Maicao: Pirate Town on the Venezuelan Border
Maicao is a major shipping hub for food smuggled out of Venezuela- a country where millions slowly starve
Maicao, Colombia- It is night on the Venezuelan border. The air reeks of cigarettes, marijuana and gas fumes. Despite the border being “officially” closed to cars on the Venezuelan side, semi-trailer trucks wait in a long queue to cross. The line is much longer on the Venezuelan side.
Being here at the border at this hour violates most of the safety protocols I know. I am being accompanied by Colombian police. Three of them, in plainclothes, with body armor and pistols, sit 3 meters away.
I have been in Maicao 48 hours. I lost my cameras in what all parties involved have agreed to call “a misunderstanding”- I am prohibited from discussing that further. Let’s just say I messed up really bad.
During the day, no trucks pass. That’s when the reporters come to take hurried pictures of the border and then promptly leave- the few that bother anyways.
They call this neighborhood “La Raya”, but I wouldn’t call it a neighborhood. Rather, it is a collection of shacks built out of found materials, from which vendors sell cheap goods and gasoline. There are a few houses. I doubt anyone actually lives in them. More likely they’re tied into the cross border trafficking of goods.
Dozens and dozens of semi-trailer trucks wait in a long queue on both sides of the border to cross.
And cross they do- I marvel at the amount of goods passing. After seven months in Cucuta, where goods cross strictly by foot, I am amazed. I stare open-mouthed at the quantity of goods passing “unofficially”.
People in the area tell me the drivers pay heavy bribes to Venezuelan officials for doing so.
As far as Colombian immigration officials here are concerned, the border has always been open. It’s the fact that the Venezuelan side allows the traffic that surprises me. And they only allow it at night, when they are sure there are no reporters.
Only this time, there is one.
No one seems to care much that I’m here; maybe it’s the armed police escort.
If Venezuela is in a midst of an economic crisis, what could they possibly be exporting?
I can’t answer with certainty the question of what is in those trucks. But based on what is smuggled across the border in Cucuta, I can guess.
Up until a month ago, it was gasoline, to be sold on the black market here in Colombia. But that lucrative industry collapsed when Venezuelan oil production crashed, leaving thousands here unemployed and creating a spike in prices along the border.
Meat is still smuggled out of Venezuela in large quantities because it’s worth more here in Colombia. So is cheese. Most Venezuelans can’t afford to buy it, so farmers and ranchers regularly bring it across the border where they can sell it for something they desperately need- cash.
Colombian officials estimate that 11% of all the meat consumed in Colombia is smuggled across the border illegally.
It strikes me as sad and deeply ironic that a country with massive food insecurity would be exporting food. Despite the governments claims to the contrary, aspects of capitalism are still enticing to some Venezuelans.
The farmers can’t survive on the official prices set by the government for their goods, so millions slowly starve as the food is sold in Colombia.
Equally ironic that the country with arguably the greatest petroleum reserves on the planet no longer exports gasoline. Gas, which used to be free, is now barely available in the western half of Venezuela. In Caracas, where goods still flow freely, it costs $15 USD per gallon- a direct result of the most recent round of U.S sanctions and continuing power blackouts.
What else is in those Venezuelan trucks? I have no idea. That is what I think about as I smoke a cigarette and try not to appear nervous.
I am in fact very nervous.
I do know what’s not in those trucks- packaged food, medicine, consumer goods of any sort, or luxury goods. Because Venezuela produces none of those things, they are being smuggled into the country- and by the ton. The further into the exterior one goes into Venezuela, the more those goods are worth. A hamburger in Caracas now costs more than it does in London or New York.
But in a country where most people work for a monthly minimum wage of $6 USD, only the rich can afford to pay that price.
Those who are able to buy those hamburgers, and everything else, now do so with dollars. The economy has become entirely dollarized, due to the worthlessness of the Venezuelan currency. Another irony- that a country so hostile to the United States has de facto adopted the dollar as it’s unofficial currency.
But you can still sell Bolivares in Colombia, only rather than negotiating an exchange rate, one sells them by the kilo. Artisans will trade a few pesos to buy them in gross to make into purses.
Bolivares are worth more as decoration than as currency.
A Bandit Trade town
The entire city of Maicao reminds me of the poor neighborhoods in Juarez Mexico. Dangerous, dusty, dessert streets filled with trash wind between crumbling buildings, half of which are abandoned. Many of the roads are unpaved. During the day the streets are packed with informal stalls selling every good imaginable- meat, rice, electronics, antibiotics, cheap clothing, diapers, electronics, bread and anything else one might desire.
The city looks like it has been through a war. Virtually every building is in decay. There are beggars everywhere, and it is packed with small-time street merchants offering medicine, cigarettes or candy in outstretched arms. I have seen a lot of this in South America.
Just not on such a scale.
My first impression of Maicao is that it seems effectively lawless. It is a pirate trade town on the edge of a collapsed state. It is dirty, chaotic and dangerous. The border is not closely monitored, and the region in which it sits is part of the cocaine “superhighway” for narco-traffickers to ship their wares through Venezuela to points beyond.
We spent a great deal of our first night killing roaches in a hotel without plumbing, and listening to the sounds of other guests fighting and vomiting.
Taxis don’t go to the border- it’s too chaotic and dangerous, but there are plenty of people who make a meager living ferrying people and goods there informally. It’s not hard to find a ride.
At night the city seems deserted and there is virtually no police presence. We don’t leave the hotel after dark. We prefer the company of the roaches to what we might find on those abandoned streets.
Maicao is a glimpse into the conditions in western Venezuela, only here at least there is electricity. Just a few kilometers away in Maracaibo, Venezuela, that is not the case.
The day after I was robbed for the cameras, local police suggested we leave town. We took their advice.
I went to sleep that night in neighboring Riohacha, thinking that a mere two hour drive away, civilization ceases to exist.
Joshua Collins is a freelance reporter covering the Venezuelan immigration from the border in Cucuta, Colombia. He is also the editor of Muros Invisibles.