The government in Colombia is to strengthen customs controls on its borders in an attempt to tackle widespread contraband smuggling after identifying at least 88 routes through which contraband is moves into the country.
As part of the plan, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon announced that 500 new agents would be incorporated into the Fiscal and Customs Police with the aim of stemming the flow of contraband, reported Caracol Radio.
The government is also considering legal reforms to increase the penalties for contraband smuggling, with a congressional committee carrying out a study into how to strengthen anti-smuggling laws.
The announcement followed news that authorities have identified 88 commonly used smuggling routes, although tax agency the DIAN believes there are many more, reported El Pais.
The routes cover a broad geographical area and incorporate a wide variety of smuggling techniques. Some use the country’s main ports in Buenaventura, Barranquilla and Cartagena, and Bogota airport to import large quantities of goods. Others use the “hormiga” (ant) method, where large numbers of residents of regions on the border with Venezuela, Ecuador or the Amazon tri-border region with Brazil and Peru move small quantities of contraband into the country, taking advantage of the fact they are allowed to freely purchase goods on either side of the frontier.
Among the most affected sectors according to El Pais are cigarettes, with contraband representing an estimated 20 percent of the market; cooking oil, with contraband accounting for around 30 percent of the market; confectionary, where it accounts for 57 percent; and shoes, where it represents 24 percent of the market. Other heavily smuggled products include rice, poultry, sugar and gasoline.
Colombia’s border controls are traditionally focused on what is moving out of the country — specifically illegal drugs. While this means the efforts of security forces are concentrated on a crime that is one of the main drivers of violence in the country, as opposed to one that is not usually associated with violence, it has left a huge gap for criminals to exploit.
The trade is now worth around $6 billion a year, by some estimates, which has sparked calls from both the tax agency and the business sector to take urgent action.
Indications are that much of this smuggling is carried out by small networks. However, there is also evidence to suggest that both guerrilla groups and the paramilitary-criminal hybrids known as the BACRIM (from the Spanish abbreviation of “criminal bands”) profit from the trade, which they commonly use to launder drug trade profits.