BOGOTA (Reuters) - The battle against contraband is set to become a focal point for Colombia’s armed forces as the risk to the economy and security matches the dangers of drug trafficking to the Andean nation, the head of the fiscal police said.
Contraband smuggled into Colombia is part of multi-billion-dollar money laundering operations that damage legitimate businesses and undermine Colombia’s efforts to reinvent itself as a thriving economy after decades of drugs and rebel violence.
The value of smuggled goods is estimated at about $6 billion each year, General Gustavo Moreno said late on Wednesday, roughly equivalent to the amount the government needs to raise next year from tax reform to plug a hole in its budget.
“In the recent past the most essential and primordial fight for the Colombian state was the fight against drug-trafficking,” Moreno said in an interview at his Bogota office.
“Contraband, though a very grave crime, was not really a threat to national security and to the economy; today it’s a top priority.”
The government has for decades focused its efforts on fighting Marxist rebels, right-wing paramilitaries and drug cartels, which have all been involved in the hugely lucrative illegal drugs trade. But more than a decade of U.S.-backed offensive has helped reduce their impact.
Achieving peace with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) would allow authorities to prioritize further the push to eliminate smuggling, Moreno said, as the rebel group has committed to help eliminate the illegal drugs trade if peace is signed.
“Undoubtedly! Contraband is becoming one of the most serious problems for Colombia, it affects national security, economic security, citizen security and human security.”
“It’s a high-impact crime that will be more of a protagonist in the near future,” he said.
The amount of money laundered from the trafficking of drugs, arms and human beings in Colombia is estimated to be as much as $17 billion a year - almost 5 percent of the $380 billion economy and more than total foreign direct investment.
In 2013 authorities seized $75 million worth of contraband - like shoes, cigarettes, electrical goods and alcohol - a fraction of the $6 billion estimated to come into Colombia from countries like China, the United States and Panama.
Port authorities have the capacity to inspect just 2 percent of the goods crossing the border. Contraband is equivalent to more than 10 percent of the $56.6 billion worth of legal imports last year.
Even with $290 million spent on new scanners to monitor shipping ports, police efforts have focused on networks of informants and intelligence to combat smuggling. They work in tandem with overseas authorities, but much more needs to be done from the private sector to help, Moreno said.
Moreno said congress must urgently approve a draft law that would make tackling contraband far easier, lowering the monetary level at which smugglers would be sent to jail.
“We want to de-incentivize smuggling,” Moreno said.
Reporting by Helen Murphy; Editing by Richard Chang