San Cristobal (Venezuela) (AFP) - Venezuela closed its border with Colombia to crack down on smuggling of cut-rate gasoline and other products and stanch huge losses for the Caracas government.
A total of 17,000 troops have been posted along the frontier to prevent Venezuelan gas and other products kept cheap thanks to government price controls from being sneaked across the border into Colombia.
The closing along 2,200 kilometers (1,400 miles) of border applies only at night. It will last 30 days during a preliminary period and then the effect of the measure will be assessed.
The lure for smugglers is acute: gas is so cheap in Venezuela it costs less to fill up your tank than it does to buy a bottle of water.
Even Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro admitted a few months ago that selling a liter of milk at the border brings in more money than selling cocaine.
-Smuggling sugar and toilet paper-
Oil-rich Venezuela has some of the world's cheapest gasoline, as well as price controls that can make food and commodities up to 10 times cheaper than in Colombia.
These products include milk, sugar and toilet paper.
"We have 17,000 troops deployed along the entire border zone and they are enough to guarantee security," said the commander of the operation, General Vladimir Padrino Lopez.
Venezuela first announced the measure on Saturday. It says it is doing so under a joint accord with Colombia.
Private vehicles will be barred from crossing after 10:00 pm, and commercial trucks after 6:00 pm.
The Venezuelan government estimates that 40 percent of the country's basic commodities are smuggled across the border with Colombia, plus 100,000 barrels of oil, equivalent to annual losses of $3.7 billion.
Padrino Lopez said that so far this year some 40 million liters of gasoline and 21,000 tons of food have been seized while being smuggled across the border.
Goods that make it out of the country are sold at a much higher price and add to shortages of basic goods back in Venezuela.
The first victims of the new measures are truck drivers, who are blocked at the border at night.
The president of the national truckers union, Ricardo Virviescas, said the losses will be huge, at an estimated 500 dollars per day per truck.
Smuggling may be reduced with this measure but the only real way to tackle it is with a liberalization of prices in Venezuela, said Luis Vicente Leon of the thinktank Datanalisis.
Because of the enormous difference in prices between the two countries "it is very unlikely there will be no one willing to take the risk because the profits are high," said Mercedes de Freitas of the NGO Transparencia Venezuela.