Photo by Gabriela Mesones Rojo

Around 20 motorbikes loaded with towers of plastic buckets cross the rice fields at dawn. The bus is almost empty, nobody’s going to the border this morning; most of the passengers are ill Venezuelans who crossed illegally to Colombia, for medicine at the shelters, and now return sad and silent. Right now, I’m not a person. I’m merchandise. And my path can end, in every sense of the word, tonight.

A pregnant lady in the adjacent seat to mine is going to Tachira with her small son. “Things with the paracos have been really tense since the weekend. My brother tried to cross with some tires a few days ago on a boat and they didn’t let him. They said he was part of the colectivos who crossed to Colombia disguised as refugees, he had to turn back and they still charged him almost 100 thousand pesos just for trying. The day before yesterday, they killed two women who owed them money and threw them in the river.”

Most of the testimonies I collect are similar, all filled with tension and expectation, many talking about the possibility of returning to the old days of the armed conflict, bloody and painful.

I spent my last afternoon in Cucuta talking to people about how they perceived the atmosphere after the concert and the attack on the trucks. Most were concerned because the city “was empty,” and talked with shame for admitting an unpleasant truth: “With all due respect to you and your countrymen, Venezuelans are a huge problem for Colombia, but in this city, we depend on them. All of our business is with Venezuelans.”

Right now, I’m not a person. I’m merchandise. And my path can end, in every sense of the word, tonight.

That’s what a cab driver, Josué (54) told me as we crossed the Avenida 7, a decadent red district full of garages and bars-turned-brothels. Christmas lights and plastic tables are there, for sweaty men drinking warm beer. The traffic of women and children in Cucuta is monstrous: unpunished human trafficking is the common coin at the border, after drugs and smuggled gas. Sometimes it all mixes together: in many brothels on the road, prostitutes stir a hose tied to a plastic bottle, the signal of Venezuelan fuel for sale. Stay on your toes, or they’ll dupe and rob you. Or you may just disappear.

“Can you imagine if they set up an American military base in Villa del Rosario?” says Oscar (32), a bartender at the small Japanese café full of hipsters. “It’s the best that could happen to this city: the economy would dollarize, streets and avenues would need to be built and repaired, hotels would fill up, new buildings, foreign trade and a protected border.”

The comment blindsided me, he said it sincerely. The generation gap among Cucuteños is marked by their perspective on war: the oldest see it as a distant nightmare, a wound, a door that must remain shut. For the youngest it’s perhaps a necessary evil, they speak with utter trust in the Colombian Army, the American support and their capabilities to contain terrorism. Their dream is for Cucuta to resemble Tel Aviv much more than Sinaloa.

Later, as I packed, I saw in the news how in some mountain community, there’s growing concern for the reappearance of the ELN’s guerrilla flags and the systematic murder of policemen. Witnesses didn’t reveal their face to the camera. News then turned to reports about refugees wounded by colectivos, information about the dangers of trochas (rural back roads used by smugglers, today controlled by paramilitaries who act like coyotes) and the violent incidents at provisional camps. I turned off the TV, erased the information from my phone, personal and work chats, and uninstalled my social networks. I shared my location in real time with people I trust, took my backpack and left the room. I’ve never been so scared of returning to my own country.

Getting off the bus, three hours after leaving the hotel, the Colombian port of Santander is totally different to what Gaby Mesones and I saw when we entered Colombia: the town is empty, stores are closed and there’s curfew-level security. The paracos guard the place and report everyone crossing in or out. At first glance, they look like common people, but just two minutes are enough to notice that they’re in command: stoic and aggressive, almost all in black, detaining, questioning or confiscating the goods of anyone in town. They aren’t visibly armed, but they don’t need to be. If someone detains you, don’t resist, do everything they say, you’re in their power, don’t talk too much, follow instructions, be quiet and move fast. People file down the buses, eyes glued to the floor. A pale and ungainly teenager takes my arm and says “the border’s closed, parce. I’ll take you through a trocha, that’s pretty quick, 50,000 pesos (around $20) right now, follow me.” Nobody is haggling, but I try and manage a 5,000 pesos discount. We start walking, my companion is a photographer who’s also returning to Merida, but he had to leave all of his equipment with some acquaintances in Cucuta, for fear of having them stolen.

The boy walks fast and signals men hidden in windows and roofs which we try not to look at directly. We leave the commercial avenue and start crossing slums with flimsy shacks made of wood and zinc, warehouses, barracks. The boy tells me he’ll actually keep around 5,000 pesos out of all we gave him because he’ll be paying the rest in each checkpoint. As we walk, we confirm it: he gives out money to everyone stopping us. Hundreds of people loaded with suitcases go down the riverbank across a road filled with trees. Amidst the thick damp air, we only hear the engines of boats far away.

For a second I’m at ease and take a deep breath, then a man in a suit right in front of me is stopped and questioned, then ordered to turn back.

Reaching the coast of the Grita river, we see about two hundred people waiting to pass through. Our guide approaches the port guards standing under a tree, watching over an almost 4-meter high stack of gasoline containers. He pays them and points at us while whispering something in their ear. Several men in the water move the boats one beside the other as a sort of makeshift bridge. There were some fifteen orange and yellow boats, each about 12 meters long, aligned on the river. When they’re all together, the paracos give the order to cross. Far away, from the closed bridge, the guards watch us with indifference. There are many elderly people, people with crutches and walkers, even a wheelchair being carried over or using hammocks as stretchers; there are many children on their parents’ shoulders, holding backpacks bigger than them; pregnant women, workers, nuns helping the weakest, vendors, smugglers. All of them are a mixture of anguish, pain and powerlessness. They all move nervously, nobody wants to be here longer than necessary.

Around 20 minutes after crossing the boat bridge and paying each boatman at the riverside, we’re across. For a second I’m at ease and take a deep breath, then a man in a suit right in front of me is stopped and questioned, then ordered to turn back. They escort him to the riverbank and make him climb on the smallest boat. He shakes. I do my best not look at him, I breathe, check my backpack and documents. We climb through a path where a group of bikers charge 5,000 pesos to take us to town. We ignore them. Half an hour later, we enter Boca de Grita, a town just like the last one, but on the Venezuelan side. The boy leaves us near the terminal, shakes our hands and goes back for more people.

Since there are no buses straight to Merida, we negotiate with a driver. He’s stubborn and unpleasant, charging us 100,000 pesos for the trip: 80,000 for himself and 20,000 for his supervisor. I’m exhausted and hungry, dizzy, I want to get back home because every day in Cucuta had been tense and lonely; I’d never felt so vulnerable in a city where you can lose everything at any moment, your money, your integrity, your life. It’s hard to understand how you can turn into merchandise, how you belong to others as long as you remain in their territory.

I understood that the real problem isn’t Maduro; it’s all the monsters who nested in the darkness of our country for two decades of socialism. A few months ago, Quico Toro spoke about how the “obedience” of chavismo’s chain of command keeps Nicolás in the presidential chair. Now I see it clearly. It’s not obedience what keeps chavistas in power, it’s the impunity that articulates thousands of criminal networks cohabitating in a perfect ecosystem. Maduro doesn’t have power, he’s there because he’s allowed to be, because he cooperated in the construction of murder-empires, landowners, illegal miners and kidnappers. Because he opened the door to drug traffickers and the guerrilla, strengthening gold and trafficking syndicates, dealing with pranes and cartels, embracing deserters and smugglers. He’s still there because the mass migration of Venezuelans is the greatest business of the 21st century in this country; human trafficking at the border has oxygenated armed minorities, giving them resources, money and soldiers. The greatest challenge for a transition government won’t be kicking chavistas out of Miraflores, it’ll be confronting these warlords.

Already in a shabby Mustang, I’m going back to my city at last. Behind me rises the realm of beasts, the watchers on the walls, those who’ll make the most hazardous decisions after this is over. I feel like I’m waking up from a dense slumber, the last of the Cucuta Chronicles is a feverish dream that will stay with me long after waking up.

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