Puno, Peru - On a cold morning in May, villagers on the outskirts of Puno, the capital of this highland region of Peru, lined up on a street confronting police and defying their orders to stay back.
Crouching on the ground nearby, a woman sobbed behind the back wheels of her van, begging the officers not to take it. "Don’t take my car, I will not leave this place," the woman cried to the police.
The officers had confiscated her dark blue van loaded with cartons of cigarettes, clothes, and other goods - all smuggled from Bolivia.
Puno is the heart of the smuggling business in Peru. And tensions rise every time the police launch raids against smugglers. Many people buy the goods with their life savings, and they risk losing it all.
"People have gone to extremes to save their belongings, including women throwing themselves under the vehicles with their children to prevent it from moving," customs agent Cesar Linares told Al Jazeera.
This time, an officer in riot gear called for calm through a megaphone. "Let's defend the good things. Smuggling is a crime," he told the crowd.
But many in the crowd didn't want to listen. A woman picked up a stone and threw it at an official, who ran away. The villagers were enraged and they defended the woman.
Many believe it is their right to buy and sell products without paying duties. And most don't believe they are committing a felony.
"The profitability that contraband generates is very high if you compare it with other economic activities. People prefer it. "
- Cesar Linares, Peruvian customs agent
"Pay taxes? Oh no. We’re just working, we are not stealing," smuggler Javier Apaza said.
Apaza was pulling a heavy cart loaded with goods across the Desaguadero bridge. This is the main border crossing between Peru and Bolivia - and one of Peru's top smuggling routes. Smugglers use it to transport everything including clothes, computers, food and fuel.
"The profitability that contraband generates is very high if you compare it with other economic activities. People prefer it. And they don't have a tradition of paying taxes. In other words they haven’t understood that smuggling is a crime," said customs agent Linares.
The Desaguadero border crossing gets very busy on Tuesdays and Fridays. Traffickers have organised themselves to move merchandise those days - when the goods are sold in fairs in Bolivia. It's an efficient system that quickly gets the products into the hands of distributors who wait around in huge trucks to take the products to Peru.
A small police station sits on the bridge itself. No one was arrested that morning, yet hundreds of men and women in tricycles, carts, motorcycles and pedestrians were moving loads of contraband goods across the bridge.
Hugo Barrera, the customs chief in Puno, said officers were more worried about smugglers who taking large shipments across remote routes.
"Convoys of trucks enter through the northern area of Puno," he said. "They call it the snake. We've sometimes counted 100 trucks altogether, and each one carries six to seven armed guards to protect the merchandise."
The drug connection
Smuggling, though, is benefiting the local economy. Juliaca, a two-hour drive from Desaguadero, has become the region's contraband capital. It is Puno's thriving city, where the economy is obviously fueled by the illicit trade.
Authorities believe 60 per cent of the population here are involved in trafficking goods. But, while Juliaca is still very poor, the city centre is bustling with trucks and thousands of motorcycles turned-taxis known as "mototaxis", which create traffic chaos throughout the day.
"There is unfair competition with the national industry. It generates unemployment because businesses, who pay taxes, cannot match the cost of smuggled goods"
- Hector Pajares, Puno customs legal adviser
In Juliaca, it is now more common to find clothes and home appliances at the local markets than fruits or vegetables.
Barrera said smuggling had become customs officers' biggest problem. "It takes up 90 per cent of our resources. We are trying to combat smuggling and trying to combat it, but we only have 100 agents."
And now the situation is getting more complicated. Barrera said smugglers are allying themselves with drug traffickers and money launderers "and combatting them has become very dangerous".
Desaguadero and other border crossing areas of Puno have become main routes for traffickers shipping cocaine into Bolivia. Peru is the world's top cocaine producer.
Peruvian authorities believe nearly 100,000 people in the country are now involved in illicit cross-border trading - a business worth around $1.5bn a year.
The government is also losing hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid duties.
The effects go beyond collecting taxes. "There is unfair competition with the national industry," said Hector Pajares, Puno's customs legal adviser. "It generates unemployment because businesses, who pay taxes, cannot match the cost of smuggled goods. And it's putting public health at risk because there is no sanitary registry."
Smugglers now can face up to six years in prison. Yet while police must confiscate the goods, many smugglers are let free.
Most of these people are poor. And they've put their savings into creating a small business of their own.
The goods confiscated from the woman in the village ended up at a huge hangar. Amid the crying and shouting, the police were eventually able to contain the angry crowd as they shuttled the van away.
People will certainly fight to keep their smuggled goods, at the risk of getting caught and convicted. And Puno is one of Peru's poorest regions, where people say they'll do anything to make a living.
Source: Al Jazeera