Photo by the author.
I’m sitting on the edge of a boat on the shore of the Grita river, a few kilometers from the Unión bridge. The border between San Antonio del Tachira (Venezuela) and Cucuta (Colombia), one of the most active in Latin America, is tense, dark and uneasy. I got there on a bus from Merida, at around 4:00 a.m., and people were commenting, between WhatsApp messages and audios, that Maduro had opened the border, closed precisely the last time I went through in a violent haze.
Minutes after I got off the bus, I could see hundreds standing in an impossible queue for the Venezuelan immigration office, at Boca de Grita. Coyotes waited on motorbikes, telling people how much cheaper and faster it’d be if they paid to cross through the side trail. I approached the first motorbike I saw, paid 7,000 Colombian pesos (a little over $2) and sleepily made my way through the wet, muddy paths down to the river.
Challenge 1: From Merida to the border
Fuel shortages multiplied the bus fares to the border in less than a month; the few buses that can still make the trip are already malfunctioning. The lonely, dark roads are hunting grounds for pirates, who throw rocks at car windows or set up spikes on the pavement to blow tires. Kidnapping or robberies follow.
Coyotes waited on motorbikes, telling people how much cheaper and faster it’d be if they paid to cross through the side trail.
The bus I was in stopped several times when the driver saw a particularly dark path ahead. He waited for the remaining drivers traveling that night to join him and create a small fleet, more difficult to attack. The criminals are after what travelers carry: U.S. dollars, Colombian pesos, Peruvian soles, gold, jewelry (which Venezuelans trade at the border for food or medicine, or a ride to Peru or Chile). “It’s a bad sign to find a checkpoint without soldiers,” the co-driver said, as he got off to stretch his legs. “We’ll stop here because it’s safe; we’ll get robbed up ahead.” Beyond the headlights, the road was lost in dusk. This trip usually takes five hours, but this time it took seven, with all the stops and checkpoints along the way.
Challenge 2: Across the river from Venezuela to Colombia
Reaching the river, I noticed how things had changed since the last time I visited. There was no trace of the bottles with smuggled fuel, barrels, guards or even containers over the boats. In fact, there weren’t even that many boats, just the one, small and light, pushed by a man with a wooden stick through muddy waters. I was the only passenger.
The paracos (Colombian paramilitaries) were in a good mood. Their logic is simple: if Maduro opened the border, lots of people would try to cross, but since many couldn’t go through the bridge due to the expensive bribes demanded by the Venezuelan National Guard and immigration agents, this would be a good day for trafficking.
The shortage of fuel in states like Tachira, Merida and Zulia destroyed their smuggling of incredibly cheap Venezuelan fuel to Colombia, and controlling the irregular crossings is now the most lucrative business. Guerrillas and paracos have been at it for a while, but now Venezuelan pro-Maduro colectivos, deployed in Tachira in February to repress protests, took over the human trafficking with gunfire, imposing a new criminal dynamic where, unlike Colombian paramilitaries, they assault and rob Venezuelan migrants.
A woman arrives on a motorbike almost half an hour after me, and comes aboard. “Up there, they’re charging people with large suitcases between 15,000 and 20,000 pesos. It’s going to be really hard to cross today. People will grow tired, and eventually they’ll come here. They’re scared because they’ve heard stories, but everything’s faster here.”
Her reasoning is that of someone who has grown accustomed to human trafficking, who uses these crossings every day. Perhaps she’s missing the fact that, in such a critical situation as Venezuela’s in 2019, most people can no longer pay to cross illegally and, if they have some money, they’d rather use it to bribe their way through the bridge. The binational Unión bridge, 60 km from Cucuta, isn’t that violent, making it the preferred road for families, pregnant women and the elderly.
There was no trace of the bottles with smuggled fuel, barrels, guards or even containers over the boats.
Coyotes get three more people on the boat, the boatman sails into the river, turns on the rudimentary diesel engine and, in a few minutes, we’re on the other side. It’s not dawn yet and I’m certain this is going to be a very long day.
“I hope they remove those containers from the border,” an old man coming from Trujillo with a prescription for insulin tells me. “I’m sure they’ve started already.” After the failed attempt to deliver humanitarian aid in February, the crossing through the bridges was restricted to all pedestrians and only in a few exceptions a medical patient could be let through (after paying the bribe). The rest still languishes on the Colombian side.
Challenge 3: Joining the Cucuta crowd
I finally reach Cucuta and six hours later, mid-afternoon, I meet with American journalist Joshua Collins at the Simón Bolívar bridge. According to local news, about 70,000 people are crossing it this Saturday alone.
The difference with what I saw last time, reporting the Venezuela Live Aid concert, is astounding: the mass of Venezuelans lifts a cloud that covers everything with a yellowish, dirty and pale nimbus. The scorching desert sunlight makes everyone bow their heads while they push each other, crossing from one side to the other. There’s a stagnant, bitter smell in the air, a kind of musk made of filth, moisture and sweat.
Joshua points to 20 children running barefoot and shirtless after cabs and vehicles. “Those kids wait here every day for people who want to cross in or out with packs of food and merchandise. They load it all on their shoulders with straps on around their heads.” These children, who should be in school or playing with their friends, are the most active carriers nowadays, working for paramilitaries and colectivos.
The market (where you can buy and sell whatever you can think of) seems relegated to the background: what most people want right now is to cross, buy food and return before nightfall. The crowd writhes and merges. People shout and fight, frustrated, angry and ashamed. The Colombian police tries to help, but people move how they can, where they can. It’s unstoppable.
The deepening of the complex humanitarian crisis in the west, plus the permanent shortage of gasoline, have impoverished migrants to a dangerous degree of vulnerability.
The deepening of the complex humanitarian crisis in the west, plus the permanent shortage of gasoline, have impoverished migrants to a dangerous degree of vulnerability. Those who simply want to reach the border face obstacles like the absence of safe transportation and well-defined enemies, such as the human trafficking networks or the pro-Maduro criminal gangs controlling the roads now. The fear of armed violence in irregular crossings and the oppressive tendencies of the people controlling them, as well as the growing xenophobia of neighboring countries towards refugees, should be making many migrants wonder whether traveling on foot is a good idea at all.
Although the border’s now open, the regime’s walls grow thicker for the poor. This might translate into new internal migrations within Venezuela toward areas less affected by the collapse of services, such as Caracas or the eastern part of the country, and perhaps the emergence of poor and illegal settlements in those forgotten lands where neither Maduro’s regime, nor Iván Duque’s government hold any jurisdiction.
For now, who knows what’s going to happen? The sun sets over the border and a dense cloud of dust covers all of us.Caracas Chronicles is 100% reader-supported. Support independent Venezuelan journalism by making a donation.