Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
Aquiles Cabrera is a funny man. He wears large, blue-paned sunglasses that cover half his face, and he has worked at the Maicao border for the past 12 years, taking people in and out of Venezuela twice a day. “I’m not a taxi driver, I’m a private chauffeur. I drive people like you.”
He picks me up at the Riohacha Airport, in the northern tip of Colombia, around noon, in a black SUV. The airport, with just one airstrip, hosts around twenty to thirty passengers at a time.
He rarely looks at me, only when he cracks one of his jokes. The rides work like a confessional for him, and the passengers in the backseat are the priest he can barely look at; just another soul to smuggle through limbo and into the underworld. An hour into the trip, a structure resembling a post-apocalyptic version of the Arc de Triomphe appears in the distance. The checkpoint of San Juan, a toll with a tall, green ceiling where Colombian guards patiently wait next to three parked armored vehicles. As soon as we approach the line of cars snaking around the alcabala, Aquiles tells me we’re 30 minutes away from the border.
The four lanes of cars move slowly, and the guards, holding on to their machine guns, inspect each car passing through. As Aquiles maneuvers his way around, it becomes clear that the inspection isn’t in our cards. “I know a guy,” he mumbles, answering the question I never asked.
A guard waves at Aquiles to move further right and out the main road. Aquiles opens the glove compartment and pulls four rectangular items wrapped in a plastic bag.
“Mi hermano!” He swiftly parks the car and climbs out, hugging the soldier who pats Aquiles on the back. “It’s been 10 kilos since I last saw you!” He kicks the door shut and I hear nothing else. Aquiles is received by three more guards, who take a rectangular item in the plastic bag each and lift it to their noses, taking the smell deep into their lungs. Money, drugs, a sandwich; all three possess aromas capable of making any face explode with pure bliss. The guards laugh.
The troops on the border control the route connecting Colombia with Maracaibo, the second largest city in Venezuela, and they decide whether or not you actually make it there. After asking what exactly he was handing out, Aquiles would give me a vague explanation that can be recycled to explain every case of corruption commonly associated with Latin American countries: “In a country where everyone’s crying, you can either join in and cry with them or you can learn how to sell tissues.”
He raises an eyebrow at me a few minutes later, while the tropical drums of a gaita start playing. “I drive most people out of Venezuela, not in. Everyone’s leaving.” He turns the volume up and lowers his sunglasses, my lack of an answer enough for his unasked question.
No one leaves their home if there’s nothing profoundly wrong with it. The place where your memories are buried in the backyard, amongst the forgotten toys and the few canaries your mother lied and said had escaped. Where the smell of coffee and the “God bless you” from a devout grandmother coexist in a harmony you never feel until it’s no longer there. Home is not a place but a feeling, a sound, a collection of memories burning in the fireplace of the heart. No one leaves the place they call home unless they have to.
Aquiles is received by three more guards, who take a rectangular item in the plastic bag each and lift it to their noses, taking the smell deep into their lungs. Money, drugs, a sandwich; all three possess aromas capable of making any face explode with pure bliss.
“My family’s still there.”
Aquiles says nothing, our silent ride buffered by the gaita.
White Tents Under the Desert Sun
In the Colombian Guajira, policemen cover the length of the Troncal del Caribe road and patrol the area until it becomes the Venezuelan Ruta 6. Several military outposts cover the sides of the border road, where Venezuelan smugglers are often pinned against armored vehicles, and every single gas station we pass is shockingly deserted. The only people around are smugglers on motorbikes with gas cans, called pimpinas, strapped to their hunched backs with thick ropes.
“People don’t buy gas here. It’s cheaper to buy Venezuelan gas. And that one has better octane rating so it lasts longer and doesn’t damage your engine as much as the Colombian,” Aquiles explains, pulling the windows down so I can see the UN refugee camp for Venezuelan migrants. The top of the white tents are visible from afar, amongst a sea of cuji trees and dried bushes. According to Aquiles, the camp helps refugees fleeing the crisis in Venezuela. They give them food, shelter, legal advice, some psychological counseling, all while trying to set them up with jobs across Colombia.
“They don’t take everyone in. That’s mostly for families with young children or pregnant women. Most Venezuelans sleep under the stars, and the majority gets robbed or killed the first few nights.” He lifts his sunglasses and peeks back through the driving mirror, wiggling his eyebrows playfully. “But Angelina came.”
The desert wind hits me as soon as I climb out of the car and enter the pirate town of Maicao. My luggage is quickly adopted by a boy holding a wheelbarrow, called a carretilla. Resembling a bazaar more than a frontier, Maicao is the place where the illegal coexists with the legal, the sinner with the virtuous, and chaos mingles with everyday life. Men with large, uncovered bellies walk around offering rides and food and passage, their shirts wrapped around their heads to protect them from the merciless sun. Because the border itself is closed for automobile passage, cars begin clustering the deeper you get into Maicao, forming a labyrinth that gives way into the Colombian immigration offices. Tropical tunes flood the streets in every direction, and it’s hard to tell who’s from what country.
Aquiles pushes me into the crowd and past the Colombian guards, who wave at him and his invisible cargo, until we land on a small island with a large cuji tree. Beneath the shade sit several women, their gazes lost in the sand. My driver takes my ID and dives into the sea of people.
Aquiles first gifts me with a few vital rules for survival:
One: Don’t talk to anyone.
Two: If a guard talks to you, don’t tell him your name.
Three: Don’t take pictures.
Four: Don’t move.
Five: If you hear any loud noises, drop to the ground and cover your head.
I break two of the five rules in the first few minutes of his absence.
“If anyone sees you with that phone they’ll call the gang in Ruta 6 and the thieves will sack your car on the road. You’ll be lucky if you arrive still wearing your panties.”
Making small movements, I begin pulling my phone out in hopes of taking a photo or two. Of the kilometric line on the Venezuelan side of the border, or the hundreds of one-dollar bills passing under the table. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” The warning voice comes from my right. A woman of about thirty sat next to me. Her hair, a stiff blonde with dark roots starting to show, doesn’t fit with her toasted, brown skin. “If anyone sees you with that phone they’ll call the gang in Ruta 6 and the thieves will sack your car on the road. You’ll be lucky if you arrive still wearing your panties.”
Between the Colombian immigration offices and Venezuela exists a stretch of land commonly known as No Man’s Land, where most of the illegal trade occurs. A yellowish world of dust lifts from the unpaved roads every morning as the buhoneros, or street vendors, begin their morning hustle, circling around the refugees like vultures.
Children run around yelling, selling tickets for cheaper, faster rides with the coyotes, while the coyotes wait on their motorbikes at the edge of the road, their cat-like smiles making it clear the land does belong to someone.
“There’s no law here. Even if a guard sees you doing something you shouldn’t be doing, no one really says anything. I’m not sure who’s the law in this particular part of the border,” says Maribel, a girl with a cigarette cart who’s been sitting to my left beneath the shade of the cuji for the past half hour. She’s 15 years old and has a small bulge on her abdomen I first take for a regular belly. She’s due in four months. “Angel says that if you kill someone here no one can do anything about it,” she takes a lollipop from her cart and begins unwrapping it, throwing the tiny plastic square to the side. “But the guards use this area to disappear people anyways,” she shrugs. “It’s convenient for them.”
“Angel’s the father of my kids. He’s the one on the yellow bike over there.” She nods towards the coyotes on the side of the road, where Angel, a man of around thirty, sits on a yellow motorbike while chatting with another woman.
I ask if they’re married.
“Yeah he bought me my corotos,” she nods with a proud smile.
“Corotos” are random kitchen items necessary to keep a household alive, like pans and dishes. Items Maribel will one day use to cook Angel’s dinner while he’s out smuggling people out of hell in Venezuela. Here in the border, “corotos” are every woman’s biggest dream and every man’s greatest fear.
“Maribel!” Angel yells. “Get back to work!”
Maribel waves at me, “Good luck passing!”
To my other side, a few other women sit beneath the cuji.
“It took me five buses to get here.”
“I walked twelve days from Valera to get here.”
“I walked for a month with my children before we had enough for the bus fare.”
I press my lips together. I took four planes and watched a movie on the last one.
Like in any other border, the guards ask for passports, identity cards, or traveling permits to those going out of Venezuela. The particular thing about this border is that guards will always say that your documents, whichever you present, have issues and you must be taken into custody for a few days.
“I paid around two hundred dollars. It was everything I had, so by the time I actually got to Colombia I had to start begging.”
Her name is Andreina and she left her Wayuu settlement when she was 16, with a small backpack and big dreams of going to school. She’s 34 now, with a baby in her arms and no man to help carry her mattress. She was a maid for 15 years in a house in La Lago, the wealthiest area of Maracaibo, but the salary was never enough.
“I paid around two hundred dollars. It was everything I had, so by the time I actually got to Colombia I had to start begging.”
“Mrs. Romero was always very nice to me. She paid for my night classes and she taught me everything I know about cooking. I raised all five of her boys.”
When she arrived in Maracaibo, she never got her Wayuu documentation to prove her descent. Guajiros, like any other person with indigenous heritage, are often discriminated against for their unusual customs and traditions. Back then, those documents seemed like a burden that would weigh her down. Now, as she stands in a portion of the line near the cuji tree, those documents are her biggest regret.
“Mrs. Romero gave me $500 to get to Colombia, and the ride to Maicao was supposed to be 35 dollars. On the way, we got detained by a few guards for a random inspection. Our car had more than one tank of gasoline. Old models have the space for an extra tank for smuggling, and ours was very old. We paid 100 dollars each so they’d let us go. I’m not sure what happened to our driver.”
Andreina leaves without saying much else. She offers a small, sad smile before taking a few steps forward, advancing a mere inch in the line.
A Kind of Hell
A few hours after crossing the border, I see the Venezuelan guards having the same exchange between my chauffeur and the Colombian officers on the route Riohacha-Maicao. As we drive deeper into Venezuelan territory, the alcabalas get smaller, older, with roofs made of dried palm leaves instead of zinc sheets, and the guards get gradually thinner, dirtier, with a strange wildness in their eyes only shared by stray dogs. Each time we stop, a flock of soldiers crowd around the car and wait for their fees. Some bags are larger, some smaller, while others are round shaped instead of rectangular. From the open trunk, Aquiles hands out bottles of Coke, bags of flour, and even food baskets along with these plastic-wrapped fees.
Several months after that visit to the border, the town of Maicao would find itself in yet another crisis, where several trucks containing food and medicine were sacked, and many people murdered, including the boy wheeling my luggage. Towers of fire erupted from the green paths along the sides of the bridge that connects the two countries, the spirals of smoke creating dark giants in the sky that could be seen 90 kilometers away in Maracaibo. Thousands of Venezuelans would still be waiting on their side of the border, clutching their mattresses and babies and empty stomachs as the Colombian National Guard pointed their rifles at them, pushing them further into their own land. Aquiles would tell me how, with the coronavirus outbreak of March 2020, many more Venezuelans began crowding the border in a desperate attempt to flee the land of no health care system. Not even a coyote would be able to pass for several months, and those who were caught in the middle of La Raya couldn’t go into Colombia or back to Venezuela, as both borders were closed.
“Limbo is also a kind of hell,” Aquiles would warn me over the phone when I asked if he’d take me back to my family. “You don’t want to get caught in there.” He pauses, “I don’t want to get caught in there, mija.”
I often wonder if the island with the cuji tree, where I spent hours waiting, truly exists. As I order another glass of white wine in Maracaibo and look down at the street full of burnt barricades made of garbage in the last protests, I wonder if Maicao isn’t just a figment of my imagination, a product of my guilt that exists in the border of my unconsciousness. As I take another plane from Miami to Boston, or D.C. to Philadelphia, I think of the diametrically opposed identities of my country, Venezuela. One stripped to its bare bones, where hunger and famine reign with a fist of iron, and another that’s profoundly glossed over. I try to understand, in vain, how both identities exist in the same body at the same time.
I often wonder, what does it mean to be Venezuelan when the Venezuela I knew no longer exists?