Life is dangerous for Venezuelans on the border

despite street crime, politics and border fights between armed criminals, life goes on

5/12 Joshua Collins

Venezuelans crossing back home across the Simon Bolivar bridge in La Parada, Colombia (Photo:Joshua Collins)

(Cúcuta, Colombia)- Semilla tells me she was robbed by the trocheros today. That’s what they call the ever-changing gangs here who control the illegal paths across the border between Colombia and Venezuela, or the trochas.

“They took everything!’ she tells me with two children in tow, Fabiano and Maria. “We were headed to Bucaramanga, but I don’t know what we will do now.”

She tells me her husband is in Bogota, sleeping on the streets and looking for work. “But I just couldn’t manage in Valencia (Venezuela) anymore. I couldn’t get enough food for the children.”

She isn’t the only Venezuelan I’ve talked to who has been robbed crossing through the trochas. Two days ago someone was killed in a robbery gone wrong.

Last week a fierce gunbattle erupted between colectivos (paramilitary groups loyal to Maduro) and ELN, Colombian guerillas, for the right to control those illegal trails. Authorities on the Colombian side cited one death. But people I talked to from Venezuela said there were many more deaths on the other side of the border.

“The trochas are a gold mine for the gang that controls them.” said Jon, a taxi driver from San Cristobal. “And it’s not just charging the people who want to pass either. It’s drugs, gasoline, whatever. And the guerillas are fighting now to control them as well. But it’s normal. It’s been like this for awhile.”

“The only difference is that Maduro has sent the colectivos (Venezuelan paramilitary) to the border. He says it’s for security. But they’re just another gang of thieves.”

Cross-border economy

Fernando was an information systems specialist in Merida, Venezuela.

But when he couldn’t support himself on that salary, he became a merchant. He takes monthly trips to Cucuta to buy electronics equipment to sell back in his hometown.

Venezuelans crossing through the “trochas”, illegal paths between Colombia and Venezuela (photo: Joshua Collins)

“It’s a nice profit, because we don’t have anything there, just cheap garbage from China that breaks after a couple days. Also it’s kind of exciting. I never know if I’m going to make it back safely with my goods. I’ve been robbed for an entire shipment once. But what choice do I have? I have to keep going if I’m going to come out ahead.”

A cross-border economy has developed here in the frontier. Gasoline, refugees, students and Venezuelans looking for work stream out of Venezuela daily.

Food, medicine, illicit drugs and consumer goods flow back in. The vast majority of the people crossing do so to buy the things they can’t find back home. Street vendors hawk ibuprofen, tires, cheap phones, virtually every consumer good one can imagine.

The open-air marketplace at the foot of the Simon Bolivar Bridge in La Parada, on the Venezuelan border (photo: Joshua Collins)

“I came over today to buy diapers and medicine for my granddaughter” says Diego, who looks to be about 70. “We got separated in the line to cross officially. I’ve been waiting here for about 20 minutes but I think my wife got stopped. She will probably have to go through the trochas. And those malditos are gonna charge her.”

“You can’t call her?” I ask

“We don’t carry a phone when we cross. So the trocheros can’t steal it if we have to cross through their paths.”

It is estimated that %50 of the the ELN (Colombian guerillas) are now operating in the largely lawless border regions of Venezuela. To fund their activities they transport cocaine from Colombia into Venezuela and parts beyond.

The forces of the local colectivos were reinforced heavily along the border by other chapters from the Venezuelan interior after the failed effort to push humanitarian aid into Venezuela on Feb 23rd. Both groups regularly battle with local gangs in the area for territory.

In the last four months this has led to greater instability along an already tense border. It has also led to a more dangerous situation for the people fleeing, or simply crossing for work.

David arrived a week ago to La Parada, the neighborhood at the foot of the Colombian side of the Simon Bolivar bridge. He sells soda to the passengers departing buses and taxis.

“Colombia is ok. I miss home, but at least I can work here. I want to be a journalist so I can tell people what’s really happening in Venezuela. I couldn’t have done that there. It’s too dangerous. Maybe we can work on something together!”

“We are Venezuelans. Please help us with a passage, thank you. And may God bless you” (photo: Joshua Collins)

A lot of the Venezuelans who have arrived recently in this border town stay here in order to be as close as possible to the family members they left behind. Others continue to the capital, Bogota, and points beyond. Many make the trip on foot because they can’t afford the 20,000 peso bus ticket (about $7).

Douglas, who fled Venezuela two years ago sells bus tickets to various cities in Colombia. He has a family here, two daughters. “I want to go to Peru, but I need more money. So we share a house with another family while I work. I want to be sure that when I arrive I can support my family. I have seen too many people sleeping on the streets.”

“I won't let my daughters live like that.”

Everyone I talk to speaks of scarcity and extreme poverty. They speak of corrupt Venezuelan police, armed gangs, a lack of medicine and food.

These are the people you won’t hear from on the news. They don’t have twitter accounts. International press isn’t very interested in talking to them. But these are the people who live in, or have fled from Venezuela. Colombian immigration estimates that 20,000 people cross the border daily between these sister cities of La Parada and San Antonio.

The border is a magnet for merchants, scammers, thieves and armed criminals. It’s just another day here, a relatively calm one at that. I watch the thousands of people pass and I wonder when this crisis will end.

Sadly, I don’t see that happening in the near future.

Joshua Collins is a freelance reporter covering the Venezuelan immigration from the border in Cucuta, Colombia. He is also the editor of Muros Invisibles.

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