This is the third of a three part series on international borders. Part I gave Tusker founder Eddie Frank’s Africa perspective. Part II presented an overview of global border travel today. Part III provides readers a glimpse into how border residents make a living.
On the Venezuelan Border
They are called pimpineros and they know how to survive on the border.
Their business plan is simple and exploits the differences in prices across borders. The pimpineros operating in Cucuta, Colombia enjoy some of the best profit margins for any border business except maybe drugs. The price of gas in Venezuela is less than 10 cents a gallon. The price across the border in Colombia is $4.70 and that difference creates the pimpinero subculture.
The pimpineros give thanks to late Venezuelan president/dictator Hugo Chavez whose decade long gas subsidies, created the world’s lowest gas prices. It didn’t take long for Colombians on the Venezuelan border to take advantage of the crazy pricing. Gas smugglers jerry rigged their 1970s Chevys with enlarged gas tanks and modified interiors that included fuel holding doors and headed across the border at the Tachira River to fill up on cheap Venezuela gas. They had to grind through traffic for hours to get back into Cucuta, to resell the fuel, but it was well worth their time.
For a decade it was relatively easy making money this way but in the last two years the Venezuelans tried to stop the trade, limiting cars in the border state to 11 gallons of fuel every two days, through bar-coded windshield stickers readable by gas stations. Still the trade persists.
Gas smugglers are just one part of the equation. They are the wholesalers who sell the gas to the pimpineros (pimpina means gas cans in Spanish) who siphon the gas then resell it to cab and bus drivers as well as motorcyclists for a profit. Pimpinero roadside wooden shacks contain crude plastic cans and siphoning hoses and their work is carried out street side fully out in the open. Fresh air is a good thing because petrol fumes are not exactly good for your health, but a pimpinero can make $25 a day and that’s a middle class ticket to a better life.
To survive on the border you have to be street smart, fearless and perceptive. Anticipating a changing global economy is a way to make big bucks on the border. “The border with it’s frantic commerce in drugs, human beings, electronic gadgets, foodstuffs and money is a lens into the future of the new world economy,” writes author Bobby Byrd in his introduction to “Puro Border,” an anthology of U.S. Mexico border stories. Add smuggled petrol to Byrd’s list.
Tale of Two Border Cities
Life in border towns is often driven by contrasts between countries straddling the line. On my recent trip to Mexico it was impossible not to notice the contrast. Driving through Nogales, Mexico the city was alive with people on the street hustling, just trying to make a peso. Music was blaring out of cell phone stalls and myriad vendors were walking through traffic selling everything from day old newspapers to piñatas. Once across the border in much smaller Nogales, AZ, the town was quiet, the clean sidewalks were rolled up in the afternoon and nobody tried to sell us anything – at least not in traffic.
“The U.S. Mexico border is an open wound where the third world grates against the first and bleeds,” the late Chicana author Gloria Anzaldua wrote. “Before the wound heals it hemorrhages again the life blood of two worlds merging to form a third country, a border culture.”
When one side is comparatively rich and the other poor, one town has less crime, decent public schools, better paying jobs, a cleaner environment and is a magnet for those living on the other side. The rich side may offer a better quality of life, but the poor side has lower prices and the lure of adventure/misadventure. It has different laws governing the many vices (drinking, gambling, and prostitution) that induce a trip across the border by those seeking to escape the social stigmas of being caught on a bender in their own community.
The most strident example of this tale of two border cities is on the Mexican-U.S. border, perhaps the most scrutinized dividing line in the world. Juarez, Mexico is a contemporary Dickensian scene. Drug lords are modern Fagans conscripting young men to do their violent bidding. Maquiladora factory owners pay peon wages to their workers who flock to the border to escape lower paid farm work in southern Mexico. The city is drenched in blood and dust.
“Juarez lacks water and is first and last dust. Grass, trees, flowers, they are from somewhere else. The city is a holding pen for cheap labor sucked north from the hopeless interior of Mexico. Cheap labor, impossible living conditions, the bottomless U.S. market, violence and dirt,” is how author Charles Bowden described Juarez in 2000. It has only gotten bloodier and dustier since.
But across the border in El Paso, Texas it has only gotten better. The city is calm; the economy is rolling partially driven by Uncle Sam’s paranoia to reinforce the border. There were five homicides there last year; it’s among the safest big cities in the U.S., while Juarez, had 3000 murders, the world’s highest homicide rate. Mexico’s drug cartels see Juarez as a key transshipment city and their battle for control of Juarez has become blood sport. Meanwhile the banks in El Paso have plenty of deposits from Mexico and the population of El Paso has increased by 50,000 mainly from Juarez’ outflow.
Cantinas Morph into Medical Maquiladora
Border life is not all dust and blood. Take the city of Los Algodones, Baja California. It has 30 dentist offices within three blocks of the border with Yuma, AZ. Men in white robes are doing root canals today replacing the skimpy clad senoritas doing bump & grind cantina routines back in the 1960-1970s.
As American baby boomers age, their teeth go south, literally and figuratively. Medical maquiladora are springing up along the U.S. Mexico border where dental services are 70 percent below the costs in the U.S. Gringos with bad teeth are driving hundreds of miles to cross the border and are greeted by an army of touts wearing blue scrubs called, “jaladores” which translates to pullers. They try to pull the graying gringos to their dentista bosses with low ball prices for root canals and dentures. “The medical maquila model has been talked about for the last decade,” says Michael Ellis, an economist with New Mexico State University. “It’s just beginning to take hold, but I think the pressure will build as the boomers retire.”
Some Mexicans cross the U.S. border for medical services creating a cottage industry of midwifes. Pregnant Mexican women are crossing into Arizona and Texas to have their babies. Border midwifes are not cheap often charging as much as $3,000 to deliver a child but any baby born in the U.S. is automatically a U.S. citizen. Casa de Nacimiento in El Paso alone delivered 13,400 babies before it closed recently after a 26 year run. U.S. citizenship for any Mexican living on the border is often the difference not just for a better life but the difference between life and death.
South Africa’s Maguma-Gumas
Border life in Africa is especially tough and sometimes violent. When one country is in crisis and its refugees struggle to get across the border, they are often victimized. The Zimbabwe-South Africa border separated by the Limpopo River has spawned an especially brutal brand of predatory border behavior. Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown since 2000 has forced many to try to cross into South Africa to work in the fields. A band of thugs not unlike the ancient thugees of India prey on these refugees and are called Maguma-guma which means those who make a living through dubious means.
Researcher Blair Rutherford of Carleton University studied the border there and traces Maguma-guma’s origins to South Africans in the border town of Beitbridge who started by muscling traders on the border. “By using violence and threats to force mopane worm sellers to sell them their harvests at a reduced price which the Maguma-guma sold for a profit,” Rutherford wrote in his Africa Scholars report in 2008. Edible mopane worms are an important source of protein and a major rural industry in parts of Africa. “Whereas they still practice smuggling across the border, including leading border-jumpers into South Africa, they are more widely known for preying on the border-crossers, robbing, beating, raping, and at times killing their victims.” Today’s Maguma-guma thugs are primarily Zimbabweans who sneak into South Africa and prey on their fellow countrymen.
Environmental issues have also made life on African borders dangerous. When nomadic Fulani herders from Burkina Faso on the Mali border legally crossed the border to graze they were set upon by Dogon farmers. The governments had worked out a plan to allow the Fulani to use green grazing corridors but the Dogons were irate when their crops were damaged by the Fulani herds. Aljazeera reported 25 deaths in clashes between the farmers and the herders in May 2012.
When the world’s spotlight shines on borders things often improve for the people living and working there. The border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic has an especially sad history. In 1937 DR’s dictator Rafael Trujillo’s secret service swept in and killed between 20,000 and 30,000 Haitians who were living in the borderlands. The Massacre River separates the two countries and the border town of Dajabon is often the tense focal point between the two nations. Haiti women often pay the heaviest price. To help those women who work in the thriving markets along the river, the European Union recently invested $7.1 million to upgrade the border markets. The aid was designed to help with earthquake relief efforts and to stop the flow of Haitian women to flee the country for the DR.
Things are also looking better on the Zambia-Zimbabwe border. At the Victoria Falls border crossing in Livingstone work is now going on to improve the border’s infrastructure. It’s partially to put a more convenient face on an already spectacular setting but the border lacked adequate bathroom and tourist facilities. The work is being done in advance of this August’s meeting of the U.N. World Tourism Organization at Victoria Falls.
Let’s hope more money is pumped into improving border infrastructure; not just fences. For the people who are trying to survive on the border fewer fences and more clean water, adequate housing and better schools would make their lot in life a lot better.