Guest post by Jorge Mantilla, Ph.D. student in Criminology, Law, and Justice at the University of Illinois Chicago. His dissertation looks at the ways armed groups, local gangs, and law enforcement exploit, recruit and victimize migrants facing vulnerabilities in the context of ongoing proxy wars between Venezuela and Colombia. Jorge has worked as a practitioner and analyst with public agencies and international organizations on topics related to armed conflict, public safety, and drug policy. His current interests are crime and governance, international migration, and urban violence. Jorge is on Twitter @jmantillaba.

August of 2019 marked the fourth anniversary since the Bolivarian government of Venezuela decided to close the border with Colombia in an alleged national security maneuver against Colombian paramilitaries and smuggling mafias. Since 2015, and in addition to the 300,000 returned Colombians that used to live in Venezuela, more than four million Venezuelan nationals have left the country, mainly through the formally closed Colombian border.

As in other global contexts, and following the trends on border control , border enforcement by the Venezuelan regime had a marginal impact on deterring migration and crime dynamics on the Colombo-Venezuelan border. Instead, the measure enhanced extralegal groups such as Colombian guerrillas, former paramilitaries, and Venezuelan gangs like La Linea to further engage in human smuggling operations involving the territorial control of clandestine paths also known as trochas.   

While in the northern Santander region in Colombia there are only three official ports of entry migrants crossing on foot rely upon dozens of trochas. Trochas are crossed daily by hundreds of people including circular migrants who live in one side of the border but work or shop on the other side. After 2015, controlling a trocha became the most important asset for any extralegal group, even more than engaging in drug trafficking which was the traditional economy that fueled turf wars between non-state armed groups in the past. Controlling informal paths and cross-border territories enables any extra-legal group to control other trans-border flows and tax them as a mechanism to diversify their profits and regulate illegal markets operations.

Tienditas Bridge Blocked by Venezuelan Army (Photo: Raúl Arboleda)

Many locals strongly advise to use the trochas if carrying any type of valuable good even if they are controlled by a shady constellation of armed groups and local gangs from both countries, as they see informal crossing as a mechanism to secure their goods and valuable commodities that might otherwise be confiscated by national authorities.  

Pablo (a pseudonym) is a Colombian border native. He collaborates with the Catholic advocacy networks that deliver humanitarian aid. This includes the delivery of up to eight thousand hot meals a day for migrants at Divina Providencia soup kitchen at La Parada (Villa del Rosario). La Parada is considered by law enforcement a crime-ridden slum. It connects Colombia and San Antonio (Venezuela) through the Simon Bolivar international bridge and through many other trochas.

While driving me to the Divina Providencia soup kitchen to see the humanitarian aid delivery coordinated by a local priest with the support of United Nations agencies, Pablo recounts how he used to be an automotive spare parts supplier before 2015 when things got harder with the border closure.

‘Since 2015 you have to pay depending on what you are carrying: food, medicine, gas, spare parts, everything has a price. There are some trochas that you can cross even with trucks, they (extra legal groups) will ask you what you are carrying and how much, double check it and set a price to pay. However it is better to cross through the trocha. You pay once and then you are all good at the other side. If you were to cross through the bridge then you had to pay the police (National Police of Colombia) and then the Guard (National Guard of Venezuela) with the difference that they can take your stuff away if they want to. Unless there is a shooting or a hot situation going on, on la trocha at least you are sure you are going to retain your merchandise, which is what really matters.”

The fact that ongoing corruption and collusion apparently makes it safer and cheaper for migrants to cross through a trocha than to cross through international ports of entry is at least contradictory in the context of a heavy militarized border. Locals’ perceptions of the trochas show that contrary to the conventional wisdom, extralegal actors criminalized by the state have incentives to set parallel forms of governance understood as the process of creating and administrating social institutions. In this case la trocha stands not only as an unregulated space that serves the need of human mobility, but also as a mechanism through which extralegal groups deliver public goods, regulate informal economics and establish community arrangements. In other words, extralegal border governance delivers more security and stability than the state to immigrants running away from the ongoing crisis in Venezuela or locals trying to make a living out of the everyday economic life between the two countries.

Crossing Táchira River by a Trocha (Photo: Mario Caicedo / La Opinión)

On the other hand, while illegal markets are not always violent, there have been reports that violence along the trochas is on the high. During the last two weeks of October at least thirteen homicides were registered  in cases that authorities attribute to disputes between non-state armed groups trying to control the Trochas. Still, the victims are mostly Venezuelans who according to their families were informally employed as “maleteros” or people who charge some money to help carrying heavy baggage through the trochas.  So far is not clear whether this violence is exerted by smuggling networks or by external non-state armed groups.

In sum, the puzzle of extralegal governance, border control and violence in the Colombia – Venezuela border remains unsolved, as the gap between locals’ perceptions of the trochas and state narrative of dangerous criminal groups controlling human smuggling paths is still open. Further research in order to better understand the paradox of border control and the over representation of organized crime narratives that stigmatize territories and communities who call the border home, must be conducted. In the mean time the everyday lives of thousands of Colombians and Venezuelans continue to revolve around the trochas.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Mantilla, J. (2019) T. The Border Control Paradox in Venezuela. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2019/12/border-control (Accessed [date])