A growth in cattle smuggling from Venezuela to Colombia with participation from criminal organizations could be the result of heavy-handed controls that the government of President Nicolás Maduro has been imposing on Venezuela’s farmers.
The head of Colombia’s tax and customs police, General Juan Carlos Buitrago, said that controlling contraband cattle has become an increasingly complicated endeavor. Smugglers constantly open new routes, with authorities decommissioning more than 100 cross-border trails between Venezuela and Colombia this year alone.
Buitrago added that they have been investigating “allegations that the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) guerrilla group is allowing cattle to cross the Venezuelan border -- for a price,” reported El Espectador.
The police say the ELN charges up to 200,000 Colombian pesos (approximately $66) per head of cattle smuggled into Colombia.
“More than 500 head of cattle have been acquired in [Venezuela] for 200,000 [Colombian] pesos, then sold for 1 million Colombian pesos,” Buitrago said.
Meanwhile, in Venezuela the president of the National Federation of Cattle Ranchers (Federación Nacional de Ganaderos – FEDENAGA), Armando Chacín, accused the government of requiring landowners to sell it 30 percent of their production at regulated prices, creating fierce conflict within the sector. Many farmers are not willing to sacrifice so much of their cattle, or their profits, for so little in return.
Not only are the price restrictions affecting the bottom lines of Venezuelan farmers, but the Maduro administration also shut down cross-border trade with Colombia due to an alleged outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the neighboring country.
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Venezuelan farmers desperate as they face production loss to drastic government controls could be tempted to sell their cattle under more lucrative conditions but at the risk of falling into the hands of criminal networks that smuggle it into Colombia.
In May 2018, representatives from Venezuela’s livestock industry warned of criminal gangs and “border mafias” damaging beef production in the country.
Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami defended the government’s actions and accused the country’s meat industry of instituting boycotts and hiding its products.
“Some sectors want to continue with the criminal policies of smuggling contraband into Colombia,” he said.
Chara Melgarejo is the FEDENAGA director in Venezuela’s border state of Apure. He told InSight Crime that “in the only government-authorized slaughterhouse, they pay 50 percent of the cost. The rest is paid in installments [which are diluted by the country’s hyperinflation]. Meanwhile, in Colombia they pay everything at once and in cash.”
Butchers in Apure state’s border town of El Nula told InSight Crime that one kilogram of meat is sold locally at 5,000 Colombian pesos ($1.50), but when it is sold as contraband in Colombia it can reach between 9,000 Colombian pesos ($3).
State controls could also be restricting the movement of cattle from the border and plains regions of Venezuela -- its main beef producers -- to the country’s own major consumption centers.
The situation could be one of the causes behind the growth of contraband Venezuelan cattle in Colombia reported over the past few months, as smuggling becomes increasingly profitable for criminal organizations like the ELN and government corruption networks.