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Colombian war on smuggling tames a wild frontier

A crackdown on contraband leaves the economy of a formerly bustling region hurting.

By KIRK SEMPLE

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 14, 2000


PUERTO NUEVO, Colombia -- On the foredeck of the freighter Leba II, moored just yards off the barren coastline here in the northeast corner of Colombia, 400 tons of new household electronics have baked for a week under a plastic tarp while the ship's crew has grown bored beyond distraction.

The seamen's day, according to helmsman Carlos Cardenas, consists of sleeping, eating, drinking liquor and dancing with the prostitutes who have taken up residence on the ship during the wait. Mainly, though, they just sit around.

The Leba II and at least seven other cargo ships are waiting for permission to unload their goods and head back out to sea. The crew members say they are victims of a new government effort to stop the flood of contraband goods entering Colombia. For generations the country has been a giant marketplace for smuggled foreign products, mainly electronics, textiles, cigarettes and liquor bought in the free-trade zones of Panama, Aruba and Curacao.

Puerto Nuevo -- New Port -- with its small, warped wooden dock and a sprawling dirt lot, is a lonely cove near the tip of La Guajira, a sparsely populated desert peninsula that reaches into the Caribbean Sea. But this place, along with several other informal nearby "ports," has for years been the point of entry for most of Colombia's contraband.

When the port was in full swing, a ship could unload its cargo and be off within hours. On most days, the dirt lot would be crawling with hundreds of people shuttling boxes from the ships to dozens of waiting cars and trucks. The loaded vehicles would then rumble 75 miles through bandit-filled desert in the company of armed guards to dump the loads in Maicao, a trading center where the streets were jammed with shoppers.

But the administration of President Andres Pastrana has begun to clamp down on the trade of contraband goods in Colombia, estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Customs officials have directed their efforts in two places: at the consumers in the country's big cities, where the majority of contraband is traded openly in marketplaces; and along the prime trafficking corridors such as La Guajira.

La Guajira has been a convenient throughway for contraband because of its status as a special-customs zone. In 1992, in an effort to boost development in the region, the government eliminated some tax and duty requirements for goods imported for use in the zone. But the boom never occurred, and most of the goods brought into the zone were then smuggled out to rest of Colombia tax-free.

Colombian drug traffickers also used the contraband system to launder drug dollars, authorities say. The government's presence was light in La Guajira, and the region developed a reputation for lawlessness and violence.

The effort to staunch the flow of contraband includes agreements with international manufacturers who are encouraged not to sell to corrupt importers. The government has also increased customs enforcement at La Guajira's ports, commerce centers and along its road. Police impose penalties against shoppers who don't carry correct tax receipts.

The campaign has hit at the heart of the local economy and culture.

Contraband has always been an integral part of the region's history: Beginning in the 16th century, European traders snubbed Spanish law in the region by trading directly with indigenous communities to avoid high taxes, according to Carl Langebaek, professor of anthropology at Bogota's Los Andes University.

With the government clampdown, the Guajirans are having to reinvent themselves, or at least redefine themselves. "The new norms have traumatized all the customs," said Mara Ortega, a business leader in Maicao and a member of the Wayuu indigenous community, which dominates the peninsula.

Some activists are using the attention as an opportunity to win more government support for the neglected region, which suffers from poor urban infrastructure.

Residents, led by the Wayuu population, have risen up in revolt several times this year, shutting down roads, blocking a key border crossing between Colombia and Venezuela and starting fires.

Community leaders say they aren't necessarily opposed to the stricter measures. In fact, they say, national officials need to exercise more control to remove the stigma of La Guajira as a contraband capital. But, they add, these changes need to be made with sensitivity to economic and social needs.

"The government takes our livelihood away but it doesn't give us education," complained Luis, a Maicao street vendor selling plastic toys made in China and cheap Japanese tool sets. "There aren't any other industries to work in."

During a four-day stretch recently, the trading center of Maicao was virtually empty of buyers. Some shop owners estimated their sales had dropped as much as 80 percent since last year.

Guns are everywhere in Maicao, from sawn-off shotguns in the hands of security guards who stand sentry at storefronts, to pistols bulging from under the shirts of ordinary citizens. Street vendors sell mobile phone cases alongside gun holsters. Robberies are commonplace and the number of kidnappings is rising.

Mara Ortega thinks the crisis will ease as La Guajira adjusts to the new rules. "Obviously we're not going to be as competitive and attractive as we were in the past, but we'll continue to have the advantage of being a special zone."

Others aren't so sure. "Nobody knows what will happen to Maicao," said 28-year-old store owner Gary Issa. "But this town is dying."

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