Image: Sofia Jaimes Barreto
I’ve been trying to understand the fabric of border dynamics for months now. A few years ago, at the Universidad de los Andes, my Compared Literature professor defined it as a space of constant tension, something that dilated and contracted depending on the human transit through it. It moulded itself by the push and shove of each individual, their motives, expectations and conflicts.
I have contemplated how thousands of people, from all over Venezuela, cross bridges, creeks, woods and mountains escaping darkness and death. Ploughing through with an uneven and unstoppable force, like a river of people on the course of an abandoned canyon. A river going against the current, of course, because according to all the coyotes I know, those paths were already there.
The borders aren’t a social or civilized space. They’re more like a non-place where moral configuration doesn’t exist at all, no justice, not even the law.
The borders aren’t a social or civilized space. They’re more like a non-place where moral configuration doesn’t exist at all, no justice, not even the law. Politics are abstract and the confluence of the hardest of miseries next to the wealth obtained by black market trade pushes migrants to pull out their best cards in order to survive.
“Everyone needs something at the border,” Alejo Zambrano tells me, sipping an Aguilón and checking his pockets for a lighter.
The table is made of plastic, the heat is unbearable and the music is too loud. In Cucuta, the beer is always warm and men drink it while telling tough-guy stories, with a thick and dark sense of humor typical of war zones. Alejo (not his real name) rarely puts his phone down, he never texts, he just sends hundreds of daily voicenotes through Signal—the go-to app for hitmen, police, and drug dealers, since the messages self-destruct as soon as they’re heard. His topics are the passengers, the routes and the price for each trip. They’re his merchandise, that’s how he makes a living. Alejo is a human trafficker, a canoe rower in this river of migrants, a coyote.
His Feet on the Ground
He began his trade in Puerto de Santander, one of the three main entrances for Venezuelan migrants towards Cucuta, besides La Parada, Las Tienditas and Ureña. He’s been in the business for about two and a half years, and his accent is a blend of Barinas, Santander and paisa. He speaks quickly and with tics, the result of years of drinking and all-nighters. Slim and short, his eyes are huge and glassy. He sports a several-day-old moustache and a dirty shirt.
Like everyone else here, Alejo Zambrano came escaping from something: he killed his best friend by mistake while serving in the Army, in El Amparo, 2002. However, he’s not running away from justice; he did his time and, after being released, he tried to work but never found peace. He loved his victim so much that he even named his son after him. Everything in the plains reminds him of his crime, and since he has double nationality, he came to Colombia to hide from his demons.
The man is usually cynical and sarcastic in the way he addresses people, but when he talks about his job, a dark hue covers his words. I listen to him, ask him about his business and to explain to me the nature of the border. “It’s all about having connections, parce. To have someone in Rumichaca, in Tumbes, in Tacna. Someone that can take you to Ushuaia if necessary. People you can trust that won’t take your business, kidnap a passenger, overcharge or leave people stranded. I don’t like that, I’m interested in referrals, to have my network in motion.”
The human trafficking networks start in Venezuela. People don’t know that even the buses to buy food at Cucuta are controlled by mafias that compete against each other. From both sides, bus drivers pay vacunas to armed groups: in the Norte de Santander department, Colombia, there’s a balance between the ELN guerrillas, their pawns—chavista armed irregulars in Venezuela—and the “demobilized” paramilitaries. So many people go through each day that it’s impossible to guess how much money is collected. Everything has a price, and even the officers from the GNB (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana) and the PNC (Policía Nacional Colombiana) get their share simply for not interfering.
These road and bus networks go through Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. “Those taking money from the top are the same ones taking money from the bottom,” Zambrano tells me. Although coyotes are described in the news as not having much reach, they actually try to steer the migration flow based on their own interests, at the expense of refugees. The same way it happens in North Africa.
Like everyone else here, Alejo Zambrano came escaping from something: he killed his best friend by mistake while serving in the Army.
Zambrano is in the mid-tier of the trafficking pyramid: he has his own business, connections and reputation. He tries to stay on top by reaching clients through Facebook, WhatsApp or Telegram, making appointments on Google Calendar and using bots in social media to answer FAQs. He knows about advertising and social media management, and he analyzes his statistics.
He trains his associates to get clients on the bridges, but he’s the one who always closes the deals: “I take the passengers, I listen to them and ask them what they were offered. Some babbling associates offer swimming pools, acupuncture, massages. I make them land back on Earth and that makes them trust me. If they have the money, they’ll travel comfortably. If they’re going against all odds and with nothing on, well, we see how we get them sorted out.”
A Picture, Just in Case
These associates (or pullers) along with the carriers, are the working class of the business. They use their intuition to hunt down the most vulnerable in the confusion of the bridge: pregnant women with kids holding her hands, the ones taking their elderly and sick, entire families moving abroad, young folks alone or with a partner and no clear plans. It’s all lip service to convince them to travel with one or another “agency”.
He says that, unlike other coyotes, he cares about the safety of travellers. He follows them to Lima, Quito or Buenos Aires. His services are usually more expensive because of that. He shows me images of migrants having a drink or getting off the buses on his cell phone. “We take pictures of travellers to give peace of mind to their families. If they get stopped in route, we can ask the driver which ones stayed behind with the pictures. If they get lost, this is how we pick them up. We already know who they are before we meet them in Venezuela. In each place they stop, we have someone looking out for them.” “A domestic ticket for the average Colombian costs about 82,000 pesos,” Zambrano says. “But for an undocumented Venezuelan, the price goes up to 130,000 pesos. The associate gets 10,000 for bringing in the passenger, I keep 15,000 for closing the deal. The driver also gets a cut, like an insurance in case they get stopped by cops. If the passenger gets to their destination without problems, they can keep the money. When they travel with children or they send kids alone, the ticket price goes up, to make sure that nothing happens on the trip. Children above the age of four pay the same as an adult. An undocumented woman with children will have to pay up to 180,000 pesos to travel safe. Someone might sell a ticket for 80,000, but something could happen on the way.”
The pictures are like a tracking number for a package in the mail.
He says that on the border everything is a matter of luck. Those controlling the roads act as judges and executioners. Blinded by desperation, migrants often end up scammed or robbed, and in even darker places, like sex trafficking, drug dealing and slavery.
Zambrano believes that those coyotes ruin the business. He sees people like a commodity that is better to protect than to exploit. A happy passenger attracts more clients than a criminal.
Sheep, Wolves and the Shepherd
“If you have three undocumented children, talk to me. If you have to get through to see your sick relatives and you don’t have a passport, talk to me. If you’re escaping because, shit, they want to fuck you up or you’re already fucked, then we get you through. But know that the price will be set by the size of your problem.”
When asked about problems with migration authorities, or how they manage with the new restrictions to cross over to Peru or Chile, he says it’s about favors. “We have people all over the place. Clerks in Saime (the Venezuelan office in charge of passports and ID cards), agents in Venezuela, eyes and ears in Colombian migration, Ecuador migration and Peru migration. Chile is still the most complicated destination: you have to cross a desert with freaking mines buried. Their agents don’t ease up with money, either. We’ll have to raise the bar with that.”
When asked about problems with migration authorities, or how they manage with the new restrictions to cross over to Peru or Chile, he says it’s about favors.
We’ve had about five rounds already and he has to go greet a large group from Portuguesa, Venezuela, heading for Quito. He thinks that most migrants have very high expectations, that they want an “American dream” but in Latin America. Others travel cursing a place they haven’t seen yet.
“I do get attached to the passengers,” Alejo Zambrano says, placing his share of the tab under an empty bottle. “Sometimes you spend three or four days with them. My goal is for them to not be frightened. You have to entertain them, make them laugh. Make them trust you. Make them understand that you’re not the wolf, but maybe the shepherd.”Caracas Chronicles is 100% reader-supported. Support independent Venezuelan journalism by making a donation.