Photo: Los Angeles Times

As Central and North American Countries Impose Visas, Rivers Claim Venezuelan Lives

With American consular services out of reach for most Venezuelans, and the rise of hostility in South America, a wall of geography, crime and law enforcement are blocking the northern routes

Venezuelans are dying trying to reach “the American Dream.” Since 2017, we’ve seen many Venezuelans walking to the south—known as “caminantes”—to Chile or Argentina or using dangerous rafts to try and reach Trinidad and Tobago or the ABC Islands.

However, given the rising xenophobia, criminalization, and massive deportations, Venezuelan migrants and refugees started to walk in the other direction in 2019, following the expectations and desires of a life of prosperity and success in the United States. These men, women, and unaccompanied minors now cross the Darién Gap, like Central Americans, Haitians, Yemenis, Ghanaians, and Senegalese have done for years.

Alongside the route from Colombia to the U.S., migrants are vulnerable to extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, and physical and sexual abuses by both state and non-state actors.

The Darién Gap, located between Colombia and Panama, is known as “the most dangerous jungle on the planet.” Those who survive it must then cross Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, to finally reach the United States. Venezuelans are also at risk once they get to the Mexican-American border since it’s one of the most dangerous in the world.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported that in 2021, 50.499 Venezuelans were detained by immigration authorities for irregularly crossing into the United States. That is to say, during 2021, the equivalent of the entire population of El Junquito was detained by the CBP.

Amid this complex situation, Mexico and Central America have started demanding visas for Venezuelans. Panama and Honduras have asked for a visa since 2017 and Guatemala since 2018. It seems that the Panamanian visa has a relation with slowing down the migration flow to the United States because those with a U.S. visa don’t need a Panamanian one. Honduras started to do so in “reciprocity,” since Venezuela also asked for a visa for Honduran citizens. According to Guatemala, it’s a “homologation measure” since various countries in Central America started to request visas for Venezuelans, and “Guatemala cannot be left behind.” In general terms, these visas seem like an attempt to hinder the migratory flow, but except for the case of Mexico and Costa Rica, which are clearly stated, the rest is only a supposition.

On December 17th, 2021, the Mexican Secretary of Internal Affairs announced an Agreement Draft (file 15/0044/17122) that would impose tourist visas for Venezuelans. A controversial decision, one anonymous comment on the official webpage states that “the visa application for Venezuelan citizens goes against Mexican diplomatic history. The Venezuelan State is in a humanitarian crisis, so the policy should be focused on providing support and not generating restrictions.” 

On January 6th, 2022, the agreement was published in the Official Gazette of the Mexican Federation, DOF: 06/01/2022, which in its preamble states that “a substantial increase of Venezuelans who enter the national territory for a purpose other than that allowed by the condition of visitor without a visa, established in Section I, of Article 52 of the Migration Law, such as irregular transit to a third country [the United States]”. This Agreement entered into vigor on January 21st, 2022.

Costa Rica also recently imposed a visa to “regulate migration,” using the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, a resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 19th, 2018. However, these countries seem to have forgotten the Global Compact for Refugees from the same year, that “underscores the importance of the global compact on refugees as a representation of political will and the ambition to operationalize the principle of burden- and responsibility-sharing, to mobilize the international community as a whole, and to galvanize action for an improved response to refugee situations.”

As borders close, the rivers that cross the territories between Colombia and the U.S. claim Venezuelans’ lives. In 2021, a 53-year-old woman, Mariela Aguilar Rodríguez, died from hypothermia trying to cross the Río Bravo.

On January 18th, 2022, a week and a half after the Mexican visa agreement was published, a seven-year-old Venezuelan girl drowned in the Río Bravo while trying to cross with her mother. This tragedy is eerily similar to that of the young Salvadoran father and his daughter who drowned in 2019 in the same river, trying to reach the same American Dream. They were returned to El Salvador, while the Venezuelan girl was buried in the U.S., where her mother currently is.

On February 10th, another Venezuelan migrant, a 26-year-old man named Jonathan Revilla, drowned in the Sapoá River, trying to reach Nicaragua from Costa Rica, in an attempt to set foot in the U.S. Marine Castellano, a 26-year-old zuliana was missing since February 4th, when she hit her head and fell from a raft while crossing the Darién Gap. Her husband and six-year-old son were witnesses. An Instagram account reported that her body was recovered this February 22nd.

Just a month later, on March 10th, a family of Venezuelans was rescued by the U.S. Border Patrol in Río Bravo, almost drowning. The husband and wife were up to the neck in the water, holding their three-year-old son and two-year-old daughter.

As long as Latin America doesn’t comply with its international obligations regarding forced migrants, more and more Venezuelans will keep drowning, trying to escape a humanitarian emergency and grave human rights violations that have amounted to crimes against humanity. Latin American states must abolish the visa requirement for Venezuelans since said requirement implies a violation of the right to asylum and is discriminatory. Venezuelans, who are forced migrants under the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, require international refugee protection, as stated by the UNHCR.

Asking for a visa won’t stop the massive flow towards Mexico and the U.S., au contraire, more Venezuelans will now cross the Darién Gap; arrive at the southern Mexican border (which is already amid a humanitarian crisis given the sheer number of irregular migrants and asylum seekers) and will find themselves “trapped” in cities like Tapachula.

Thousands will continue to cross the continent on a perilous journey, exposing themselves to the dangers of the road. How many more lives will be lost before countries begin to see migration not as a national issue but as a human one?

Victoria Capriles

Venezuelan Attorney. Professor at the Department of International Studies at the Universidad Metropolitana (UNIMET). Deputy Director at the UNIMET’s Human Rights Center. Twitter: @vcaprilesm