Risking it all

Venezuela’s Fuel Traffickers on the Fringes

Faced with a collapsing economy, some risk smuggling fuel to Colombia while dodging Venezuelan soldiers at the border.

Once the wealthiest country in the region, Venezuela is mired in the worst economic crisis in its history.

Hyperinflation, political instability, severe debt, and chronic food and medicine shortages have crippled the economy in recent years.

Almost exclusively dependent on oil revenues, Venezuela found itself in a recession after oil prices dropped in 2014. The economy contracted, inflation and the cost of basics skyrocketed, and some Venezuelans turned to the trafficking of fuel to make a living.

In neighbouring Colombia they have found a good source of accomplices and buyers.

Fuel costs 1 cent a litre in Venezuela but is sold for more than 30 times its original price in Colombia.

After buying fuel in Venezuela, smugglers cross the border on foot, lugging 50-litre tanks on their backs. Determined smugglers even carry fuel in plastic bags as they can not afford plastic containers.

In Juan Frio and Cuestecitas, border villages in Colombia, inhabitants live side-by-side with fuel containers and petrol cans sold illegally. Many have turned to trafficking.

But smuggling petrol is a high-risk form of trafficking, as soldiers from the Venezuelan military patrol the border area, all too ready to fire.

“The cops try to catch us because we are excellent targets for them,” says fuel trafficker Jose Luis in Cuestecitas. “Our trucks don’t have official papers and the cops know that we smuggle fuel. What we are doing is illegal.”

Venezuela petrol smugglers - Risking it All
A petrol smuggler exchanges fuel with a trafficker along the Venezuela-Colombia border [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

Luis uses a vehicle that he says can carry “more than three tonnes of fuel” from Venezuela.

“Normally, this sort of vehicle can carry up to a ton and a half … It is a fantastic machine. You don’t have to worry about breaking down in this truck,” he says.

But he must decide whether this trip is worth risking a seven-year prison sentence and the confiscation of his vehicle worth more than $5,500.

Other smugglers, who traffic the fuel on foot, say they know they risk going to prison for what they do but are ready to face the risk in order to make a living.

“I am doing this for food, to be able to eat,” one young man in Venezuela says. He points to his clothing filled with holes and notes the price of bread and flour increases daily.

“Our economy is on the ground; there are no jobs any more,” he adds.

The young man says many of those now trafficking fuel had bright futures ahead of them.

“We all have qualifications and some of us even have degrees. But the universities are no longer open, they have all closed down.”

Elsewhere, a man and woman who are part of a family of small-time traffickers say this is their only way to make a living. The woman says the police have gone too far in destroying their paths and smashing cars found smuggling fuel.

“We sacrifice everything for the sake of our children,” she says. “We are not thieves. This is just our job.”