Venezuela’s Fuel Shortage Upends Longtime Colombian Border Gas Smuggling Trade

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Contraband fuel sits on the side of a road in Puerto Santander, Colombia, on May 31, 2019. The Venezuelan government’s lack of cash to import gasoline combined with U.S. sanctions targeting the oil sector have led to chronic fuel shortages in Venezuela. That has upended a long-running, lucrative contraband gas trade.

Ivan Valencia/Bloomberg via Getty Images


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Ivan Valencia/Bloomberg via Getty Images


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Contraband gas provided jobs to poor families on both sides of the border. But it also swelled the coffers of Colombian guerrillas and drug-trafficking groups that were involved in the business, says Victor Bautista, the top border official in Colombia’s Norte de Santander department, which abuts Venezuela.

Smuggling gas and purchasing it is illegal. But like stopping the flow of illegal drugs, clamping down proved impossible and Colombian authorities often looked the other way, says Marco Arévalo, a former official with Colombia’s Transportation Ministry.


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Arévalo points out that local and state governments along the border were deprived of millions of dollars in gasoline taxes that could have gone toward building roads and schools. The business also gave Cúcuta a chaotic feel with street-corner venders perched atop containers of gas, waving funnels and hoses in the air to attract customers.

«There were hardly any gas stations left in Cúcuta because it wasn’t a viable business,» Arévalo says.

There were also accidents. Arévalo says that at least 20 people in and around Cúcuta were killed in explosions as they transferred gasoline into car tanks. One smuggler who barely escaped death was Álvaro Albarracín, who operated a clandestine warehouse in the city where he kept dozens of fuel containers stacked against the walls.

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Álvaro Albarracín stands beside jugs used to smuggle gasoline from Venezuela into Colombia. He’s pictured at a warehouse in Cúcuta he built after a fire destroyed his old one.

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John Otis for NPR

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A gas station belonging to a chain operated by a business co-op, in the Colombian border city of Cúcuta, lists regular gas at 6,500 pesos ($1.75) and diesel at 6,800 pesos ($1.84) per gallon.

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Some Colombian motorists along the border grumble that they must now pay about twice as much for Colombian gas at service stations than they did on street corners. But taxi driver Levi Tarazona points out that contraband fuel was sometimes adulterated and caused engine damage. He claims that Colombian gas is cleaner.

Meanwhile, the collapse of gas smuggling has been a boon for filling stations. A few years ago, there were only four in Cúcuta, a city of nearly a million people. Now, there are 39 stations.

And in a bizarre twist, Albarracín, the former smuggler, claims that contraband is starting to flow in the opposite direction, with people taking Colombian gas into Venezuela. He says: «It’s been going on for the past two or three months because gasoline is so hard to find in Venezuela.»

  • Colombian economy
  • fuel smuggling
  • contraband gasoline
  • fuel
  • Venezuelan economy
  • Venezuela crisis
  • gasoline
  • Venezuela
  • Colombia
  • South America

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