Problems seen in Venezuela-Colombia border closure

AP News
Posted: Aug 12, 2014 9:59 PM

CARACS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan's decision to close its border with Colombia at night to fight contraband is drawing complaints from both sides of the frontier.

On Monday night, Venezuela began shutting down the 1,500-mile border from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. to crack down on the smuggling of heavily subsidized gasoline and food. Venezuela has the world's cheapest gas and the government maintains price controls on many food items, providing an incentive for smugglers to sell them abroad.

The 30-day trial closure sparked a grumbling from locals, thousands of whom cross the border for work.

In the Venezuelan border town of Urena, Chamber of Commerce president Isidoro Teres said 24-hour factories that make glass, plastic and other products may no longer be able to operate at night.

Teres said the new policy violates the right of free movement.

"The closure is extremely tight," he said, adding that hours before the frontier closed for the night, people began to form long traffic jams on the bridges crossing the border.

In Colombia's Norte de Santander state, officials also oppose the closure.

"They chose the easy way," Gov. Edgar Díaz Contreras said. "We need to find a remedy that doesn't hinder the daily work of the Colombian and Venezuelan citizens who use the border."

In addition to the trial border closure, Venezuela has deployed 17,000 soldiers in the border area to ensure safety and combat smuggling, officials said.

In 2010, Venezuela set prison terms of 10 to 14 years for those caught trying to illegally smuggle fuel, minerals or food out of the country.

The state-run oil company says 100,000 barrels of oil are spirited out of the country each day. The administration of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has said that as much as 40 percent of imported and domestically produced Venezuelan food gets smuggled into Colombia, constituting an "economic war" that contributes to shortages and drives up black market prices for essential items.

While the Venezuelan government has touted the closure, the administration of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has stayed silent.

Ariel Avila, a researcher at the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, a think tank in the Colombian capital of Bogota, said the closure will not stop the flow of trafficked goods, but might be a first step toward a more coherent anti-smuggling policy.

"The measure is not going to work. But it's not intended to work. It's intended as an exploration," Avila said.