Photos: Joshua Collins
The sun was just rising over the desert landscape of the Venezuela – Colombia border. My phone said the temperature rose ten degrees in the last two hours: 27°C to 37°C, humidity was at 70%. A crowd wrestled and argued against the tiny booths selling tickets right behind the offices of Colombian migration.
Salesmen tried to negotiate and calm down the Venezuelans who wished to travel to Rumichaca, on the Colombia – Ecuador border, against all odds, and cross before the Ecuadorian government starts demanding a humanitarian visa to enter its territory.
“No more tickets to Rumichaca today, they’re sold out, we’re fully booked,” said a man sternly, trying to make people leave. A family said they’d pay anything, they didn’t care, they’d travel standing in the hallway. It’s a 36-hour ride from Cucuta to Rumichaca. The salesman agreed, made the deal and promised to make arrangements for one of the night rides. They were two women and around five barefoot children, throwing rocks at each other near the drain. They’d leave late at night, with only a gallon of water and two panes de guayaba for the entire journey.
“You can make your own figures,” Pedro Rodríguez, director of an agency in La Parada, on the Colombian side, told me. “Here in La Parada, there are around 76 legal transport agencies. Only on August 22nd, each one dispatched at least three buses, 45 seats each. All of them to the Rumichaca bridge. We could barely do it, chamo. The agencies moving the most people dispatched up to six buses. To give you a conservative estimate, we must have moved 11 thousand fellas that night, 11 thousand people crossed Colombia to arrive to Ecuador before Monday.”
Rodríguez switched to a more serious tone when we approached the tickets price: “Between August 17th and August 20th, tickets went up by 100%. They’re normally 200 thousand pesos, but now, if you can find them, they’re around 330 thousand pesos. All agencies agreed on a fare, since we started having serious issues between us, because of demand.”
What he described wasn’t actually an agreement between agencies; it was an arbitrary decision by those controlling the border. In La Parada, nothing moves without the paramilitaries’s knowledge. They keep order and control the routes (regular or otherwise) transporting Venezuelans.
Many people travelled without the necessary documents, but those who had them and planned on entering or leaving legally, had to stand in long, unbearable lines for the passport stamp. Tiny groups of Colombian EMTs and civil defense officers walked around the crowd, checking up on those who had hours waiting, especially seniors and women with small children. “Children get sunburnt and dehydrated, since women don’t cover them properly,” said Erika, a volunteer for civil defense. “Here, we try to give them water and we do our best to get the fever down. Hunger has terrible consequences, too. They wake up here, sometimes they haven’t eaten anything. Old, sick people with sugar or tension issues are at severe risk.”
In Rumichaca, migrants would find temperatures as low as five degrees, something they were unprepared for, and most ignored the altitude and the extreme conditions awaiting at Ipiales or Tulcan. Several international agencies like UNHCR, Unicef and the International Migration Organization are in the area, and the Colombian government deployed even more immigration officers.
While writing this, I heard on the radio here in Cucuta that the Ipiales mayor, Ricardo Romero Sánchez, declared a state of public disaster in the municipality. The following morning, on August 26th, “people were literally running to cross the bridge,” as CC contributor Joshua Collins told me—he was on-site at Rumichaca. Many Venezuelans residing in Ecuador had paid tickets for their entire families to reunite before the measures came into effect. Some were prepared for the cold and had provisions, but many others had no idea of the conditions they would be facing and no contacts inside the country. Unicef, the Red Cross, USAid and other NGOs were on location and the contingency deployment was successful; Joshua learned, however, that all this was the same humanitarian aid (food, blankets, medicine) that wasn’t allowed into Venezuela and had been sitting in Cucuta since February.
Transport workers have their own opinion on the measures that the Ecuadorian, Peruvian and Chilean governments have taken to regulate the Venezuelan migration flow. All they perceive is a heavier and heavier workload. “It’s unstoppable,” said Pedro Rodríguez, “trying to stop it would be stupid. These presidents will never say on TV that, no matter what they do, there’ll always be illegal ways to get from Puerto de Santander to Santiago de Chile. We’ll always find a way.”
Because here, in the border with Cucuta, we see families traveling with nothing, children surviving a four-day journey on cookies and water, after they’ve already traveled all the way here from wherever they lived in Venezuela. Many people needed to cross to Ecuador before August 26th, to continue to Peru or Argentina: If you’re traveling by land, you can’t skip certain migration laws, and you and your family have to be ready for every bureaucratic filter. Those who can leave by plane skip this complex route of hardship and danger.
But they’re desperate, so hundreds of migrants carry jewelry, gold, silver or their phones to pay for their rides. “A passenger offered her shoes yesterday to pay for the rest of the fare,” said Pedro Rodríguez. “I didn’t take them and covered the rest from my own pocket, it wasn’t that much. But not everyone’s like that, many advisors and drivers take advantage of people, young women offer sexual favors to make the trip.”
Traveling like this increases dramatically the refugees’ vulnerability. They race against time inside a labyrinth full of traps, like contradicting bureaucracy, insufficient humanitarian response and multiple predators, from human trafficking to forced slavery and recruitment.
Venezuelans are in dire need of a better management that can rise to the occasion. Every second counts for people like Tibisay Andrade, 39 years old, who traveled from Carupano, Sucre. After 18 hours on the road with her eight-year-old, she was robbed in a public restroom by the highway in San Cristobal, Tachira. “I feel lost. I had my full ticket to get to Rumichaca and now I have nothing. Friends who offered me a job were expecting me at Ipiales. My son and I haven’t eaten since yesterday. I can’t contact anyone. All I can do is make it to the bus station and see what I can come up with, sit down and think. I don’t even know how much the ticket will cost now or if there are any. I have to get there no matter what, because they say it won’t be possible anymore after Monday. Whatever I have to do to leave, I’ll do it. I must, for me and my son.”Caracas Chronicles is 100% reader-supported. Support independent Venezuelan journalism by making a donation.