Photos: Joshua Collins

“Look. I have to get out of here. I’m ex-National Guard. And I’m terrified someone will find out. I can’t go back to Venezuela. They would imprison or shoot me. I came here for the protests, but I can’t return. I have to go to Bogota.”

We met María José Colisano* in one of the temporary refuges set up on the Colombian side of the Venezuelan border after the events of February 23rd. At the time, colectivos and Maduro loyalist forces were committing widespread acts of violence and intimidation against those trying to go back home, across an officially closed border by means of trochas, the informal network of illegal paths into Venezuela. Today, María lives on the streets in Saltire, a very poor and dangerous neighborhood in Bogotá, after the imminent closure of Hogar de Saltire refugee center.

There was widespread paranoia inside the camps due to rumors about “infiltrators”, who tried to record the names of those that had participated in the attempt to push the humanitarian aid into Venezuelan territory. No pictures of anyone’s face were allowed inside the camp, and we witnessed panic when a new arrival who didn’t enter through the main gate was nearly physically attacked by Venezuelans in the camp.

Due to the climate of fear, María initially hid the fact that she was a former member of the National Guard.

Due to the climate of fear, María initially hid the fact that she was a former member of the National Guard. She and her cousin were afraid they would be punished by the radical members in the camp.

She agreed to give us an interview as she joined us to Pamplona, the first stop on the migrant path to Bogota to stay at a shelter for women and children. “I arrived about fifteen days ago,” she told us. “I came with the objective of showing support for the humanitarian aid. Now, unfortunately, I’m stuck here. I don’t have my family, my son is still in Venezuela.”

Maria and her cousin are currently looking for a refugee center to spend the nights while they find a job.

“I was in the National Guard for five years. I deserted about three months ago. I couldn’t endure it anymore. Military members are under incredible pressure in Venezuela. I can’t even describe what many of us feel. We have to follow orders from this regime, from the president. Most of my friends in the National Guard also deserted, but not officially. We simply left one day and never returned.”  

“Here I am. I’ve looked back many times, but the truth is that I have a child. I never would have been able to provide for my son with the salary they paid me. I’m going to find a job and establish a life in Colombia, and when I find myself in a more stable situation I’m going to get my son. I want to take him with me.”

The latest figures from Colombian immigration state that over 700 members of the Venezuelan Armed Forces have deserted and officially presented themselves to Colombian authorities since February 23rd. After a short background check to ensure that they don’t present a threat, they are released and granted asylum status. “They shot two of my comrades for deserting in the bridge. They delivered their weapons and uniforms. The National Guard, the police and the army, see the other members of their security force as family. But sadly, one of them shot and killed the deserters, because they wanted to come to Colombia and leave the brotherhood.”

“We all went to school for two years. We weren’t trained to kill, but to be citizens, to be part of a civil defense, to protect the fatherland. One has to strive for life. I wasted two years training for the National Guard. Now, I see it like wasted time: Becoming a guard was the worst thing I have done.”  

Desertions of Venezuelan soldiers continue to surge, but prior to Guaidó’s push to bring in aid, about 4,300 guardsmen went AWOL over the past four years.

“Many believe that serving the government is the right thing, regardless of who has control. Some are indifferent towards the consequences of their actions. But that’s not right. One has to move towards the light, not the darkness.”

We asked María what she thinks will happen in Venezuela.  “Well, I presume there will be a military intervention. I don’t want that to happen. I love Venezuela. I am Venezuelan. I have my family there. I don’t want to see more violence. But there’s no other solution. I still have friends in the military and I don’t want to see them hurt or dead. I hope they realize that they are being misled by clowns. But after this weekend, I don’t think there’s any other option other than a military intervention. I want to return home. But for now, I can’t. I am here. All I can do is continue and try to eventually bring my family with me.”  

María insists the number is actually much higher than the one reported by Colombian Migration, stating that many are simply deserting their posts unofficially, preferring to cross the informally cross the border, without attracting attention.

Desertions of Venezuelan soldiers continue to surge, but prior to Guaidó’s push to bring in aid, about 4,300 guardsmen went AWOL over the past four years.

Venezuela has an active security force of around 365,000 members including police and military. It is estimated that there are 1.6 million civil reservists. Even if María is right that there are far more than 700 desertions due to the lack of official representation, that still represents a small number of the Venezuelan security forces.  

As we said goodbye, María promised to write as soon as she has the money to buy a phone or the opportunity to borrow one.  “I don’t care how hard the journey is,” she told us. “Anything is better than what waits for me in Venezuela.”

*María asked that we not use her real last name for security reasons

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