Contraband Venezuelan Food Pours Into Colombia's Markets

Shortages of basic foodstuffs have fueled months of protests against Venezuela's socialist government. Some food producers are smuggling food across the border to get higher prices.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

To Venezuela now where a leader of the protest movement has vowed to keep up demonstrations against President Nicolas Maduro. More than 40 people have been killed in months of unrest there. One of the big issues that has pushed Venezuelans onto the streets - shortages of basic foodstuffs. Critics blame the scarce supplies on the government's socialist economic policies. Reporter John Otis found that all the economic chaos has led to food smuggling. He sent this report.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: On a dirt road used by smugglers, Colombian police have just stopped a rickety Ford Explorer packed with the sides of beef from Venezuela. The seats and doors of the truck are stained red from the raw, unwrapped meat.

The smugglers protest to no avail. In the tropical heat, agents strip down to their T-shirts and shorts to transfer the 80-pound sides of beef to a police truck. But this bust is the exception. Some 30 smuggling routes connect the Colombian border city of Cucuta with Venezuela. And there aren't enough police to patrol them all.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Spanish spoken).

OTIS: Tons of contraband Venezuelan food, from chicken and cheese to passion fruit and powdered milk, arrive in Cucuta every day.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Spanish spoken).

OTIS: This Cucuta vendor says nearly everything in his store comes from Venezuela. Contraband is a fact of life along international borders, but the incentive to smuggle food from Venezuela is growing. Government price controls and wild currency fluctuations mean that low-cost Venezuelan products can be sold for up to 10 times their original price in Colombia where food is more expensive. Officials on both sides of the frontier acknowledge that corrupt border guards facilitate the underground food trade in exchange for payoffs.

COL. RODOLFO CARRERO: (Spanish spoken).

OTIS: Col. Rodolfo Carrero, chief of Cucuta's border police says criminal gangs that traffic drugs are also deeply involved. Carrero points out that on top of the huge profits, there's no threat of harsh prison sentences or extradition for smuggling groceries.

The free flow of contraband has aggravated food shortages in Venezuela. At this state-run supermarket in the Venezuelan city of San Cristobal - a three-hour drive from Colombia -frustrated shoppers have been standing in line for hours to buy subsidized milk, one of the hardest items to find. Clerks now check IDs and limit the amount of food people can purchase at government grocery stores.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Spanish spoken).

OTIS: Everything is being smuggled, and we end up suffering, says this woman doesn't want to give her name.

MARIO HERNANDEZ: (Spanish spoken).

OTIS: Another shopper Mario Fernandez blames the smuggling on scrupulous business people who are trying to make President Nicolas Maduro look bad. The government agrees and also claims that shoppers are making the problem worse by hoarding food to avoid running out.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

OTIS: The shortages, along with high crime and inflation, led to the violent demonstrations that first broke out here in San Cristobal in February and have yet to die down.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

OTIS: At this protest, I meet university professor Ines Ferrero. She and other critics blame the shortages on the government, which has taken greater control over the economy. Ferrero points out that many farms and food processing plants have been expropriated, but their output has fallen.

INES FERRERO: Factories, they took them because the state have to be the only one.

OTIS: In addition, Venezuela has one of the highest inflation rates in the world. But price controls on foodstuffs discourage private food producers who claim they can't make a profit. The government also limits access to U.S. dollars, making it harder for businesses to import food.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

OTIS: Whatever the cause of the shortage is, the end result is that some Venezuelans are now crossing into Colombia to buy Venezuelan food. For NPR News, I'm John Otis.

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