CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela said on Thursday it would extend an overnight closure of its border with neighboring Colombia for another three months in a campaign to stop widespread fuel and food smuggling.
The measures to stop traffic crossing between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., and limit the movement of cargo vehicles during the day, were introduced in mid-August to combat the lucrative business in smuggling heavily subsidized Venezuelan products.
“We are going to pursue and punish smugglers with double severity,” President Nicolas Maduro said, announcing the three-month extension. “They are looting the republic.”
Venezuela’s gasoline is the cheapest in the world at less than two U.S. cents per liter. And with many other goods from cooking oil to corn flour also sold at large discounts in state stores, thousands live off a thriving contraband trade along the border with Colombia.
Maduro said 512 people had been arrested and 45 smuggling bands disbanded since the anti-smuggling campaign began last month, and thanked Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ government for its cooperation.
Some 2,500 tonnes of food and 830,000 liters of fuel had been confiscated, he added, along with other products ranging from cement and steel to cleaning products.
“This is a structural, systematic and permanent war on the criminal smuggling mafias at every level,” Maduro said.
Opposition parties say the problem has ballooned in recent years due to collusion between Venezuela’s armed forces and the smugglers. Military officers pay large bribes to be posted on the border and take advantage of the trade, they allege.
Some economists contend the large price disparities between the cost of goods in Venezuela and neighboring countries mean the latest measures are unlikely to have a long-term impact on the smuggling problem.
Subsidies on products, first introduced in late socialist leader Hugo Chavez’s 14-year presidency until 2013, are hugely popular among Venezuelans.
Despite Maduro’s thanks, Colombia’s Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin has criticized Venezuela’s measures as “unilateral” and unlikely to control contraband along the 2,219 km (1,378 miles) of border.
Editing by Ken Wills