By Carlos Garcia Rawlins
EL YAGUAL, Venezuela (Reuters) - People in Venezuela's savannah heartlands struggling to survive the national economic crisis have found a novel way to make ends meet: fish-smuggling to Colombia.
While contraband of gasoline and medicine has been going on for years, little is known about the trade in tonnes of fresh-water fish by Venezuelans who pile them onto long, motorized canoes and traverse dangerous waterways for days into Colombia.
Fishermen and traders in the border state of Apure, in Venezuela's "llanos" or agricultural plains, speak openly of negotiating with Colombian guerrillas and bribing Venezuelan authorities in a trade that keeps whole villages fed.
"There's no other work. The fish pay for our food, our clothes, our children's studies, everything," said Jesus Rodriguez, 53, who supplies coporo fish to buyers at the beginning of the smuggling chain.
Working with boats and nets on the river Arauca in south-western Venezuela, the fishermen in El Yagual village sell their catches to traders who load as much as 3.5 tonnes per canoe for the trip to Colombia.
The fish are carefully packed with ice then covered with cloth. Children can be seen working on the riverbank, while large wads of cash change hands at every juncture.
The 24-hour journey goes past military checkpoints on the river and into territory held by Colombian guerrillas who for decades have been straying over the border.
"There are lots of dangers," said Luis Machado, 28, a Colombian boatman. "Whirlpools that can sink you, branches in the water. Then you bump into soldiers, the government, the guerrillas, almost everyone en route!"
In El Yagual, coporo fish go for 70 Venezuelan bolivars per kilogram, but middlemen make four times that after selling in Colombia for pesos then changing the money back on a flourishing currency black market on the border.
Venezuela's strict currency controls are a main factor driving a contraband trade that has irked President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government and sparked a major crackdown netting hundreds of suspected smugglers.
Venezuela's three-tiered exchange rate system makes it tricky to calculate currency conversions. Coropo fish sell for the equivalent of around $11 per kg at the strongest official exchange rate, but just $0.40 at the black market rate.
OPEC member Venezuela is suffering a recession and the highest inflation in the Americas. Shortages are widespread. Critics blame 15 years of socialist policies, while Maduro says opposition leaders and a wealthy elite are to blame for an economic "war" including hoarding and price gouging.
Hector Buitrago, 55, a major player in the fish business and known as "the heron", said the Arauca river had become a more popular smuggling route in recent months because authorities were watching roads more closely.
Buitrago estimates that about 80 percent of the fish trade into Colombia is illegal and that final profits averaged about 50-65 bolivars per kg after bribes and other costs.
(Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Grant McCool)