‘Risky, profitable, exciting’: TikTok fuels smuggling car craze in Bolivia | Bolivia
HComing from the Bolivian Altiplano, Challapata is the bifurcation point of the road to La Paz: one direction towards Potosí and the other towards Uyuni and the salt flats. It seems an ordinary place; many tourists cross without even realizing it. But Bolivians know it’s home to the country’s largest smuggling car fair, a hub of a trade network that stretches from Japan to the Bolivian Amazon.
Smuggled cars – known as chutos – are not new to Bolivia. But those behind the company have recently received renewed attention as a younger generation have started posting videos of their adrenaline-fueled border runs on Tiktok.
Efraín, 35, says he started as a chute when he was 12 years old. In the years since, the fundamentals of the business have remained the same: used cars from wealthier countries, such as Japan, are bought and shipped to Iquique, a free port in Chile. From there, with other stolen cars in Chile, they cross the long desert border with Bolivia, taking clandestine paths to avoid military patrols.
“It’s very risky, but it’s also profitable,” Efraín said. “And that’s exciting. It’s like taking part in the Dakar Rally. At least I see it that way, because you have to drive all night without lights. This way the soldiers don’t see you. You can pass under their noses without them realizing it. But if you turn on the lights, suddenly you see in the distance, one, three, five, 10 lights coming towards you.
At 35, Efraín is a veteran — and he said it’s the teenagers who use TikTok. Videos show groups of Chuteros drinking and making ritual offerings before trips; others show convoys of SUVs crossing the salt flats; some show wrecked and burnt-out vehicles lost along the way.
Almost all of these videos are set to a song — Chutero Yo Soy, by Simon Latorre — that has become an unlikely viral hit. A conversation with a Chutero close to Latorre yielded a phone number. When he answered the phone, he did so in the third person: “Simon Latorre at your service”.
Latorre himself is not Chutero, or even Bolivian: he is from Juliaca, a town in southern Peru. But he had a Bolivian friend who was a Chutero, and it was through him that he saw the way of life.
“He would bravely go into the night and come back with his cars,” Latorre said. “Then he would come out again. He didn’t even have time to sleep. Such is the sacrifice he had to make. Sometimes he would say that he had gotten into trouble, that he had run into the army, that they had opened fire, things like that.
His friend asked him to compose a song about Chuteros, for Chuteros. So he wrote Chutero Yo Soy, which he started performing in towns along the border between Bolivia and Chile.
Then they asked him to play Challapata. ” What a welcome. Honestly, I didn’t know Challapata before that, but when I went to play, a lot of people came, and they knew my songs and sang with me. There is nothing better as an artist.
Tania Jiménez, a sociologist who has conducted years of Chuteros fieldwork, and more recently digital ethnography, notes that being a Chutero is a kind of identity, with a culture of rituals, parties and songs surrounding it. she.
Very few women are involved, and the songs testify to this. “They’re about sacrifice and having the courage to dare to do it – there’s a strong sense of masculinity.”
The vice-minister for the fight against smuggling recently compared the Chutero culture to that of the gangs of drug traffickers. “It’s ridiculous,” laughed Jiménez. “Very forced.” She said bands having their songs are commonplace in Andean culture. “If you strip it of its cultural context, of course it could look like the culture of criminal groups in Mexico.
“But honestly,” she adds, “I think it’s stupid that they put these videos up. We all know they’re on Facebook: if you search for ‘autos chutos’, there’s plenty People will even deliver one to you, but these videos are kind of an ostentation of what they do.
The fact that the song went viral was a source of anxiety for Latorre. “I’m sometimes afraid that the Bolivian authorities will turn against me by asking me why Simon sings these songs dedicated to the Chuteros. But I’m just a songwriter — I don’t do that work myself,” Latorre said. “I hope that’s how the authorities see it.”
Meanwhile, chuto’s business continues. Analysts estimate that perhaps 25,000 chutos enter Bolivia each year, and some of the money earned is reinvested in parties where Latorre might perform. His representative says he does two or three concerts a month in Bolivia. “People call me every day asking for a shoutout in my next song,” Latorre said. He thinks for a moment. “I have more fans in Bolivia than in Peru. Some people know me here – but not like in Bolivia.