CUCUTA — It's 2 p.m., and the borderland between Colombia and Venezuela is sizzling in the afternoon heat.
Sweat is the permanent companion of all those crossing the Simón Bolívar bridge linking Venezuela with the Colombian border city of Cúcuta. Mariela* has been sitting for two hours in an endless line of cars, returning from a shopping trip in Venezuela in an old car without any air conditioning.
The breeze people talk about in Cúcuta is a myth, probably invented by the same person who said this was Colombia's leafiest city. On the upside, everything Mariela bought for her daughter's 15th birthday was dirt cheap: cases of high-end whisky, loads of food, little gifts for the guests, all for 250,000 pesos or just under $130.
Waiting for hours to cross back into Colombia is worth it. "I'm not stupid enough to buy all this in Cúcuta."
The dramatic exchange rate – with the Venezuelan Bolívar worth 30 cents of a Colombian peso (a U.S. dollar is worth around 1,940 Colombian pesos) – makes possible the vast profits to be had from buying in Venezuela. This goes for those shopping for themselves, and the vast black market of Venezuelan-bought goods resold in Colombia.
Mauricio Villán, a Colombian tax official in Cúcuta, says, smuggling from Venezuela is "doubly harmful," both to "Colombian production and by leaving Venezuela short of supplies."
Some 5,000 people were arrested in 2013 for contraband, though that was only 30% of those living off this activity on the frontier.
About 30 years ago "if you wanted to pay in pesos in a clothes shop, they would not even serve you, but ask you to pay in bolívars," recalls María Carvajalino, a Cúcuta resident. A bolívar cost 17 Colombian pesos then, before it began to plummet in the early 1990s. "Then it went from 17 to five pesos, and some business owners began to go bankrupt. Many killed themselves," she says.
Johanna Magrovejo, an international trade lecturer at the Francisco de Paula Santander University in Cúcuta, says the bolívar "lost all its value with the government of Hugo Chávez."
Every day there are protests in Venezuela. Since the death of Chávez and election of President Nicolás Maduro, opposition has grown louder. Certain critics of the Maduro government have been seized and there is an outcry over alleged violations by troops and government agents.
Cúcuta tastes the backlash from all this. When rumors began to circulate that the frontier had been closed, what had been a routine for thousands — circulating between the two states — became much more difficult. It also gave the Venezuelan National Guard at the crossing an excuse to live up to their reputation for rough and arbitrary treatment.
For some it can now take an entire day to cross the border, for work or study. Witnesses say the Venezuelan guards may well confiscate one person's "small-time merchandise" while letting big loads go through.
The explanation for this lies with the mosco, or fly. He is the middleman who negotiates the amounts to be paid to border guards. Better off not trying to bribe them directly. Business is good for Colombian smugglers, in any case, as the Venezuelan guards are paid in bolívars.
Drugs and laundering
Contraband is a very useful instrument for laundering large amounts of drug money, which makes the stakes even higher. The Cúcuta newspaper La Opinión reported early this year that informal salesmen angered by inspections by the DIAN Colombian tax collectors tried to burn down one of its offices.
According to FENALCO, a nationwide association of business owners, Cúcuta is the city with the highest proportion of black market labor in Colombia. Some 72% of its workers work off-the-books, which affects ordinary business.
Guillermo Infante, director of Coagronorte, an association of small rice farmers in the area, says sales have dropped some 50% because of the cheaper Venezuelan rice brought into Cúcuta. Other professionals not directly related to trade are also affected, as everything is cheaper across the border. Ciro Arango, a spokesman for local dentists, says patient numbers have fallen 80%.
The illicit trade has also left its mark in deeper ways on the city, as a certain tolerance of violence and illegality has come to be tolerated in recent years. The blogger Alejandra Omaña recently described the average Cúcuta resident as one who "has committed a crime at least once in his or her life, or considered doing so." For writing that, she was bombarded with vociferous objections, insults and threats from a range of locals, and had to abandon her Social Communications studies in Cúcuta, fearing for her safety.
The city's main promenade, the only place with that famous breeze arrives, is an avenue of excess: luxury convertibles loudly blaring out their music, people drinking and driving, girls of all backgrounds offering sex for money. Mansions are sprouting around the city, but nobody wants to know where the money to build them came from.
Yet they say there is hope. "Cúcuta is a city of dynamic people. Jobless numbers have fallen," says its mayor Donamaris París. Being on the border makes the city "a place of opportunities."
For Professor Magrovejo, the solution is to look beyond Venezuela, and seek new, cleaner, trading partners. But all of that looks so far away as the border police wave the cars ahead under the scorching sun.
* This article appeared originally in Humboldt, the review of the Goethe Institute in Bogotá
** Names changed at the individuals' request, to protect identities.