Crime & Justice

Vehicle smuggling undermining Bolivian, Chilean economies

By Gina Baldivieso

La Paz, Aug 17 (EFE).- Vehicle smuggling is a long-standing problem that affects the economies of both Bolivia and Chile, the latter of which is the port of entry for cars and trucks that continue their journeys via illegal routes into Bolivian territory, some of them coming from overseas and others stolen in northern Chile.

Between January and July of this year 1,687 undocumented vehicles valued at some $35.5 million were seized in Bolivia, most of them in the Andean Oruro region (515) and in La Paz (494), according to a tally provided to EFE by the National Customs Office.

Those vehicles that avoided customs controls are now circulating mainly in Bolivian border towns, many of them without the proper registration papers and others with “twinned” or falsified documents.

The concern is an ongoing one, and it increases when the people who buy these smuggled vehicles – called “chutos” in Bolivia – demand amnesty in “nationalizing” or properly registering them.

The exact number of smuggled vehicles circulating in Bolivia is unknown, but the most moderate estimates are of some 200,000. However, the import sector claims that there are more than 500,000 smuggled vehicles in the country, according to what the general manager of the Bolivian Automotive Chamber (CAB), Luis Orlando Encinas, told EFE.

“It’s a problem and harms the entire Bolivian state,” he said.

Encinas went on to say that each year between 50,000 and 60,000 vehicles are imported legally, and thus the “nationalization” of the smuggled vehicles would amount to about a decade’s worth of imports and be worth about $280 million.

Encinas said that the sum does not represent any profit, given that the country must import diesel fuel and gasoline to meet its internal demand at an annual cost of between $1.5 billion to $2 billion, and then those fuels are sold at prices subsidized by the state.

The private business sector in Bolivia and Chile says that the fact that some people are prosecuted for taking delivery of or selling stolen vehicles is yet another cost that must be taken into account.

Efforts to halt this illicit trade are coordinated between the Customs Office and the Vice Ministry of the Fight against Smuggling, created in 2018 after two soldiers were killed in an ambush targeting vehicle smugglers.

In remarks to EFE, the deputy minister in charge of that department, Gen. Daniel Vargas, acknowledged that the length of the border between Bolivia and its five neighboring countries occasionally makes it “very difficult” to monitor the sectors through which the smuggled vehicles are brought in.

Despite that, “the strategic deployment” of the armed forces along the border allows them to cover the main routes used for vehicle smuggling, with the “center of gravity” being along the border with Chile, Vargas said.

He said that two ways of bringing in the vehicles have been identified: either using “twinned” documentation but through the authorized checkpoints or via illegal routes.

“In some cases, there are confrontations because they don’t want to dump (the vehicles) and in many cases we’ve also seen that they’re using firearms, explosives,” said Vargas, who also lamented the fact that some border residents are defending the smugglers.

Bolivia’s anti-smuggling efforts have detected occasional links between drug traffickers and smugglers who come to the border with Chile carrying small quantities of illegal drugs to exchange for undocumented or stolen vehicles, Vargas said.

Meanwhile, the neighboring country is concerned about the growing number of vehicle thefts spurred by the market to be found in Bolivia for those cars and trucks, the general secretary for Chile’s National Automotive Association (ANAC), Diego Mendoza, told EFE.

He said that in northern Chile “there’s been a great increase in crime associated with stealing vehicles, including new ones that still don’t have their license plates installed,” and which are taken to Bolivia where it’s very difficult to recover them.

In his judgment, the existing bilateral cooperation agreement to recover stolen vehicles “has rarely been used,” since it requires court complaints and the involvement of lawyers on both sides, a situation that is difficult for the people affected by those thefts to deal with or afford.

In addition, he warned about the flourishing of criminal gangs that buy vehicles in Chile for cash and then sell them in Bolivia, thus enabling them to launder money obtained from other illicit activities like drug or weapons trafficking.

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