Smuggling the world's cheapest gas

On the Venezuela/Colombia border

The first opportunity I had to put Andy’s advice, to sell each story multiple times, into practice came on a trip to the Colombian border. It would be the first trip where Reuters would pay all my expenses. The story was a simple one about smuggling, and it would come with an extremely valuable lesson in Venezuela’s economics—and of freelance journalism. In addition to its tight currency controls, Venezuela’s government enacted tight price controls on various products. The most egregious of these was on gas, which was the cheapest in the world. An entire tank could be filled for a few cents. No one actually knew what gas cost in Venezuela—around three cents per gallon at the black-market rate—because it was negligible. The tip given to the pump attendant was often many multiples of the cost of the gasoline itself. I once offended a Venezuelan friend by offering to pay for the gas when she drove us to the beach, clueless as to the absurdity of my offer. 

In Colombia, gas cost far more—on par with U.S. rates—so at the border, enterprising smugglers would buy cheap gas in Venezuela and sell it in Colombia for a huge markup. Years later, as the government doubled down on strict price and currency controls, this sort of arbitrage would destroy Venezuela, leaving supermarket shelves empty across the country and millions of people hungry. But, back in 2011, smuggling was a relatively innocent form of entrepreneurship for those with easy access to both markets. 

I planned my trip meticulously. I would stay in the border town of San Antonio, and I chatted with Andy about how expenses worked at Reuters, how to provide my receipts and invoice. He knew that I wasn’t in the best financial position, and later in the day, he asked if I’d be okay for money for the trip. 

“I’ll be fine,” I replied confidently, adding, “The [London] Times should give me something.” I knew, though, that any advance from The Times wouldn’t be much and would never arrive in time anyway. Andy pulled $500 cash out of his pocket. “Keep it with you,” he said with a smile. “If you don’t need it, just bring it back. And if you do, be sure to get receipts.”

In San Antonio, I found myself in a $20-a-night dank, sparse, and dirty-off-white-walled hotel room with an unflattering, single fluorescent white lamp offsetting the lack of natural light. It was a rundown hotel in a rundown city. San Antonio sits on the Venezuelan side of the country’s border with Colombia. The contrast between it and nearby Cúcuta, on the Colombian side, is as stark as you could find. Cúcuta was bustling, filled with bars, restaurants and nightclubs, its main squares thronged with young people enjoying life; San Antonio was a ghost town, the streets around me empty and unlit. 

I spent a depressing afternoon sitting on the hard mattress of the hotel room, chatting to friends in England and feeling nostalgic. The grass would always be greener, and while they weren’t all having great professional success or out partying every day, I felt distant. “It must be dead hard being away, but you are doing the right thing,” said a school and university friend in a message after we’d spoken.

I’d already driven through Cúcuta and filmed, photographed, and interviewed hawkers with siphoning tubes and jerry cans; they appeared on every street for miles into Colombia. They sold Venezuelan gasoline at a markup of some forty times what would be paid on the Venezuelan side. It was still far cheaper than legal Colombian gasoline, of course, so they made a tidy profit. Police in Colombia turned a blind eye, knowing they had no chance.

I had the reporting I needed from the Colombian side already. I’d spoken to those selling smuggled gas, filmed and photographed them and taken the b-roll footage to use as filler. No one there was doing anything illegal; the illegality was on the Venezuelan side. Now it was time to write it up for Reuters but also pitch it to others—a TV piece for Sky, a blogpost for The Financial Times. I had the story but it had been too easy.

Early evening, after the British friends I’d been speaking with had fallen asleep and it was getting dark and I was getting hungry, I decided I couldn’t spend another solitary evening in San Antonio, so asked the hotel’s front desk to help me with a cab. Despite this being a dangerous border area, home to corrupt Venezuelan military and Colombian paramilitaries, I threw caution to the wind a little and asked the driver to take me to a hip area of Cúcuta, over the border, where I’d find something to eat; I’d also scout out a new hotel for the next couple of nights.

The receptionist at my San Antonio hotel whispered something to the driver, which I thought a little ominous, but more ominous, as we began driving, was his route. I didn’t know San Antonio well, but I did know that the driver, Jorge, was heading east rather than west—and he was going for quite a while in what seemed the wrong direction, past tiny towns and on dark, unlit roads seemingly in the middle of nowhere. He told me, our eyes meeting in his rearview mirror, that I should be careful here, especially as a reporter. 

The deeper into Venezuela we drove, the more I wasn’t liking what was happening. I thought about where we were and noted the name on a sign for a hotel we passed. Suddenly, Jorge stopped the car to the side of the long, straight road. He got out. I followed. We were in the middle pitch-black fields and my heart picked up its rhythm. “The car broke down,” Jorge said, appearing annoyed, disappearing under the hood. “I don’t know what’s wrong.”

I stood behind the car wondering what to do. Jorge told me he had messaged his brother who was on his way.

This was a trap. But should I run—or would I only end up lost in the middle of nowhere? Inside I was scared, but outwardly I remained calm and was steady enough to know I still had my phone, and while the cell signal was patchy, I was just able to send an email.

“Not liking what’s happened,” I wrote to Andy who, in his wisdom, had told me when handing over that $500 to never be embarrassed to send a message at the slightest danger, even if it felt like nothing, just so someone was aware. “In cab from San Antonio, Venezuela. Took odd route, now broken down middle of nowhere. White cab ******* is the number plate. Waiting for his brother to help. Near Hotel Palmeras. Will email when ok.”

I waited behind the vehicle as Jorge worked under the cab’s hood. I was nervous about this brother. Who was he? Had this been premeditated? I scanned the area around me for escape routes, my eyes adjusting to the starlight. I could run but where would I end up?

Some ten minutes later, a car pulled up next to us. I nervously looked at the driver, Jorge’s brother? The man was gruff and said hello before going under the hood himself. “I’ll take you to Cúcuta then,” he said. 

I got in. What choice did I have? I now wasn’t even able to run. Ricardo was quiet, but soon we took a left turn and I began to see signs for the border. It seemed we were going in the right direction. This hadn’t been a ruse. 

Ricardo dropped me off at a pizza place in Cúcuta and offered to pick me up when I was done. I ordered and rushed around to find WiFi in order to email Andy that everything was okay. 

“You did the right thing. Do same again in future,” he responded quickly. I was relieved, firstly not to have been kidnapped but secondly that Andy didn’t think I’d gone overboard, I enjoyed the pizza and found myself a better hotel for the next night. Ricardo picked me up and, now relaxed and fed, I opened up to him.

We laughed together at the idea that he and his brother had planned to kidnap me. He could see it from my point of view, new to this region and scared after all the stories I’d heard. The reason, he explained, that Jorge had taken me the “wrong” way was that the more direct route I knew was packed with traffic. 

“At this time of night?” I asked. 

“Yes, everyone is selling gasoline they’ve bought in Venezuela,” he said, our camaraderie now allowing some honesty. This was precisely why I was in this horrible border town in the first place! I asked Ricardo if he could show me. Yes, he said; he went there every night to sell gas. Now I was about to see the illegal side of the deal. 

We spoke about the gas smuggling trade as we slowed and waited in line behind other cars, mainly old American vehicles with large tanks. He said everyone filled up at Venezuelan gas stations and emptied their tanks in the field we were about to enter, from which the jerry cans were transported over to Cúcuta and sold by the people I’d met in the previous days.

Eventually, we entered a dirt field surrounded by dozens of wooden shacks, each of which was filled with jerry cans and siphoning tubes. This was the epicenter of the smuggling, where gas was traded through the night, creating huge profits out of nothing.

Ricardo parked up by one of the shacks. Through the window, I watched as a man approached our car, deftly put a tube into the gas tank, and began siphoning out its contents. He handed over a wad of cash to Ricardo. The next day, the gas would be sold on the Colombian side of the border for far more money. It was a nightly ritual, Ricardo said, as he counted his profits. I had much more for the story than I could have hoped—and it had come from my serendipitous, if not slightly scary, cab ride. That even my cab driver and his brother were doing this told an even deeper story about Venezuela’s broken economy than I might have imagined.

Ricardo and I returned the following night with my tripod, camera, and lapel mic. Ricardo was a little nervous, given the gangs that controlled the trade, but told me to quickly grab the footage I needed, including an interview with a smuggler, and we’d get out. I got back to my better hotel room on the Colombian side of the border feeling energized and began editing the footage and picking out quotes from the pimpineros I’d met the last couple of days.

"Everyone here is selling gasoline," driver Mario Nuñez had said on the Colombian side of the border during the day, as he had funnelled smuggled fuel into his bright yellow car. “In this region, we have illegal oil, drugs, and some legitimate business. But the profit is made in illegal oil.” It was best seen on the Simon Bolívar International Bridge where queues of primarily old American vehicles with large gas tanks flowed across day and night. Years later, I’d delve deeper into this trade and find that any receptacle that could hold liquid was used to smuggle gasoline. I would even see children with plastic Coca Cola bottles filled with gas turning a quick profit. 

Here was my ongoing lesson in Venezuelan economics. Not only were San Antonio and Cúcuta the epicenter for smuggling, they were also home to the money exchange houses which, apparently, set the black market exchange rate. I’d return to this bridge that separated the two countries and area around it many times in the coming years in order to grow my understanding of the complex suffering that stemmed from what was ultimately a very simple economic crisis.

I was also learning economics myself, understanding the fundamental nature of supply and demand in controlling pricing—both of gasoline at the border and my work from Venezuela. Ultimately, it was why I was paid what I was as a reporter. There were a lot of adventurous youngsters keen to break into journalism and so news outlets got away with paying next to nothing to them. I’d learn, in years to come, that I could leverage the imbalance in supply and demand of on-the-ground reporting in Venezuela to work in my favor.

For this story, Reuters paid $200 and covered all my expenses, magically fitting the $500 Andy had handed me to the cent. I’d also taken photos for which Reuters paid, in bolivars, around $80 at the black market exchange rate. My invoice for the expenses revealed my rigor and naivety as to how journalism worked. Every cent was meticulously catalogued and evidenced—from a 96-cent breakfast to the $20 hotel room. Years later, I’d routinely slap thousands of dollars down on Reuters expense claims, and stay in hotel rooms costing thirty times that, without a second thought.

As well as hugely maturing in my understanding of Venezuela and economics fundamentals, the trip built confidence in my own abilities. My Spanish wasn’t great but was good enough to get the story. More importantly, I was learning that my innate skills—my curiosity, personality, and willingness to get out on the streets—were what was needed to get the story. I felt like I could achieve anything as a reporter. The biggest handicap, though, would be the industry itself.