As Venezuela fights smugglers, parts of Colombia go hungry

Families in Guajira, Colombia wait to see volunteer doctors. Residents say Venezuela’s crackdown on food smuggling is exacerbating chronic malnutrition in the area.
Families in Guajira, Colombia wait to see volunteer doctors. Residents say Venezuela’s crackdown on food smuggling is exacerbating chronic malnutrition in the area. Miami Herald Staff

Hovering over a large metal bowl as hungry cats and dogs looked on, Claudina Enrique carved up a goat to feed some 200 schoolchildren.

Here, in northeastern Colombia along the border with Venezuela, goats are some of the few animals that thrive in the hardscrabble, dusty terrain. Most of the region’s food is brought in, and now that food is getting harder to come by.

Venezuela is cracking down on smugglers who sell the country’s cheap, price-controlled goods on this side of the border. The government has touted huge seizures of everything from milk to rice. But those controls are having some unintended consequences in Guajira state, home to some of Colombia’s most vulnerable populations.

“Everything is so expensive now,” said Enrique, one of the estimated 90,000 native Wayúu who live in this region. Rice, butter and sugar that used to flow in from Venezuela have slowed to a trickle, she said, and prices for those goods have almost doubled in recent weeks.

“People can’t afford to eat these things anymore,” said Enrique, 76.

On a recent weekend, Colombia’s Civil Air Patrol, the Juan Felipe Gómez Escobar Foundation and Conexión Colombia took volunteer doctors to the area.

Over two days, some 1,365 people pressed into a cinderblock school where doctors were providing free checkups and handing out nutritional supplements. Scattered in the crowd of weathered faces and colorful dresses were children who showed textbook signs of malnourishment: low weight, distended bellies and bleached-out hair.

“I would say that since 1999, I haven’t seen so many cases of malnutrition concentrated in one area and that were so severe,” said Monica Rodriguez, a pediatrician who is a longtime member of the group. “From a medical standpoint, it’s going to be very difficult to rehabilitate some of them.”

Without immediate hospitalization, some of the children will die, she predicted.

The border crisis isn’t the only factor driving the hunger. The area has long been neglected by authorities and plagued by corruption. Drought has left wells brackish and dry. The public defender’s office says Guajira has the highest malnutrition rate in the country at 11.2 percent. Also, 48.5 percent of all the children in Colombia who die from diarrhea and dehydration are from this area.

Local indigenous authorities say some 4,700 Wayúu children have died over the past five years.

“We have a confluence of crises,” said Carlos Costa Medina with the state’s health department. “We have chronic poverty, the lack of water and the social situation in Venezuela.”

While the area is rich in crude and coal, little of the money stays in the community. Guajira has among the highest poverty rates in the country and many people scrape out a living tending goats or selling charcoal. In that sense, Venezuela’s socialist policies of keeping food prices cheap have been a lifeline here.

Costa estimated that about 90 percent of the region’s food came from over the border. But Venezuela can hardly be blamed for curbing its unintentional humanitarian aid; it has crushing problems of its own.

The country’s draconian price and currency controls have generated huge incentives for smugglers. As a result, supermarket shelves in Venezuela are often bare even as those missing goods cram cupboards here. Authorities estimate that about 40 percent of all national products are spirited across the 1,274-mile common border.

In August, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro rolled out new measures to crack down on the trade, including closing border crossings at night. Since then, the country has seized 3,879 tons of food and 1,068 tons of animal feed, authorities said. Border guards have also detained 794 people. The government recently announced it would keep the border closed at night for an additional three months.

Even so, there are signs of holes in the net. One of the hottest items along the border is gasoline. Venezuelan fuel is some of the cheapest in the world at 5 cents a gallon and the administration estimates that 100,000 barrels a day are smuggled out. Along the streets of Uribia, about 70 miles from the border, pimpineros openly sell Venezuelan gasoline out of tubs and Coca-Cola bottles.

Just a few weeks ago, a gallon of illicit gas cost about $1.50. Now, it’s running at $3 a gallon — still a bargain by Colombian standards.

“I don’t think there’s a single illicit activity that’s more profitable than this contraband,” said Magdalena Pardo, the head of the Colombian-Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce.

The smuggling, particularly of food, personal hygiene items and gasoline, has carved out a huge chunk of the local economy, making it difficult for Colombian companies to stand their ground, she said.

“We’re facing unfair competition,” she said. “It’s a big problem and we’re going to have to attack from all sides.”

But the tighter the controls, the harder life is likely to be for the residents of Guajira. Local vendors said the increased prices of the contraband crude were having a ripple effect in food prices, as haulers and truckers jacked up prices.

About once a week, Ines Uriana, 54, gets on her mule at 3 a.m. and rides three hours to the nearest town to sell charcoal and buy food. For 10 bags of charcoal, she can make about $15, but lately, she said, her groceries heading home have been getting lighter.

She wasn’t aware of the tighter border controls but she did know that food that used to come from Venezuela was harder to find.

“All the prices are going up,” she lamented. “Life is difficult.”