of large contraband networks. It may simply lead government officials to pick off the low-hanging fruit, going after small-time smugglers and the local businesses dependent on the contraband trade to survive.