The practice is not new. For more than ten years, freight carriers, but also passenger bus drivers and passenger cars have lamented being at the mercy of law enforcement racketeering.
Every week, Ender Gomez leaves with his truck loaded with 20 tons of fruit and vegetables from the town of La Grita, in the state of Tachira (west), on the border with Colombia, to go to Caracas,
On the way, in addition to the roads in poor condition, the fuel shortages which are particularly frequent in the provinces, he is confronted with dozens of police checkpoints which sometimes stop him for hours to check his cargo and his papers for the sole purpose , he denounces, to obtain bribes.
“It’s an odyssey”, tells AFP this “feriero” as traders in Venezuela are called who buy food in the countryside to resell in the urban markets where he has a stall.
The last time the police stopped him, he remembers having lost two hours on his journey. They “uncovered the cargo, the sun was beating down on the goods, and we had to fight with them to be able to stop the engine of the truck”, recalls this 48-year-old man.
“They try to take money from us, but in the end you have to resist because if you start giving them, they get used to it and then we arrive in Caracas and we left them our profit margin on the way,” he said indignantly.
But the standoff does not always turn in his favor. More than once, Ender Gomez had to leave a few tickets or abandon a significant portion of his merchandise in order to continue on his way.
“The ferieros must give up a share of the goods at each roadblock”, regrets the producer Ramon Alirio Zamabrano in his farm in La Grita.
“They try to leave them cheap vegetables like cabbage, lettuce…”. But the police do not want to be taken “for fools” and they must be given “tomatoes, potatoes, that is to say the most expensive goods that we transport”, he regrets.
– A culture of racketeering –
The police racket is the consequence of the low salaries of these civil servants, for a long time less than 30 dollars per month, according to the specialists.
Currently, after a 1,700% increase recently decreed by the government, a freshly graduated police officer earns the equivalent of 114 dollars.
The Ministry of Public Finance, meanwhile, announced measures to limit these practices, and President Nicolas Maduro himself ordered in July “to remove obstacles” on the roads.
But little has changed, say transporters and traders, who see the practice as a feature of local culture.
“There are some who take themselves for gods (…) they do this to annoy us”, protests a truck driver, who does not want to give his name for fear of reprisals.
“We all go through the matraqueo”, a popular name given to racketeering. “We are trying to get out of it in the most peaceful way,” he continues. “The more we get angry, the worse it is. The only ones with power are them, not us,” he said.
These systematic bribes end up being felt in the price paid by the consumer, which can be “three or four times higher than the purchase price in the field”, according to Celso Fantiniel, president of Fedeagro, a farmers’ association.
Goods produced in Venezuela that fall victim to this practice sometimes end up costing more than imported products.
In the state of Tachira, the authorities have set up a “protectorado”, a kind of pass supposed to avoid racketeering, but it involves the payment of a tax on the value of the goods. And above all the producers complain that only “people close to the government” have access to it.