$15 grocery run lands Colombian women in Venezuelan jail as cross-border tensions rise

BOGOTA – A $15 grocery run has cost two single mothers from Colombia 48 days in jail, along with the threat of a 14-year prison sentence, as a result of a crackdown on smuggling in Venezuela that is ratcheting up tensions and highlighting growing economic distortions between the neighbours.

Jenifer Rojas and Belsy Alvarez were arrested in early September by Venezuela’s national guard walking out of a supermarket in the western city of San Cristobal with bags of pasta, mayonnaise and other staples whose prices are capped in Venezuela and whose sale is restricted to the country’s residents.

Along with the cashier who rang up their purchases, they face charges of smuggling and violating the socialist government’s new law of fair prices, whose penalties include 10 to 14 years in jail.

The Colombian women were let out on parole late Friday while they await trial and must now appear in court every 15 days as a condition of their release. It was unclear whether they would be allowed to return to their homes or must remain in Venezuela.

“My daughter’s not a criminal,” Rojas’ mother, Gladys Pedroza, told The Associated Press after a recent jailhouse visit.

The women’s plight isn’t an isolated case. An estimated 100 Colombians are among the nearly 1,400 people who have been arrested the past two months as part of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s effort to root out smuggling that he blames for widespread shortages.

Some of the smuggling is on an almost industrial scale, with entire towns on the Colombian side stocked with goods brought across the border. The most lucrative trade is in gasoline, which is almost free in Venezuela.

But Colombian officials contend the majority of their arrested citizens come, like Rojas, from working-class families who for years have been crossing the porous border to take advantage of Venezuela’s price caps.

A recent plunge in Venezuela’s currency has made the shopping excursions even more affordable: A 1-kilogram (2.2-pound) bag of powdered milk, when it can be found, costs 70 bolivars at the regulated price. That’s about 70 U.S. cents at the widely used black market exchange rate, but it can fetch seven times that amount in dollar terms across the border in Colombia.

While Maduro insists he is not targeting Colombians, his decision to close the border at night and boost security patrols has generated alarm. The mayor of Cucuta, a Colombian commercial city of 800,000 people where Venezuelans go to see how much their bolivars are really worth, urged residents this week to avoid stepping across the border, saying they face arrest.

Many Colombians might not have learned that grocery purchases can be a crime if Rojas and Alvarez’s fellow street vendors in Cucuta hadn’t raised a fuss. Rojas has a stand selling underwear while Alvarez scrapes by charging pedestrians for cellphone calls, said Rocio Valencia, president of the city’s street vendors’ union. Both have young children.

“Every country can make up its own laws, but it makes no sense to equate someone who brings a kilogram of rice over the border with large-scale smuggling,” Alvarez said.

As Venezuela’s economic crisis has deepened, relations between the two countries have grown more strained. While the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez endeared himself to the estimated 4 million Colombians living in Venezuela by allowing them easy access to citizenship and social programs, Maduro has cut off the immigrants’ ability to send money back home and has jailed those without residency papers.

Colombian officials say Maduro has also stirred ill feelings by alleging, so far with spotty evidence, that a gang of Colombian hit men was hired by the his government’s enemies abroad to murder a pro-government lawmaker this month.

“Don’t let yourself be poisoned by the hate campaign against Venezuela,” Maduro said last week in nationally televised remarks addressed to Colombian families

So far, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has avoided voicing concerns in any forceful manner. Despite the strains, Maduro has backed Cuba-based peace talks between Colombia’s government and Marxist rebel movements that have sometimes taken shelter in Venezuela.


Associated Press writers Libardo Cardona and Cesar Garcia contributed to this report.


Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APjoshgoodman