PARAGUACHON, Colombia (AP) — Less than two days after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro closed this lonely border outpost on the northern tip of South America, the eight-member Apochana family emerged from the dusty scrubland and shuffled up to a group of Colombian soldiers. The travelers were dripping sweat but dressed impeccably in black-and-white linen robes to attend a relative's funeral on the other side of the border.
Cecilia Apochana, the matriarch of the Wayuu family, complained that promises tribe members would be able to move freely between the two countries despite the closure haven't rung true.
"We've been walking an hour along a trail and have had to pay several people to let us get this far," said Apochana. Although never stopped by authorities, the extra time and effort to circumvent the closure still burns. "This is our land and there should not be a border, much less that it be closed."
The Apochana family's saga is one that may soon be shared by many of their 600,000 Wayuu brethren. For centuries, this semi-nomadic tribe has managed to dominate life on the foreboding La Guajira peninsula, first resisting conquest by Spain and since independence freely crossing the Colombian-Venezuelan border that arbitrarily divides clans in their ancestral homeland.
But a deepening dispute between Maduro's socialist government and U.S. ally Colombia may force them to pick sides.
On Monday, Maduro ordered the single drive-thru checkpoint here closed, expanding to four the number of border crossings shut in the past three weeks as part of a campaign to root out the smuggling of gas and basic goods he blames for widespread shortages. Venezuela says that almost 40 percent of its goods are smuggled out of the oil-rich country, costing it $2 billion a year.
From the look of things the restrictions on movement seem far from impenetrable.
A five-minute walk from the army checkpoint where the Apochana family stopped to rest, Alberto Herrera lords over his own makeshift toll straddling a dirt road crossing the border. He raises and lowers a stretched rope for every motorist that coughs up 400 Venezuelan bolivars, under 60 U.S. cents at the widely-used black market rate, he's demanding. For motorcycles it's a quarter of the price.
"I'm Venezuelan. I don't understand why I have to be passing illegally through these roads," protested Zuleia Gutierrez, as she passed through on the back of a motorcycle.
The Wayuu don't carry passports nor do they recognize borders, and for decades both Colombia and Venezuela have allowed them to cross La Guajira's desert as they please. As part of the anti-smuggling offensive, Maduro has vowed not to impinge on that freedom.
But tribal leaders say it's impossible they won't be economically asphyxiated by the crackdown.
La Guajira has the highest malnutrition rate in Colombia, at 11 percent, according to the public defender's office. More than 55 percent of the state's 930,000 residents, about a third of which are Wayuu, live in poverty.
To get by, many Wayuu depend on contraband, which they don't consider illicit. Until recently, Wayuu driving beat-up 1970s-era sedans could be seen on any given day loading up on price-controlled gas and other goods from Venezuela and bringing them across the border to the bustling city of Maicao, where they are resold for huge profits.
But in what may be a sign that the restrictions are beginning to work, the price of gas sold by illegal roadside vendors jumped overnight in Maicao from $4 to just under $7 on Tuesday for a five-gallon fill-up. By contrast, the same amount at a gas station goes for just under $16.
It's not just their livelihood that's at risk. Under the revolution stated 16 years ago by the late Hugo Chavez, many Wayuu, about half of whom live in Colombia, traveled to Venezuela to take advantage of cheaper health care and other social programs. Over the past year, as Maduro has stepped up anti-smuggling patrols, the hardships in Colombia have mounted and authorities here have had to supply food to thousands of Wayuu families in need.
While contraband has given the Wayuu an income, it has undermined their traditions. Women walking proud in their flowing, ankle-length robes are an increasingly rare sight. Smuggling has replaced traditional ways of life such as grazing goats, fishing and the selling of salt and charcoal.
Remedios Fajardo, a leader of what is one of the world's last matriarchal societies, said she fears social tensions will rise even further now that the Wayuu's buying and selling way of life is being disrupted by Venezuela's economic crisis and Maduro's response to it.
"The Wayuu have always been merchants. Historically we traded with the Antilles and now we've changed what we bring back and forth across the border among our brothers," she said. "It's not that we've transformed, we're just adapting."
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This story has been written through to correct the price of gasoline given in paragraph 14.