José, a tough-looking, dark-skinned man in his 40s, met me at a small restaurant in a crowded neighborhood in Cúcuta, capital of Colombia’s Norte de Santander department, and a traditionally “hot” place for contraband and mafia violence. A leader of Sintragasolina, the gas workers’ union, José agreed to see me only if we met in a public place in broad daylight to talk about the illegal fuel sellers—known as pimpineros—that he risks his life to defend.
Pimpineros’ livelihoods depend on the disparity between subsidized Venezuelan gas prices and the highly taxed Colombian ones. In towns like Cúcuta, poverty and violence have pushed entire neighborhoods to become “pueblos bomba”—“pump towns”—whose economies are based entirely on the smuggling, home storage and selling of pimpinas (five-gallon—19-liter—containers) of hydrocarbon-based products. Thousands of low-income Colombian families spend days and nights in their improvised street shacks, pouring gas through handmade funnels into their clients’ tanks.
All photos courtesy of the author and Federico Pardo.
José is the target of at least two paramilitary groups—Los Rastrojos and Los Urabeños—that operate freely on the Colombia-Venezuela border. Although in theory anyone can buy cheap gas in Venezuela and then cross the border into Colombia to sell it on the street, the networks that smuggle and distribute the gas are controlled by illegal armed groups—and they don’t appreciate “independent” competition.
“Pimpineros are poor people who become street vendors of smuggled gas because they have no other means to get by,” explains José. “We have to be clear; there are illegal armed groups involved in the smuggling business, but the people who sell gas on the streets are just trying to provide for their families.”
Pimpineros are also the endpoint of an illegal business chain that employs more than 15,000 people and handles more than 10 million gallons (38 million liters) of fuel every month. Despite considerable government efforts to stop it, illegal gasoline smuggling stretches from the western Venezuelan states of Táchira and Mérida to the Colombian frontier states of Norte de Santander and La Guajira. The smugglers cross the border into Colombia and sell the fuel to a distributor, who then sells it to transporters supplying thousands of pimpinero stands on the sides of Cúcuta´s roads.
Pimpineros are equally under threat from crime cartels and government forces. If they are caught by the police carrying more than six pimpinas, they are subject to fines, arrest and jail time. Police constantly confiscate their gasoline and impound their vehicles, but enforcement of the laws varies widely.
Meanwhile, fear of the armed gangs has forced pimpineros, for the most part, to buy the gas from the smugglers and then sell it to their own customers. But even for the privilege of doing that, many quietly admit they must also pay an additional protection fee to paramilitary groups or run the risk of being killed if they refuse.
Fredy Mojica, a fellow leader of Sintragasolina, was gunned down inside a church in March 2012. José’s friend Misael, who also withholds his full name, explains that the paramilitaries often threaten pimpineros because they speak out against paramilitary abuses in their community. And they are often targeted by customs police and army forces in anti-smuggling operations that have escalated into violent clashes.
Among its services, Sintragasolina provides legal counsel for pimpineros who face charges of selling fuel without a license, after being detained at checkpoints or during raids. Today, the union represents a large number of pimpinero families and has grown to be a considerable political force in the Norte de Santander region, with public officials accepting its leaders as valid interlocutors for an otherwise illegal trade.
“If it wasn’t for José, we wouldn’t be here today,” says Misael, 59, who has been selling illegal gas for more than 16 years.
Martha López, a mother of four who has been a pimpinera for 15 years, moved to Cúcuta with her husband, Pedro, about a decade ago after fleeing the paramilitary violence that ravaged La Gabarra,
“Times were better a few years ago, when a smuggled gallon was 2,500 pesos ($1.32) and the legal prices were higher,” says Martha, who now earns about 40,000 pesos ($21) a day—just enough to help her family get by. Martha’s work as a pimpinera has enabled her to buy a house with Pedro and send their four kids to school. A hardworking mother and community member, she’s also an experienced mechanic and an expert on the different grades and prices of gasoline.
Until recently, the parallel gasoline economy supporting families like Martha’s grew as prices of gasoline rose in Colombia: in 2008, the price of a gallon of gasoline in Venezuela was 90 bolivars (8 cents), and it could be sold for almost 4,900 pesos ($2.76) in Norte de Santander.
But this changed in September 2008, when then-Colombian President Álvaro Uribe and his Venezuelan counterpart, the late Hugo Chávez, agreed to authorize initial monthly imports of 4.5 million gallons (17 million liters) of subsidized gasoline from Venezuela to the Colombian border states of Norte de Santander and La Guajira.
“La importación,” as cucuteños call it, was motivated by calculations of the millions of dollars of monthly tax revenue lost by the Colombian government because pimpineros do not pay gas taxes. It aimed to end illegal fuel extraction and commercialization while bringing the market back to legal tax-paying gasoline dealers. Extended in February 2012, the agreement now authorizes Venezuela’s shipment of 3.2 million gallons (12 million litres) a month to Norte de Santander alone.
It immediately affected the pimpinero market: legal gas stations started to offer fuel at lower prices. Today, a gallon of 95-octane fuel is legally sold at around 4,500 pesos ($2.37) in Norte de Santander, while José and his colleagues are buying it at 4,000 pesos ($2.11) from the smugglers, giving them a small profit margin.
“We make one or two thousand pesos (between 50 cents and $1) for each pimpina— just enough to make a living,” José says.
For Doris Piracón, a Sintragasolina member who has raised six children with the little money she makes selling pimpinas, this isn’t enough. Every morning, she angrily watches as gas tankers from the Venezuelan state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), bring in legally imported gas from Venezuela.
Sintragasolina has denounced subsequent efforts by the government to legalize pimpinero coops. The union charges that a 2010 agreement to regulate the trade has only benefited Terpel—a private oil and gas company, and Coomulpinort, a distribution cooperative established by 1,300 “regularized” former pimpineros who now own legal gas stations in the region. Between them, the two enterprises equally divide the purchase and distribution of the entire department’s subsidized gas—leaving thousands of pimpineros like Doris who aren’t associated with Coomulpinort out of the agreement altogether.
“We were told we would manage 50 percent of the agreement’s gas, but the fat cats are keeping the benefits,” Doris says. “I still haven’t seen a penny for myself.” Many of the pimpineros who were left out of the importation agreement have since joined Sintragasolina to push for a redistribution of the right to legally sell the imported fuel.
Who Is Selling What?
The competing fuel economies in Norte de Santander are also having an impact on local consumers.
Alberto Moros, the manager of Cúcuta’s Pinar del Rio gas station, says the government simply isn’t providing enough legal gasoline to meet consumer demand—providing space for a flourishing black market.
“Norte de Santander consumes 12 million gallons of gasoline per month, and we are receiving only 3.2 million gallons from the [importation] agreement—which means we have a deficit of over 8 million gallons per month,” he told me. “Legal gas stations on the Venezuelan side supply part of this deficit, but an important part—around 3 million gallons—is being provided by the informal sector, the pimpineros.”
In July 2012, Mauricio Cárdenas, then Colombian minister of mines and energy, said the Colombian government would never subsidize gasoline because it was not a sound policy to use state petrol companies for public investment—a critical allusion to the Venezuelan government’s policies of the past decade.
In March 2013, the Colombian government raised gas prices by 126.9 pesos (7 cents) per gallon—the highest price in recent months.
With high gas prices continuing in Colombia, the pimpineros may continue to make a small profit from illegal gasoline. But as laws punishing illegal fuel smuggling become harsher and are more strongly enforced, the future for communities relying on this parallel economy is uncertain.
Cúcuta’s mayor, Donamaris Ramírez, acknowledges that both working-class families and organized criminal groups are entangled in the gasoline business.
“People should know that when they buy gas on the street, they are probably financing criminal armed organizations tied to drug trafficking,” he says.
Ramírez thinks the problem could be solved through better employment opportunities and law enforcement. However, in the short term, “street sales of smuggled gas need to be eradicated,” he says.
The Conflict to Come
Nevertheless, people in Cúcuta don’t see a likely end to the pimpinero economy and conflict.
New laws are making business more complicated, but the pimpineros have already proven that they can endure long periods of financial strain. Everybody agrees that the ideal scenario would be to assimilate the pimpineros into the formal business of selling gasoline so that they can leave the informal economy and avoid the risks of handling gasoline with no precautions.
However, a prompt solution doesn’t seem likely.
“We are trying to get them off the streets and into formality,” says Ramírez. He plans to give official PDVSA gas stations to those pimpineros who are not connected to criminal organizations. “Then we will strongly attack those who remain outside the law,” he says.
For now, Sintragasolina is bringing together several hundred families of pimpineros to participate in policy negotiations with the government. Though pimpineros are part of an illegal enterprise, Ramírez and other authorities have decided to recognize Sintragasolina in the hope that it will attract pimpineros who want to become legal and facilitate their transition to the formal economy.
José and his pimpinero friends have heard promises of legal jobs before, and although they hope for a long-term solution, skepticism abounds.
In the pimpineros’ experience, governmental initiatives have come only in the form of police raids and economic agreements that threaten their subsistence. And after 15 or 20 years of selling gasoline, they can’t think of living and working elsewhere.
For now, Martha, José, Doris, and Misael will continue to sell pimpinas by the roadside, hoping for a better and more stable future.