It’s been 20 years since I took a job as wire editor, later managing editor, of the Caracas Daily Journal.  In all that time, I have not returned.  Part of that is because the circumstances under which I left were pretty heinous – I had been told that the stories that I had written, that I had allowed my reporters to write, had pissed off some very powerful, violent people.

Part of the reason was that, well, I have been living and working in Los Angeles for the last 19 years (it hurts just to type that), and somehow, I never got around to it.  I had always thought that I would return to Venezuela, after things had blown over, and my relatively minor sins had been forgotten.  Still, I had not really had the chance.  Until now.

We were in the border town of Cucuta, and we had a day to ourselves before we had to leave to go to Bucaramanga.   The reporters and editors at La Opinion had regaled us with tales of how wild the border crossing is; that the lines stretch for miles sometimes, and that the main industry in Cucuta is based on smuggling.  We decided to check it out for ourselves.

Side note: the newspaper’s driver, a heavyset bald guy known as "El Gordo" (the reporters would grin and laugh and chant "Gordo! Gordo!" every time he would appear to pick us up at the end of the day), was our introduction to the, shall we say, practical and unvarnished view of the endemic gasoline smuggling that takes place.  Our first day in town, Gordo pointed out the scruffy-looking guys hanging out on various street corners with grubby 5-gallon plastic containers.  I wondered if they were selling booze or some other kind of refreshment – hey, it’s a fair assumption. The variety of things sold on the street for human or animal consumption here makes the selection and prices at Wal-Mart look pretty crummy.  Always low prices? Ha. Try being able to fill up your tank – and yes, I’m talking about the gas tank on an armor-plated SUV, which is what the newspaper has as transportation, and which I’m guessing isn’t exactly competing with a Prius as far as fuel efficiency – for about 2000 pesos.

That’s about $1.  For 10-plus gallons.  Take a moment. Work the numbers.  Yes, that’s in and around 10 cents a gallon.

As El Gordo explained, the official government and industry-run gas stations are ghost towns. Nobody in their right minds goes there – mainly because gas costs about the same in Colombia (well, everyplace else in Colombia) as it does in the U.S.  That is, about 8000 pesos ($4) a gallon. Which, in a country where a college education gets you a job that pays about $6,000 a year, is a not inconsiderable sum.

This is why in every other city in Colombia, the streets are filled with late-model compact and subcompact cars.  On several occasions, we’ve had problems cramming our gringo-sized selves and our month’s worth of luggage and computer/photo equipment into the itty-bitty taxis and cars. 

One of the things that had pleasantly surprised me about Colombia was that although the streets are overcrammed with cars and traffic can be a nightmare (which, as an Angeleno, I’m actually rather comforted by), at least the cars are newer model cars with cleaner engines and better braking and handling than the old "lead sleds" I remember from my first swing through this continent. 

Like a cheesy 70s detective show…

The closer we got to the border however, the more the nature of the cars in the streets changed. The Cucuta area and the towns just across the frontier in Venezuela, is where old American muscle cars have gone to die. 

For me, it was like stepping back into time … things were just the same as I remembered them, the closer we got to Venezuela.  We were surrounded by hundreds of Chevy Caprices with fat mag wheels and jacked-up rear ends; sputtering Gran Torinos with oxidized "Starsky and Hutch" paint jobs; even old Dodge Darts and AMC Javelins with side panels looking like crumpled aluminum foil.

It looked like the heavy-metal parking lots of my youth.  Big gas-guzzling pieces of Detroit steel, all blasting music out of their Jensen subwoofers and Spark-o-Matic 6×9 three-way speakers.  Only this was some wailing narcocorrida, rather than a track off Screaming for Vengeance or Diver Down.

Some buried, but not quite dead, part of my Midwest white-trash gearhead semi-rural background felt rather at home in this landscape.  It was like the chaotic surging mass of cars all jockeying to get out of the parking lot after the concerts and football games of my youth, complete with the acrid fumes of half-burned gasoline from big-block V-8s and much cursing and hand-waving.

One big difference – this "cola" (Spanish for "line" or "tail") is a permanent fixture on the border. Our driver veered sharply around the buses that foundered amidst the traffic, heading for the right side. At the time, I was rather against this move, as the "curb" on the right side of the traffic lanes is populated by seriously skeevy characters.  The aforementioned gas smugglers with their jerry-rigged funnels – a 2-litre plastic Coke bottle, a siphon hose and some duct tape, and you’re good to go, apparently.  And currency traders waving fistfuls of cash. 

We wondered openly what would happen if someone tried to rip off one of the currency exchangers. It would seem to be a great opportunity to do a smash-and-grab – the wads of 50,000 peso notes and Venezuelan bolivares were, to our eyes, like ribeyes in a pitbull pen.  El Gordo just looked over at us, eyes bugging out in disbelief at our naivete.  "Nobody ever tries that," he said flatly. "They would be dead from a thousand bullets before they took a step. This is all controlled by the paras.  All of this." He waved his hand vaguely at the stores located about 50 yards off the street – in an area that in the U.S. we would call an access road.  The stores had huge stacks of sacks of potatos in front of them – last-minute purchases for the Venezuelans, who come across the border in search of easily transported, and non-spoiling, food items.

"Even the ants crawling on the food over there take their orders from Don Berna," Gordo said.  As you will see if you follow the link, Don Berna is the legendary head of the AUC – the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia.  Basically, the paramilitary squads that sprang up in the 90s to try to combat the narcos and guerillas, and have since morphed into something far, far darker.

Anyway, the massive traffic jam before the bridge was worsened by thugropreneurs. That is, thugs with dented, beat-up cars who lurked in the center-lane turnarounds and darted into traffic ahead of people, and then demanded 1,000 pesos to move out of the way.  This is why Gordo was hugging the right rail – where we took advantage of the currency traders to get a better-than-official rate on exchanging our Colombian pesos for Venezuelan bolivares.

Another side note: When I arrived in Venezuela in 1988, the exchange rate was about 4:1 – that is, about 4 bolos to the dollar.  By the time Christmas rolled around, the exchange rate was about 50:1.  That’s a 1,500% devaluation in less than a year.

Still, I was taken aback by the bills in 500,000 denominations.  I think there’s some new movement afoot to redenominate the currency, in much the same way that Mexico did with the peso a decade or so ago.  It makes paying for things a little freaky, too – can’t quite figure out what the real cost of things is.

I’ve included some video of the madness of the traffic back-up.  At one point, I looked around at all the trucks, buses, cars and motorcycles crossing.  All of which could have big sacks of white powder on them.  Some of the trucks had some very hard-faced men behind the wheel, with other hyperalert guys sitting in the passenger seats.

It is quite clearly impossible for anyone to even pretend that this border crossing is under any sort of control whatsoever. I mentioned this to El Gordo, who again laughed at my Gringo Naivete. "It’s a Saturday morning," he said.  "The narcos know everyone is going across to go shopping and visit relatives on the weekend, so that’s when they send the coca across.  Any of these trucks could be full of coca.  Hell, maybe they all are."

"But aren’t there guards there to try to bust people?" I asked.  I went on to explain that there were all kinds of official stories in the papers about big drug busts on the borders.

"Oh, please," Gordo said. "They only get the little independent coca smugglers, and then only when they don’t pay the bribes.  These guards know better than to actually try to enforce the law. They seize a truck full of coca from El Pulpo and their entire family gets killed.  Besides, they get paid really well."

True enough, once we made it across the one-lane bridge, the Venezuelan border guards didn’t even bother to look before waving us through.  In a bit of symbolic irony that I would get thrown out of the Creative Writer’s Union for even trying to us, the alleged drug-sniffing dog was asleep.  All four paws in the air. Snoring.

Oh yeah – El Pulpo means "The Octopus."  He’s the local narco-baron, and his tentacles are squeezing every aspect of life in Cucuta. He travels in a motorcade of at least 7 heavily armored SUVs, escorted by machine-gun toting motorcycle assassins and – according to the locals – many local police. His predecessor got too big for his britches about 10 years ago, and apparently the Cali cartel dispatched a swarm of helicopters to rocket his hilltop compound.  The cops were dragging pallet loads of money out of the smoking ruins of the house … all of which somehow never made it into the evidence room.

The Aguilas Negras just this week announced what amounts to martial law in Cucuta – they say that they will no longer tolerate drunks, children or loud music on the streets after 10 p.m.

These are the guys that now grow the coca. They have figured out how to evade the aerial spraying – since the spray floats up, they bait the DEA planes with coca plants on the tops of ridges. The planes waste their chemicals on the sacrificial coca plants on the hilltops, while the richer harvest below escapes.

Or, they smear the base of the coca plants with a sticky mixture of molasses and honey. Somehow this prevents the DEA plant-killing spray from penetrating and killing the roots of the coca plant – although we joked that the honey must attract the ants, and if the ants start munching on all the coca plants, you’ll quickly have "super ants" that are tossing buses and trucks around.  The narcos also cover their coca plantations with banana leaves when they get word that the DEA planes are planning a spraying expedition over their area … and they always seem to have the best information as to when their quadrant has been scheduled for a dousing.

The week that we were in Cucuta, the talk of the town was of a big cocaine refinery getting attacked, looted and burned in the jagged mountain ridges south of town.  Meanwhile, much of downtown Cucuta is full of shiny new stores, chock-full of expensive consumer goods … that nobody buys.  There is a famous music store, where the front window has about 9 full-on drum kits; nobody yet has ever purchased a trombone or a sousaphone from this store.

These places, and the neon-lit clubs and bars exist mainly to launder the massive stacks of money cramming the line of trucks that come back from Venezuela after dropping off their goods.  It’s another one of the open secrets of Cucuta; everybody knows it, but they all shrug and look nervous & exhausted (or bemused) by the situation.  The corruption from this massive cross-border drug trade is so unbelievably pervasive that for any local authority or group to try to stem it is to try to bail out the tide.  Besides, many of the paras are at least peripherally connected to high levels of the Colombian government – we heard a lot of anger coming out about the cozy relationship between the Feds and the AUC-alikes.

Back to the travelogue.

We crossed the border into the narrow, grubby town of San Antonio.  Immediately, the difference between the two countries leaped up and smacked me – right in the nose.  The gutters, sidewalks, streets and shoulders of the road were choked with mounds of disgusting rotting garbage.  OK, I’m not going to say that the streets of Cucuta would stand up to a Marine white-glove test. But man, one of the things that I remembered most about my time in Caracas was the sheer filthiness of the city.  Walking back to the metro in the rain was always an awful experience – the storm sewers would inevitably overflow and cocker-spaniel-size slimy sewer rats would slither out and clamber over the rancid piles of garbage that were just thrown randomly into the streets.  I don’t know what it is – maybe Venezuelan garbage men are always on strike? Is there some fault in the national character? 

Gracias, Sr. President

Whatever it was, the garbage continued on for mile after mile, bottles and tires and wire and burnt-out couches just dumped on the side of the road as we wound our way up into the Andes.  Which was where we started seeing an even more pernicious eyesore: for about 20 miles, every other rock and vertical surface was whitewashed.  Over that was splattered the word "Sí."  As in "Yes." 

This was a leftover from Hugo Chavez’ attempt to get the constitution of Venezuela changed so that he could basically be president-for-life, just like his hero, Fidel Castro.

Also, I was shocked at some level to see the signs extolling Chavez and Che Guevara.  Back in ’88 (and yeah, I know you’re going to get sick of that phrase pretty soon – deal with it), it was illegal just to sell Che’s books on the street. Remember – this was the waning days of Ronnie the Commie-hater Reagan, and Venezuela at that time was pretty much owned and operated by the U.S. State Department, in cooperation with ExxonMobile and Royal Dutch Shell.  The whole cult of personality thing going down in Venezuela these days has a distinctly creepy feel. It’s not quite at "Dear Leader"-North Korea stage – yet – but they can certainly see that particular blighted neighborhood from where they are.

More on this trip in a day or so … as well as some video and a slideshow.

UPDATE: Filing this blog post through the blogging feature of MS Word 2007 has invoked some drastic formatting problems – basically, most of the photos didn’t show up, the captions were all wrong, and the photo sizes were way, way too wide for the columns.  So I’ve yanked them, and will be doing multi-file updates to try to allow y’all to see what it is that I’ve been talking about.  Also, the photo credit on the shot of the Aguilas Negras didn’t come through – that photo was from Cambio, as you will see if you click through the link.  I highly recommend checking out the story that goes along with that photo – it’s a great description of how bad the situation on Colombia’s eastern border has gotten – for those of you who speak only Gringo-ese, the headline basically translates as "Birds of Prey."