More than 100,000 U.S. dollars a year are collected by extorting commuting and transit migrants and transport who decide to travel to El Amparo, in Apure State, and then cross the Arauca River and reach Colombian territory. The crime, committed by Venezuelan military and civilian officials, is recurrent in four fixed checkpoints under control of the Bolivarian National Guard and the Army.
These four checkpoints, as well as other makeshift checkpoints, are located along a 100-kilometre route known as the “Apure extortion route”, a stretch of the Troncal 19 Venezuelan national highway, which connects San Fernando de Apure with the binational border crossing of El Amparo-Arauca.
This is one of the most relevant finding of the second installment of the cross-border project “Apure-Arauca, Sociedad Anónima” (Apure-Arauca, Incorporated.), a journalistic investigation sponsored by the Consortium to Support Independent Journalism in the Latin American Region (CAPIR).
In the Venezuelan plains, one of the routes to reach Colombia is the José Antonio Páez international bridge, located to the west of Apure State. The structure, which connects the town of El Amparo with the Colombian city of Arauca, both separated by the river that bears the same name, is the formal passage to transit between the two countries.
But along the river, especially in the surroundings of this zone, there are informal crossings in canoes that in times of breakdown of bilateral relations become the only transit option. These circumstances are taken advantage of by Colombian irregular armed groups and also by Venezuelan officials who seek to profit from the need of those who must cross.
In this context, there is a criminal dynamic that has become natural and common, and has given rise to an “extortion route” that is difficult to evade. It is a 100-kilometer section of highway that starts from the “Y de Dayco” (Y intersection), the spot where the José Antonio Páez municipality starts, connecting the intermediate communities of Totumito, Palmarito and Guasdualito with El Amparo.
Fixed checkpoints are located on this road axis and mobile ones are frequently installed, which migrants commuting and in transit, as well as passenger and merchandise carriers, point out as the fixed places of extortion. The victimizers? Officials of the security forces of the Venezuelan State, both military and civilians.
On this route, which runs through part of the José Antonio Páez municipality, there are four fixed checkpoints (also called citizen service posts): “Y de Dayco”, “Totumitos”, “Y de La Victoria” and “Puente de Lata”. In the latter, officials from the National Integrated Customs and Tax Administration Service (Seniat) and the Administrative Service for Identification, Migration and Aliens (Saime) are also present.
“Rattle” in the “alcabalas”
Three out of five checkpoint officials interviewed give details of how much money they can raise in a month by demanding money from passers-by as a condition to let them continue on their way. Every month, each person in charge of the “alcabala” (checkpoint) must deliver, obligatorily, no less than 1,000 dollars to the head of the unit.
If the amount collected is higher, as is often the case, the “surplus” is distributed among the officers. Sometimes, when it is a “good night”, they can collect about 5 million pesos in an “alcabala”, equivalent to a little more than 1,200 dollars. These extortion charges are also called “matraca” (rattle) in Venezuela.
Considering this dynamic, the monthly collection figure for each alcabala translates into a minimum of 2,200 dollars, 26,400 dollars a year at each of these four fixed control points. Between all of them, the annual collection can exceed 105,000 U.S. dollars, a conservative amount that does not include the income collected by the provisional itinerant alcabalas, but shows the magnitude of the crime in a stretch of only 100 kilometers.
In this last section of 100 kilometers (this is part of the extensive Troncal 19 that has a length of 450 kilometers and crosses Apure State from east to west, to connect the capital, San Fernando, with the city of Guasdualito, the capital of the border municipality, José Antonio Páez), officials of the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB), Venezuelan National Army, Bolivarian National Police (PNB) and Bolivarian Police of Apure (PBA) also set up itinerant checkpoints for extortion purposes.
But the charges do not end at those fixed and mobile points. The end of the extortion route is marked by three canoe passes or ports located in El Amparo, on the Venezuelan bank of the Arauca River, known as “Don Elías”, “Los Indios or Metoquina” and “Costa del Caño”. According to those interviewed in the area, these are the most active in the criminal extortion dynamic.
Collections of money, almost entirely in Colombian currency, become part of the livelihood income of security officials, as well as the military and government institutions of Venezuela.
The “Y de Dayco” checkpoint, located on the border of the José Antonio Páez and Rómulo Gallegos municipalities, is assigned to the GNB, as are “Totumito” and “Puente de Lata”, while the “Y de La Victoria” depends on the Bolivarian National Army.
Income stolen from migrants
In 2015, the food shortage experienced in Venezuela was unprecedented. The deficiencies generated a climate of conflict in the streets, looting and discomfort caused by inflation that was heading towards hyperinflation that finally broke out in November 2017.
This context generated a significant flow of pendular migration (people who come and go between both countries) and transit (mostly Venezuelan migrants fleeing the country). Thousands of Venezuelans began to cross into Colombia in search of food and basic necessities, at first, and then to seek a better life in other countries.
This favored the installation of extortion practices by civilians and military officials posted at checkpoints or border posts. The economic crisis also began to affect public workers in the country.
According to the report of the public transport drivers of Troncal 19, the number of migrants, commuting and in transit, has decreased by almost 90% and now does not exceed 400 people per day. Although this has meant a reduction in the number of extortion victims, the extortion practice of the civilian and military officials stationed at the checkpoints has not diminished. According to the testimonies of six transport drivers, it has intensified and debased with the reduced number of passengers and merchandise mobilized through the “Apure extortion route.”
Two public transport lines that make trips every day from San Fernando to Guasdualito transport 252 passengers per week, of which 70% are migrants in transit and the remaining 30% are pendular migrants. In addition, they report that the number of their passengers has decreased by more than 80% compared to the more than 120 people mobilized daily six years ago, the period of greatest influx.
The extortion of commuting migrants generally occurs during their return from the Colombian city of Arauca to the interior of Apure State. Informal retailers usually buy Colombian merchandise to resell it in Venezuela and transport it in sacks on the bus.
The extortion is requested in money or in kind with a portion of the transferred merchandise and, although the amount is variable, it is usually not less than 20 dollars in cash or its equivalent in kind. From Apure to Arauca the shaked money is less, especially for migrants in transit. Most of the extortions are associated with the purported illegality of the documents or their absence and contraband merchandise, indicated six drivers and two active police officers.
The documents, an excuse
The “Puente de Lata” checkpoint, located at the entrance to El Amparo, is almost the last in the extortion chain before entering Arauca, in the direction to Colombia, and one of the first when you enter Guasdualito, in the direction of the Apure State capital.
This location makes it easier for officials to condition free transit to pendular migrants and carriers (bus drivers). It is the one with the worst reputation. The checkpoint most feared and with the most complaints from the interviewees consulted are related to this ironically called “citizen service point”.
“Puente de Lata” is run by GNB officials, but there is usually the presence of the PNB, Migration Police, Seniat and Saime agents. The main weapons of the officials in this alcabala are fear and ignorance, as happened to a woman who was asked by an immigration policeman for 50,000 Colombian pesos (12 dollars), because her 17-year-old son did not carry his identity card but only the birth certificate. “She left in tears of impotence after the official left them even without ticket money,” said a relative of the victim.
When it comes to migrants in transit, those Venezuelans who leave the country with no plans to return, extortion is proposed by officials when an identity document of adults and children is supposedly missing, according to 51 people, including victims and witnesses of the 60 interviewees.
“Matraqueo” (rattling) as the extortion of military and police officials is called in Venezuela, has become so normalized on the El Amparo-Arauca border that small merchants looking for products in Colombia to resell now know what they should leave in these alcabalas: a deodorant, a toothpaste and a bath soap for a bag of merchandise is the minimum to avoid seizures. There is no fixed “rate”, everything is established at the discretion of the official, according to the dozens of victims and witnesses consulted.
At the binational border, when it comes to food, extortion can be charged by the kilo. Three inhabitants of Guasdualito, who were traveling with beef and pork (between 10 and 50 kilos), had to pay 1,000 Colombian pesos (0.24 dollars) for each kilo in “Y de La Victoria” and “Puente de Lata”, as well as in the canoe crossings where the extortion of GNB, Marine Infantry and Bolivarian National Police officials is done jointly with the National Liberation Army (ELN), an irregular armed Colombian group.
Chain of command, chain of favors
The fixed and mobile checkpoints set up by the security corps on the border on the Venezuelan side, in the José Antonio Páez de Apure Municipality, have become, from 2015 to the present, a source of enrichment for the military sector, both commanding generals as lower-ranking officials.
The commanders of the security forces assign trusted personnel to strategic checkpoints where money is produced (extorted), such as in the towns of El Nula, Ciudad Sucre, La Victoria, El Amparo and Guacas de Riveras, in the José Antonio Páez Municipality. Each alcabala must produce at least $1,000 a month, according to three security officials consulted on this matter.
A former military official confirmed that the extortion structures of the GNB work throughout the chain of command, up to the highest levels. “That is a pyramid, there the checkpoints report to the company commanders, the company commanders to the detachment (unit), the detachment commander reports it to the Regional Command and so on. They do not work in isolation, the key men depend on the principal, they move with their trusted people, who are ‘homeland or death’ (chavista oath) to be able to protect themselves and each other.”
Complicity in the passage of canoes
The extortion payment for the transfer of merchandise begins when the canoe is loaded at the river crossings of the Arauca River and then reaches the Venezuelan shore, located in El Amparo. There, payment must be made to the Navy soldier, the GNB and the ELN guerrilla who is usually present.
Subsequently, when the pendulum migrants decide to put the merchandise in the car, another stage in the extortion chain begins, since they know that they must pay large sums of money to the police of El Amparo, the Guardia and the Army at the checkpoints to be able to transit, as explained above.
In the canoe crossings or ports known as “Don Elías”, “Los Indios or Metoquina” and “La Costa del Caño”, on the Venezuelan bank of the Arauca River (El Amparo), extortion is carried out jointly between officials of the GNB, the Marine Infantry, the PNB and the Colombian irregular armed group the National Liberation Army, asserted the victims and residents during the monitoring carried out by a team of reporters in the area.
In each one of these canoe crossings, in addition to a “potero” (potter, pot holder) there is also usually an official from the GNB, another from the Navy and a police officer, monitoring the activity of the more than 50 canoes that provide the fluvial transport service between El Amparo and Arauca.
There are two ways to extort money in these canoe ports, as detailed by the victims and locals on the border. The first occurs with the individual charge for each bag of merchandise transferred between Arauca and El Amparo. The second, for the wholesale merchandise that Venezuelan merchants buy in Arauca and carry into Venezuela.
Despite the reduction of approximately 90% in the flow of migration and merchandise transport along the highway from San Fernando de Apure to Arauca, the Arauca Ombudsman reported that in 2022 40,205 people entered this Colombian department and another 23,800 left this town through using these five border crossings. Of this number, it is estimated that more than 50% suffered extortion in one of the alcabalas of the “Apure extortion route” or in the Venezuelan canoe passes.
For that same year 2022, also according to data from the Ombudsman of Arauca, 80,443 Venezuelans lived in this Colombian department, the second with most Venezuelan immigrants in Colombia after Cundinamarca, whose capital is Bogotá and where almost 400,000 Venezuelans reside. To get to Arauca, these Venezuelans compulsorily traveled the “Apure extortion route” and suffered the olive green extortion tax.
* This report is part of the cross-border project “Apure-Arauca, Sociedad Anónima”, a journalistic investigation sponsored by the Consortium to Support Independent Journalism in the Latin American Region (CAPIR)
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