Puerto Santander, Colombia, on the Venezuelan border – Dicson has 1.4 million Venezuelan bolivars ($140,700) stuffed under the backseat of his car.
Stacks upon stacks of cash are neatly sorted and tucked away, earned from the sales at his shop in Puerto Santander, a Colombian town on the Venezuelan border.
The 47-year-old smiles as he covers up the cash with the seat, which had been hollowed out months ago to transport the money from his shop all the way to Cucuta, another city 60km away along the border with Venezuela.
Dicson does this every day.
Venezuela opened its borders with Colombia over the summer to allow Venezuelans to cross and buy basic goods such as rice, flour, toilet paper and toothpaste from markets and shops in Colombia.
At home, such items are expensive and in short supply – if not entirely unavailable. The shortages and extreme inflation, largely due to the crash in oil prices, have left Venezuelans scrambling. They pile into buses to come to Puerto Santander, some travelling for days just to cross the border for a few hours, returning again by bus immediately after.
At the San Antonio crossing to Cucuta, for example, Venezuelans must fill out paperwork while they wait on the Simon Bolivar bridge. Hungry and tired, tens of thousands of people stand for hours before passing border control agents, many arriving as early as 2am to manage an early entrance. Only then do they reach a wide highway on the Colombian side where dozens of shops have sprung up in recent months to cater to their needs.
The town of Puerto Santander in Colombia, however, has a wildness about it that other border crossings do not: There are no such barriers as in San Antonio. While the bridge across the Guaramito River is manned by soldiers wielding automatic weapons on both the Colombian and Venezuelan sides, the border is open – no paperwork, no searches and no waiting is required.
The bridge looks like a busy footpath during rush-hour, taking less than five minutes to cross. Crossing the river under the bridge, men on motorised wooden rafts smuggle cheap petrol from Venezuela into Colombia.
The dusty roads and oppressive heat, along with the combination of smugglers on motorcycles, regular violent incidents and crowded outdoor markets lend the place this air of “wildness” – a completely unregulated town where people get what they need and get out.
Thousands of Venezuelans walk through the border each day.
Sareth, 41, makes the 16-hour journey from Caracas about once a week. She sits on a stool in a shop fanning herself with a piece of paper in an attempt to fend off the sweltering, 37-degree Celcius heat. She has no faith in her government, especially President Nicolas Maduro, who continues to cling to power despite large-scale protests demanding recall elections.
Sareth gives a wry laugh, describing the president as “the worst one ever”.
It is a recurring theme among Venezuelans in Puerto Santander – a frustration and resignation that they mainly communicate through shrugs and by rolling their eyes.
Carmen, 53, comes from Caracas to buy basics such as flour, beans, nappies and toilet paper. She is exhausted from the trip, and laughs when she talks about the future of Venezuela. “We have to have patience,” she says.
Colombian shop owners and Venezuelan smugglers along the border enjoy a different experience from their customers: Business has never been better.
Stores are crowded from dawn well into the night, fully stocked with the products Venezuelans flock to buy.
The competition is high among the shop owners, and they cannot overcharge their desperate customers too much. One benefit of the open border is that they no longer need to pay smugglers to deliver their goods to Venezuelans on the other side.
Lubas, 17, is a smuggler from a nearby Venezuelan town across the Guaramito River. Wearing a crop top and jeans, standing with her arms folded, she says she doesn’t know much about politics and doesn’t really care – what she pays attention to is her work, and business is thriving.
Lubas wakes up at 6am to sell fresh clams in Puerto Santander. She works until noon and then stocks up on basic supplies in bulk and carries them back across the bridge to Venezuela. She buys rice for 1,300 bolivars ($130) and sells it to a man for 1,500 bolivars ($151), who then sells it to locals for 2,000 bolivars ($201).
She says the Venezuelan military occasionally fine her on her way back because at this point, they recognise her as a smuggler. Sometimes, she says, she slips the guards a few bills and they let her go on her way.
Across the border, there is greater military presence and a police outpost not far away that everyone avoids. Several shops there sell the same goods as those in Colombia, but the owners are wary of speaking with anyone asking for more than just rice.
The town mainly serves as a bus depot. Past the location of the depot, where buses arrive to drop off and pick up passengers, the town empties. There is little traffic and even fewer pedestrians.
Back in Colombia, Dicson is ready to leave for the day. His wife, who arrives and stays later than him each day, will run the shop while Dicson heads home with the money.
He speeds down the uneven road at 130 km/hr, passing petrol smugglers on motorcycles. The smugglers have six, seven, sometimes 12 plastic tanks of petrol strapped to their bikes, and drive a bit more cautiously for fear of meeting an explosive accident.
“That happens sometimes,” Dicson says casually, shouting over the sound of the wind flying in through the open windows.
He stops at an illegal petrol station, where a young man comes out to pour cheap fuel smuggled in from Venezuela into the car through a large plastic bottle and hose.
After filling his tank, Dicson speeds away again, coming to a stop after a few minutes to buy a litre of soda. Approaching a paramilitary outpost, he slows down again, waves to an officer and smiles, holding up the bright red bottle of the sweet drink. The guard smiles at him and waves him away. He doesn’t want soda today.
Dicson explains that on his way to Puerto Santander each day, he stops at one of two checkpoints and pays the guards 10,000 Colombian pesos ($3). It’s a small bribe to allow him to pass through unsearched. On his way back, Dicson provides the other checkpoint guards with soda or fruit and is allowed passage.
He still needs to exchange that cash for Colombian pesos through a black market dealer. In Cucuta, Dicson stops in a car park. A group of parking attendants sit watching as he unloads the money into huge black bags that he slings over his back and walks towards a small commercial centre.
Dicson heads inside an ordinary currency exchange where the owners – a mother with her son, who is no older than 12 – smile at Dicson as he enters. Dicson visits them every day and they know him well.
It’s his last stop, where the currency exchange owner pays Dicson for transporting the money, so they can sell the currency at a higher rate.
Dicson leaves with a small stack of over three million Colombian pesos. The exchange rate is so high that what once filled a car can now fits in his pocket, in 50,000 peso denominations. He smiles and tucks it away. It’s time for him to head home – he needs to get some sleep so he can wake up and head back to Puerto Santander the next day.