Colombians jailed in Venezuela for $15 grocery run
BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — A $15 grocery run has cost two single mothers from Colombia 48 days in jail — and the threat of a 14 year prison sentence — as a result of a crackdown on smuggling in Venezuela that's ratcheting up tensions and highlighting growing economic distortions between the neighbors.
Jenifer Rojas and Belsy Alvarez were arrested in early September by Venezuela's national guard walking out of a supermarket in the western city of San Cristobal with bags of pasta, mayonnaise and other staples that are heavily subsidized in Venezuela and whose sale is restricted to Venezuela residents.
Along with the cashier who rang up their purchases, they face charges of smuggling and violating the socialist government's new law of fair prices, whose penalties include 10 to 14 years in jail.
The Colombian women were expected to appear in court Friday for a preliminary hearing where a judge will rule on whether to accept the charges and determine if they must remain in jail.
"My daughter's not a criminal," Rojas' mother, Gladys Pedroza, told The Associated Press after a recent jailhouse visit.
The women's plight isn't an isolated case. An estimated 100 Colombians are among the nearly 1,400 people who have been arrested in the past two months as part of President Nicolas Maduro's effort to root out smuggling he blames for widespread shortages.
Colombian officials contend that the majority of their arrested citizens come from working-class families like Rojas' who for years have been crossing the porous border to take advantage of price caps that make goods there far cheaper.
A recent plunge in Venezuela's currency has made the shopping excursions even more affordable: A 1 kilogram (2.2-pound) bag of powdered milk — which it can be found — costs 70 bolivars at the regulated prices. That's about 70 U.S. cents at the widely used black market exchange rate, but it can fetch seven times that amount in dollar terms across the border in Colombia.
While Maduro insists he's not targeting Colombians, his decision to close the border at night and boost security patrols has generated alarm. The mayor of Cucuta, a commercial city of 800,000 where Venezuelans go to see how much their bolivars are really worth, urged residents this week to avoid stepping across the border, saying they face arrest.
Many Colombians might not have learned that grocery purchases can be a crime if Rojas and Alvarez's fellow street vendors in Cucuta hadn't raised a fuss. Rojas has a stand selling underwear while Alvarez scrapes by charging pedestrians for cellular phone calls, according to Rocio Valencia, president of the city's street vendors' union. Both have young children.
"Every country can make up its own laws, but it makes no sense to equate someone who brings a kilogram of rice over the border with large-scale smuggling," said Alvarez.
Colombian officials say Maduro has also stirred ill feelings by alleging, so far with spotty evidence, that a gang of Colombian hit-men were hired by the government's enemies abroad to murder a pro-government lawmaker this month.
"Don't let yourself be poisoned by the hate campaign against Venezuela," Maduro said last week in nationally televised remarks addressed to Colombian families
So far, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has avoided voicing concerns in any forceful manner. Despite the strains, Maduro has backed Cuba-based peace talks between Colombia's government and Marxist rebel movements that have sometimes taken shelter in Venezuela.
Associated Press writer Libardo Cardona and Cesar Garcia contributed to this report.
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