How Colombian Crime Networks Cash In On Venezuela's Misery

Venezuelans are sloshing their way across the Táchira River to seek jobs in Colombia, or smuggle food and fuel. Out of sight, but very much in control, are a pair of powerful criminal gangs.

Inflation has resulted in food shortages in Venezuela.
Residents wait to cross the international bridge near the Main Customs Border between Colombia and Venezuela

CÚCUTA — Colombian immigration authorities track how many people enter the country legally. On a recent weekend, some 60,000 came in via the Simón Bolívar bridge, the principal entry point between Colombia and Venezuela. What they don't know is how many Venezuelans cross the porous, 2,219-kilometer border illegally.

There are even breaches in the border right near the Simón Bolívar bridge, illegal crossing points, El Espectador recently observed, that Venezuelans use on a daily basis to escape their country's poverty, spiraling crime and increasingly restrictive political conditions. And like with every humanitarian crisis, there are also the vultures — in this case criminal gangs and perhaps members of the Venezuelan National Guard — who are eager to cash in on other people's misery. Crossing the border has become a business, an open secret that no one mentions but everyone is aware of.

Two of Colombia's bandas criminales (criminal gangs) — the Rastrojos and the Gulf Clan, essentially rebranded paramilitaries — control these illegal crossings. They decide how many pass, who passes and what they can take with them.

Many of the people coming in hope to find work in Colombia. But others are food or fuel traffickers who must pay the gangs duties on the contraband they smuggle. There's big money involved. Police believe the gangs charge as much as 20,000 pesos (about 5.5 euros) for each person crossing on foot, 30,000 (8 euros) for anyone on a motorbike, and up to 100,000 pesos (nearly 28 euros) for people driving a car.

Traffickers fork over what is asked knowing that even with the payout, they stand to turn a profit. That's especially true for fuel smugglers, who buy diesel in Venezuela for the equivalent of 0.04 euros per gallon and sell in Colombia for 33 times the price.

Columbian National Police escort an elderly Columbian woman across the river from Venezuela into ColumbiaPhoto: Policía Nacional de los colombianos

In 2017, authorities confiscated 400,000 gallons of smuggled gasoline. But it's the paramilitaries who seem to have the upper hand in this cat-and-mouse game. Smugglers are usually poor and have few work prospects, so the smuggling workforce is plentiful and cheap. The Colombian public statistics agency DANE estimates that in Cúcuta, a large city located about 10 kilometers northwest of the Simón Bolívar bridge, 70% of the eligible labor force works informally.

I dropped out of engineering in the first year, and look at me now. Crossing the border illegally so I don't die of hunger.

Cúcuta is in the department of Norte de Santander, which has a nearly 200-kilometer border with Venezuela. Beside paramilitaries, the department also hosts the ELN, Colombia's largest remaining Marxist militia group now that the FARC has disbanded. Needless to say, it's an explosive region.

"This is what happens when you don't study"

Less than 200 meters from the Simón Bolívar bridge we spotted a group of Venezuelans trying to enter Colombia illegally. Their expressions spoke of fear and hope. Fear, because if they're caught, they'll be deported and have all their belongings confiscated; hope, because they're tired of being hungry and penniless, and believe something better awaits them in Cúcuta, Medellín, Bogotá or wherever they can settle.

They group moved quickly, thinking of several things simultaneously and watching for Venezuelan or Colombian agents. Around there were lookouts who whistled to let them know the coast is clear. As they made their way into the river, one man swayed under the weight of a large white box, perhaps a small fridge. He tried to keep his balance but stumbled, the box crashing into the water. The man froze until someone further back whistled.

Behind him came a younger man with a suitcase on his shoulder. "This is what happens when you don't study," he said when he realized we're reporters. "I dropped out of engineering in the first year, and look at me now. Crossing the border illegally so I don't die of hunger."

On the Colombian side, police periodically patrol along the riverbank. There is a security presence on the Venezuelan side too — members of the National Guard — but according to one migrant we saw crossing, they don't interfere. A National Guard official who asked not to be named said only that none of his men are collaborating with the bandas criminales.

A Colombian officer posted here, Lt. Col. Carlos Darío González Villamil, told El Espectador that the army has identified 57 illegal entry points along the border passes. But that could easily turn into 157, he added.

"The border is very porous, and since the river doesn't have much water, any place can become an illegal crossing," the officer explained. "In some places there are no natural features to tell you where one country ends and the next one begins. It's impossible to cover the entire border."

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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