The reopening of the Colombia-Venezuela border in September was celebrated as a significant step towards undermining cross-border criminal economies, such as contraband. But any reduction in crime may be a long time coming.
Since the border reopened on September 26, several large seizures of contraband goods have taken place. Venezuelan authorities announced on October 17 that they had seized 54 tons of food smuggled in from Colombia. Three Venezuelans had brought in the contraband through illegal border crossings, known as trochas, which increased after the closure of the Colombia-Venezuela border in 2015, according to Colombian news media.
Venezuelan authorities also seized 5,000 liters of contraband gasoline on October 17 and 36 kilograms of cocaine on September 28. They have detained suspects charged with smuggling and trafficking people across the border in at least two cases since its reopening.
“We are still seeing extortion and smuggling occurring all along the border,” Juan Pablo Guanipa, former governor of the Venezuelan border state of Zulia, told InSight Crime.
This frustration is commonly shared, with one social leader living near the border telling BBC Mundo that “the border reopening is laughable next to the violence and illegality we see every day, which is only getting worse.”
Some authorities have insisted that the resumption of legal trade will provide alternative employment opportunities for residents on both sides, reducing their need to use trochas or participate in criminal economies.
“We can say that a new era has begun in the border relationship between Colombia and Venezuela,” Vladimir Tovar, secretary of the Heavy Cargo Transport Union in Venezuela’s border state of Táchira, told InSight Crime.
InSight Crime Analysis
Since Venezuela decided to close the border in 2015 after years of worsening relations between the two countries, contraband has thrived. The restoration of legal commerce may reduce these over time, but the September reopening was never going to be a quick fix.
On both sides, politicians presented the reopening as an opportunity to crack down on criminal gangs and illegal migration. But rebuilding needed infrastructure — both physical and institutional — will require time and investment, according to experts.
“The security, migration, and border movement protocols are not ready,” Sebastián Zuleta, a security and peace negotiations expert focused on the Colombia-Venezuela border, told InSight Crime. “There was a lack of planning, so people still prefer to use the trochas.”
Even if the Colombia-Venezuela border becomes fully operational, it is unlikely that trochas, used by those dodging customs controls and those trafficking illegal goods, such as drugs and illegally mined minerals, could be eliminated entirely.
“Everything is being delayed,” Nelson Uruena, president of Táchira’s Customs Association, told InSight Crime. “We knew that this was going to be a very difficult process … informality has become a habit.”