Oil Smuggling Brings Environmental Disaster to Venezuela's Economic Ruin

The economic disaster in Venezuela caused by tumbling petroleum prices—oil production is the main industry—is also behind an environmental one. Lake Maracaibo, which sustains the Añu indigenous group, is being contaminated by oil spills and the leaky drilling infrastructure, all made worse by rampant gas smuggling. Pulitzer Center grantees Nadja Drost and Bruno Federico report on this problem for the NewsHour.


Smuggler (through translator): Sometimes, drivers will be tied up and killed. It happens to helpers, too. Soldiers get shot down, and whoever falls, falls.

Nadja Drost: In order to traverse this frontier land with their contraband goods, smugglers have to pay off everyone, from authorities to rebels and other armed groups from the Colombian side.

Smuggler (through translator): You pay the military, the national guard, the police, the intelligence agency, military intelligence. You even pay the Colombian guerrillas. Everyone eats from this.

Nadja Drost: Colombian paramilitaries, too, he says.

Smuggler (through translator): If you don’t pay, you will get shot, at the least.

Nadja Drost:We arrive at a lake, where workers line up empty barrels to tow across, where they will get filled at a rudimentary gas station, loaded onto trucks and continue their journey to the other side of the border. Many people live off this trade, including the military’s national guard, who we see inspecting every vehicle, except for trucks with contraband gasoline, at a checkpoint a mere 10 miles before a closed border crossing. As we peer out from behind our tinted windows, a local accompanying us explains how contraband gets across here.

Smuggler (through translator): Those civilians are the moscas.

Nadja Drost: Moscas, flies, the name given to civilians buzzing around on motorbikes who act as a link between smugglers and whichever group they have to pay off. Here, it’s the military.

Smuggler (through translator): One of them already arranged everything and paid the military, so that these trucks can pass through.

Nadja Drost: Truckload after truckload, contraband gasoline is waved on through by the military. Smuggling rackets keep draining oil profits. Oil wells in Lake Maracaibo continue to decline. As the oil economy tumbles, and pulls Venezuela deeper into crisis, it draws attention to the perils of over-relying on oil revenues to prop up an economy. Back on Lake Maracaibo, fisherman Jose Gregorio Garcia has benefited from oil’s bonanza years, as well as suffered from too much oil, contaminating his fish supply. Living shoreside of the once-booming oil industry, Garcia knows it has to change.

Jose Gregorio Garcia (through translator): We have seen what happens with petroleum. The price of oil rises, and it falls. We have always lived off this, the good price of oil. But we have to find an alternative.

Nadja Drost: For the “PBS NewsHour,” reporting with Bruno Federico, I’m Nadja Drost on Lake Maracaibo.

Hari Sreenivasan: To hear more about this story and our reporting from Venezuela, check out our Outside the Bubble conversation with special correspondent Nadja Drost. That’s on our Facebook page,