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A thriving border business

Smugglers are loading up their cars and selling Venezuela's cheap gas just next door in Colombia.

Meanwhile, criminal gangs that are believed to include elements of paramilitary organizations and guerrilla groups such as the FARC and the ELN, have gotten in on the act, Duarte said.

“It's common knowledge that the National Guard, the CICPC (special crimes police), and the DISIP (Venezuela’s intelligence agency) receive money from what appear to be illegal groups from the border region who are smuggling gasoline,” he said.

The National Guard commander in San Antonio turned down several interview requests.

These gangs are believed to have fleets of "Viking" cars — '70s and '80s models with extra large gas tanks and a back seat altered to accommodate a plastic bag (the bag reminds people of the packaging for a popular ice cream brand known as "Vikingo"). These masquerade as taxis but in fact spend all day shuttling gas back and forth across the border.

The contraband business causes other problems in addition to the loss of millions of dollars. In San Antonio and its vicinities, columns of cars stretch around the corner at gas stations as smugglers wait to fill up, meaning that those who require gas for legitimate reasons must wait in line — or are even pushed to the back of the queue. “When the pump attendants see our buses they say the gasoline has run out,” Duarte said. “Bus drivers have to wait up to three hours a day because the attendants will only give gas to public transport if public transport gives them money. The authorities know this goes on.”

But Jose Rozo, president of the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce for Tachira, says he has seen a concerted effort by the Venezuelan authorities to tackle the issue in recent months.

Colombia has been receiving between 50,000 and 120,000 barrels of cheap fuel per month from Venezuela, though Chavez threatened Sunday to stop sending the fuel, a move analysts said would likely exacerbate the problem. Venezuela claims to have tightened controls and increased searches on the border. But the measures appear to have done little to stem the flow.

Rozo blames the Colombians, whose criminal gangs have spilled over the border, for corrupting Venezuela’s National Guard.

The Colombian government, meanwhile, has semi-legalized contraband gas in the Norte de Santander department, a move that has encouraged smuggling, said Rozo. In Cucuta, makeshift gas stations line the city's curbsides, openly selling contraband gas. A taxi driver in Cucuta said contraband gas sold for $1.72 per gallon.

“We are witnesses, and I can verify it, that at least on this side there is something that is being done by the Venezuelan authorities to combat these criminal groups,” he said. “But on their side there is indifference and tolerance on the part of the Colombian authorities."