Pubdate: Sat, 14 Oct 2000
Source: St. Petersburg Times (FL)
Copyright: 2000 St. Petersburg Times
Section: page 13A
Author: Kirk Semple, Times Correspondent


A Crackdown On Contraband Leaves The Economy Of A Formerly Bustling Region 

PUERTO NUEVO, Colombia -- On the foredeck of the freighter Leba II, moored 
just yards off the barren coastline here in the northeast comer of 
Colombia, 400 tons of new household electronics have baked for a week under 
a plastic tarp while the ship's crew has grown bored beyond distraction.

The seamen's day, according to helmsman Carlos Cardenas, consists of 
sleeping, eating, drinking liquor and dancing with the prostitutes who have 
taken up residence on the ship during the wait. Mainly, though, they just 
sit around.

The Leba II and at least seven other cargo ships are waiting for permission 
to unload their goods and head back out to sea. The crew members say they 
are victims of a new government effort to stop the flood of contraband 
goods entering Colombia. For generations the country has been a giant 
marketplace for smuggled foreign products, mainly electronics, textiles, 
cigarettes and liquor bought in the free-trade zones of Panama, Aruba and 

Puerto Nuevo - New Port - with its small, warped wooden dock and a 
sprawling dirt lot, is a lonely cove near the tip of La Guajira, a sparsely 
populated desert peninsula that reaches into the Caribbean Sea. But this 
place, along with several other informal nearby "ports," has for years been 
the point of entry for most of Colombia's contraband.

When the port was in full swing; a ship could unload its cargo and be off 
within hours. On most days, the dirt lot would be crawling with hundreds of 
people shuttling boxes from the ships to dozens of waiting cars and trucks. 
The loaded vehicles would then rumble 75 miles through bandit-filled desert 
in the company of armed guards to dump the loads in Maicao, a trading 
center where the streets were jammed with shoppers.

But the administration of President Andres Pastrana has begun to clamp down 
on the trade of contraband goods in Colombia, estimated in the hundreds of 
millions of dollars a year. Customs officials have directed their efforts 
in two places: at the consumers in the country's big cities, where the 
majority of contraband is traded openly in marketplaces; and along the 
prime trafficking corridors such as La Guajira.

La Guajira has been a convenient throughway for contraband because of its 
status as a special-customs zone. In 1992, in an effort to boost 
development in the region, the government eliminated some tax and duty 
requirements for goods imported for use in the zone. But the boom never 
occurred, and most,of the goods brought into the zone were then smuggled 
out to rest of Colombia tax-free.

Colombian drug traffickers also used the contraband system to launder drug 
dollars, authorities say. The government's presence was light in La 
Guajira, and the region developed a reputation for lawlessness and violence.

The effort to staunch the flow of contraband includes agreements with 
international manufacturers who are encouraged not to sell to corrupt 
importers. The government has also increased customs enforcement at La 
Guajira's ports, commerce centers and along its road. Police impose 
penalties against shoppers who don't carry correct tax receipts.

The campaign has hit at the heart of the local economy and culture.

Contraband has always been an integral part of the region's history: 
Beginning in the 16th century, European traders snubbed Spanish law in the 
region by trading directly with indigenous communities to avoid high taxes, 
according to Carl Langebaek, professor of anthropology at Bogota's Los 
Andes University.

With the government clampdown, the Guajirans are having to reinvent 
themselves, or at least redefine themselves. "The new norms have 
traumatized all the customs," said Mara Ortega, a business leader in Maicao 
and a member of the Wayuu indigenous community, which dominates the peninsula.

Some activists are using the attention as an opportunity to win more 
government support for the neglected region, which suffers from poor urban 

Residents, led by the Wayuu population, have risen up in revolt several 
times this year, shutting down roads, blocking a key border crossing 
between Colombia and Venezuela and starting fires.

Community leaders say they aren't necessarily opposed to the stricter 
measures. In fact, they say, national officials need to exercise more 
control to remove the stigma of La Guajira as a contraband capital. But, 
they add, these changes need to be made with sensitivity to economic and 
social needs.

"The government takes our livelihood away but it doesn't give us 
education," complained Luis, a Maicao street vendor selling plastic toys 
made in China and cheap Japanese tool sets. "There aren't any other 
industries to work in."

During a four-day stretch recently, the trading center of Maicao was 
virtually empty of buyers. Some shop owners estimated their sales had 
dropped as much as 80 percent since last year.

Guns are everywhere in Maicao, from sawn-off shotguns in the hands of 
security guards who stand sentry at storefronts, to pistols bulging from 
under the shirts of ordinary citizens. Street vendors sell mobile phone 
cases alongside gun holsters. Robberies are commonplace and the number of 
kidnappings is rising.

Mara Ortega thinks the crisis will ease as La Guajira adjusts to the new 
rules. "Obviously we're not going to be as competitive and attractive as we 
were in the past, but well continue to have the advantage of being a 
special zone."

Others aren't so sure. "Nobody knows what will happen to Maicao," said 
28-year-old store owner Gary Issa. "But this town is dying."
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MAP posted-by: Terry Liittschwager