The following article is one of four reports based on Vanda Felbab-Brown’s fieldwork in different parts of Colombia in January 2011. Here she describes her trip to the Colombia-Venezuela border where smuggling is rampant. Read also her review of security in Nariño; her walk in the comunas of Medellín; and her overview of the Santos government’s national security strategy.

The “muchacho” on a motorcycle drove up to us and asked if we needed help. He was not offering to give us directions in case we were lost in this Venezuelan border town of San Antonio; he was inquiring whether we needed help to get anything smuggled into Colombia. Along the border with Venezuela and Colombia, several free-entry (visa-free) zones like this one between San Antonio and Villa de Rosario, Colombia, exist, and they are both the lifeline of the border communities and smuggling havens.

Because of Venezuela’s anachronistic exchange rate and differential taxes and prices, Colombians from Catatumbo, a poor region plagued by unemployment, coca, and violence, prefer to shop for a myriad of household goods in Venezuela. But at the border, they face the Venezuelan border guards and potential export duties or the confiscation of their goods. Here is where the muchachos, known as las moscas (the flies), come in. They know which of the notoriously corrupt Venezuelan border guards are corrupt reliably and for a fee will let the contraband pass. Customers stop and wait with their cars or on foot in streets not far from the border, and las moscas swarm around them offering their smuggling services. They take an article across the border, share a part of the profit with the border guard, and hand the merchandise to their customers in Colombia. When for the purposes of research – we did not actually intend to smuggle anything – we told our mosca that we wanted to buy a basketball net and bring it into Colombia, he told us that the net would be too visible on his motorcycle and we needed a mosca with a car. After my local Catatumbo guide assured him that this all-too-rare gringa would not compromise his operations, he did recommend a car-equipped colleague.

Serious smuggling, of course, involves actors far more serious than the flies. There is plenty of serious illegal trafficking along the Colombian-Venezuelan border involving drugs, gasoline, and cars. Although the Triborder region where Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina meet is more notorious as a smuggling hub of Latin America, the Colombian-Venezuelan border is perhaps even more porous and channels vast amounts of cocaine and other commodities. Colombia’s long-time armed actors – the leftist guerrillas the FARC and the ELN and the reconstituted rightist ex-paramilitary groups, such as Aguilas Negras, Organización Nueva Generación, Los Rastrojos, and other criminal gangs – fight for control of this highly lucrative traffic and of the border. Both sets of actors use Venezuelan territory for their operations.

In Catatumbo, while the FARC and the ELN have been pushed into the jungles, the ex-paramilitary groups rule the illegal economies and try to rule the life of the community as well. The Colombian government insists that these groups, which have emerged in the wake of the 2005 demobilization process of the former umbrella paramilitary group, Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), are not paramilitary groups, but merely criminal bands without political ambitions. But in Catatumbo and elsewhere in Colombia, they display much of the same behavior as the former AUC: They impose curfews, dictate dress codes, extort legal and illegal businesses alike, and influence local elections. In Cúcuta, Catatumbo’s main city, local community organizers still fear them and allege that their connections to local police, military, and political structures are too deep for them to report Cúcuta’s frequent murders or continuing disappearances of people from around the region. Like the AUC, they fight the FARC with various degree of commitment, depending on local circumstances. And although they do not have a national agenda like the leadership of the AUC, they understand that their power grows and criminal enterprises thrive if they have a good influence on local politics.

The control exercised by such groups is less and more clandestine than it used to be. At the height of their power in the early 2000s, paramilitary groups openly patrolled in Cúcuta next to the police and the military. The nearby town of Juan Frío, the seat of the local parajefe, was notorious for punishments of those who disobeyed: people are rumored to have been quartered there with chainsaws or burned alive in ovens. Today Juan Frío is trying to reinvent itself as a Sunday vacation spot known for its fish restaurants. But when in one such local cantina I tried to engage the waiter on the topic of the new paramilitary groups, he quickly glanced around and walked away.

Those who overcome their fears and are willing to talk without attribution insist that the presence of the new paramilitary groups/criminal bands is strong, only now they often front as private security companies. Regardless of whether one calls them criminal bands or new paramilitary groups, five years after the demobilization of the old AUC, these armed actors now have as many as 10,000 combatants in Colombia and once again terrorize local communities. In the 1980s, they carried AK-47s; in the 1990s, they added formal uniforms to their AK-47s; and today, they are in civvies or don the uniforms of private security companies and have a silencer on their Luger. But their ability to coerce local communities and corrupt local authorities is still strong.

They also lord it over the moscas and another breed of local smugglers, the pimpineros, by taxing and sometimes franchising them. The pimpineros are petty smugglers of gasoline who dot the roads around Cúcuta and hawk the fuel in plastic bottles. Their smuggled gasoline sells for about half the price of official gasoline in Cúcuta and one quarter of the price in Bogotá. Actors who control gasoline smuggling in bulk and can bring it all the way from Venezuela to Bogotá can make more money than those who smuggle cocaine to Colombia’s borders while facing far less law enforcement.

Nonetheless, law enforcement against the pimpineros occasionally takes place. When Cucutá authorities tried to shut down the smuggled gasoline sales some months back, they sparked social protests and demonstrations since the gas smuggling, like other smuggling, constitutes the only livelihood of many local residents. The local authorities then changed their minds and permitted the sale of smuggled gas if the pimpineros did not smuggle more than a certain amount, joined a union, and paid a small tax. Some obeyed, others didn’t. But it was not clear whether the pimpineros liked their semi-legal status better: some complained that now they had to pay a tax both to the paramilitaries and to the local government.

One lesson of this micro example of illegal economies is that legalization is not a panacea for the complex threats and challenges illegal economies represent. As long as the state does not have firm control of the security situation and cannot enforce regulations, legal economies, like illegal ones, can be the sources of funding and political capital for dangerous non-state actors and can be pervaded by violence and corruption.

The other lesson is also a challenge for the new Colombian administration of President Juan Manuel Santos: If his government wants to expand the security gains of the previous administration of Álvaro Uribe and effectively implement the planned socio-economic reforms, Colombia’s government needs to focus on the new bandas criminales as systematically and robustly as on the FARC. Starting now is imperative: Catatumbo’s and Colombia’s armed actors are already getting ready to manipulate Colombia’s municipal elections upcoming in the fall of 2011.