Cucuta, Colombia: A Small City at the Nexus of the Venezuelan Immigration Crisis

The U.N estimates that 3.6 million Venezuelans have left their country with 1.1 million living in Colombia

Part One in the Border Trilogy

Joshua Collins- 1/13/2019

Crowds wait at the frontier crossing on the Simon Bolivar Bridge in Cucuta, Colombia

Cucuta Colombia- This small border city on the Venezuelan Border in the state of Santander is one of the main points of entry for Venezuelan Immigrants into Colombia. South America is currently experiencing one of the biggest mass-migrations in its history as millions of Venezuelans flee from a country that cannot provide them with medicine, personal security or food. And Colombia is the principal country through which they pass, with many deciding to stay.  The Simon Bolivar bridge here in Cucuta is the crossing point for between 25,000 and 50,000 people daily, depending on whom you ask.

Immigrants cross into Colombia to head west, the majority headed to Bogota or Peru. Thousands more commute daily for purposes of work, trade or to visit family. The border between Venezuela and Colombia is officially open to foot traffic. The citizens of those countries need only basic identification at the checkpoints, and so the population of Cucuta expands and contracts daily. The citizens here joke that during the day the population is 2 million, and at night after the Venezuelans return home it’s 1 million. Venezuelans come to Colombia to sell water, coffee or candies in the streets, to buy food, diapers and other essentials, to commute daily to work or school, and to seek basic medical care. Smuggling of gasoline from Venezuela (where it is subsidized by the state and thus nearly free to Venezuelan citizens) is commonplace as well.  Further North in Santander the narcotraffickers and the remnants of the rebel guerrillas take advantage of the mostly unmonitored regions of the frontier to ship their cocaine and illegally mined gold to various points around the world via Venezuela. The border is chaotic and, outside of official entry points, effectively lawless. 

Venezuela is a failed state. The shops there are empty, the hospitals ask that patients not only bring their own medications, but also basic items like surgical gloves, antiseptics and even the cleaning products necessary to sanitize their hospital beds after they leave. The Venezuelan currency, the Bolivar, is nearly worthless due to hyper-inflation. And the cost of food for a few days far surpasses the monthly salary of even hospital workers, who earn between $10-$20 a month. Throughout the crisis, Colombia has been accepting immigrants with very few restrictions, and granting asylum status and the right to work for virtually any Venezuelan willing to go through the complicated process. It is an outlier in global responses to mass immigration in that respect

A sign reads "Welcome" on the Colombian side of the border at Simon Bolivar Bridge

The wave of immigration began about three years ago with a trickle, but has since grown dramatically in size. It is currently straining the resources of the Colombian government to provide shelter and food. Various humanitarian and global organizations such the U.N, Oxfam and the Red Cross are providing resources to alleviate the situation, but much more is needed. Every organization I talked to was experiencing problems meeting the needs of the refugees.

The U.N estimates that 3.6 million Venezuelans have left their country with 1.1 million living in Colombia, though I have doubts about that number being anywhere close to precise. Various Colombian newspapers have cited numbers between 700,000 and over 1 million as of August.  (The president of Colombia, Ivan Duque, claims that 35,000 enter every day, which puts the figure comically high at 12.7 million a year- or more than a third of the total population of Venezuela). The border is simply too porous to collect reliable data and I have seen first-hand that the immigration agents at the official crossing points rarely have time to give more than a cursory glance at the documents of the tens-of-thousands of people waiting to cross each day. Tracking is further complicated by “illegal” crossings (usually by people lacking official documents and thus without recourse to cross officially) as well as the number of Venezuelans returning home with money they earned abroad or those disappointed with the opportunities they were able to encounter in the countries to which they fled.

But one fact is indisputable- they are fleeing in mass.

"We were safer in Venezuela. That seems like a long time ago now"

Cucuta is a focal point for this mass movement. 18 years ago, when Venezuela had a new President named Hugo Chavez, Cucuta was the waypoint for trade between Colombia and Venezuela. Colombians from the Santander region commonly traveled to Venezuela for economic opportunities and for vacations. At the time, Santander in Colombia was guerrilla territory, and thus dangerous for anyone travelling through the region.  There were also active paramilitary forces, supporters of the right-wing Colombian government, fighting the leftist guerillas and committing their own atrocities. During the 50-year civil war it was difficult to traverse this region of Colombia. At that time Venezuela was the most vibrant economy in South America.

Juan Diego is a business owner and stock broker from Cucuta. “When I was a kid, I knew Venezuela better than Colombia.” he tells me. “We had the guerrillas here, one couldn’t really travel without fear of being kidnapped or encountering violence. I remember during three-day weekends we would go to San Cristobal right across the border, it was a 30-minute trip. They had a McDonalds and we didn’t.” he laughs. “On our side there were kidnappings on the highway. They were called milagro pescado expeditions. They would take people who looked like they had money and ransom them.  Every few years the guerrillas would blow up a toll-checkpoint or something. We were safer in Venezuela. That seems like a long time ago now. I haven’t been to the border in eight years.”

Bolivares, the currency of Venezuela, is often worth less than the paper it is printed on

So, what happened in Venezuela? Well, that is a great question and one that merits its own series of articles. The answer depends on who you ask. Vox has a pretty good explainer if you’re looking for the quick version. But I think the answer is a lot more complicated than most people are willing to admit. Colombia is a country with just as much, if not more, political polarization than the United States, and most of the answers I read or hear reflect the political perspective of the person or group speaking. What everyone agrees on however, is that Venezuela is currently a  dictatorship led by Nicolas Maduro, a leader who has made a series of decisions so disastrous and idiotic that they would be comical were it not for the massive human suffering they have created. This has resulted in a massive migration of people fleeing the collapsing state.

"It’s totally up to that guy if he wants to fuck you or not when you come back."

And one of the main ports of entry into this region for Venezuelans is the Simon Bolivar bridge. The bridge is located in La Parada, in the Villa del Rosario municipality. The Colombian side of the border is a chaotic open-air marketplace, with vendors selling everything from street food to water to Colombian pre-paid phone plans to clothing to bus tickets. The destinations are varied; Bogota, Medellin, Cali, Ecuador, Argentina and points beyond. To put some perspective on the desperation of some of the migrants, one can buy a bus ticket to Bogota for around 100,000 pesos (or roughly $32 USD), but many immigrants elect instead to walk on foot- a journey that takes 9-10 days

But what surprises me isn’t what is for sale, rather what some people are offering to buy. Bolivars at a discounted rate was expected, but I heard offers for gold, old cellphones and even hair. Multiple barkers were proclaiming their desire for hair with prices averaging around 90,000 pesos (around $30).

La pared has always been a bustling area, but since the crisis it has grown, it is dotted now with small businesses catering to the flow of Venezuelans. Bakeries selling bread in bulk, small markets with economy sized packages of diapers and toilet paper, used tire shops and stores stocked with cheap consumer goods from Asia. Anything that is of value in the currently stricken Venezuela. 

As I approached the bridge the crowds grew thicker. Porters waited with dolly carts, offering their services to help move goods across the bridge to Venezuela. And for them, business seemed to be booming. Dozens of heavily-laden people were crossing into Venezuela with all manner of foodstuffs and goods. The checkpoint consisted of a few guards glancing distractedly at the identification cards of the passing throngs. There didn’t seem to be much in the way of impediments from either Colombian or Venezuelan officials. 

The crowd waits to cross into Venezuela

I was accompanied by two American representatives of a company called Bay-build, Stephen Gardner and Ravi Kurani. Their company designs semi-permanent structures for immigrants. Bay-build was in Cucuta to do field research on the situation and their friend, Juan Diego, had agreed to take us all to visit his aunt in San Cristobal, Venezuela. We reached the border after navigating the bustling crowd and spoke with a Colombian Immigration official who looked a bit harried by the flow of people.

 “Look, you can enter. If you want. But Venezuela is incredibly dangerous for foreigners. Even if you don’t get robbed or killed while you’re there, it’s totally up to that guy if he wants to fuck you or not when you come back.” he said, gesturing towards his Venezuelan counterpart a few meters away. “If I were you, I would definitely not go.” I tried to ask him a few follow-up questions, but he only had a dismissive look in response as he returned to giving cursory glances to the ID cards of the passing throngs, overwhelmed by his work. 

“The guard is right.” Juan told us. “They will probably claim you are spies of Trump or something ridiculous” he says, laughing, “and try to solicit an outrageous bribe. And if you don’t pay it, well. My uncle was in Venezuela a few years ago, before the border was closed to cars. We still have a sugarcane farm there, although it’s not used for anything at the moment. He was driving when this old couple flagged him down and begged him for help moving a bunch of stuff up the road. He replied ‘of course’ and let them get in. Around the corner 20 police officers were waiting. They arrested him and charged him with smuggling. ‘You need to transfer $8000 (USD) to this bank account, or you’re not getting out of jail.’ they told him. Well, he called my aunt and we had to borrow money from the whole family, but in the end, we got the money. We didn’t have a choice. He hasn’t been back (to Venezuela) since.”

Access to the Red Cross station on the border was much more complicated. The doctors were overwhelmed. They have been forced to offer care only to women and children in recent months. Outside of grievous injuries, men are turned away. There simply aren’t enough resources or doctors to tend to everyone. A very distracted nurse informed us that there was zero chance anyone had time for an interview, but gave us permission to enter and take a few pictures if we didn’t bother the doctors. A long line of people and a mountain of luggage waited outside the gates to an area that provided only rudimentary health-care. While the Bay-build guys photographed the temporary structures and asked questions, I was left to wander around alone. 

A shipping container that the Red Cross uses as an examination room

We drew a lot of attention. Apparently, there aren’t many gringos trying to cross into Venezuela these days. Multiple Venezuelans asked me out of curiosity what I was doing on the border. I chatted with one gentleman who was waiting for his wife, explaining that I was working on a journalism project about the immigration crisis. I told him what the border agent had said to us.

“He’s right.” he affirmed. “Maybe you’re a bit of a target for criminals there. We don’t see a lot of blancos.” He laughed. In Spanish blanco means both “white” and “target” or “bulls-eye”. He was clearly having a bit of fun with me. 

In fact, good-natured concern from both Colombians and Venezuelans was a recurring theme during the three weeks I spent in Cucuta and the surrounding areas. It was rare a day went by that someone didn’t offer unsolicited advice to be careful (I was), to watch myself (I tried to follow that advice as well), to not walk home alone at night (which I did often), not to use taxis (which I did always) and not to drink too much (no comment). I think the most chilling piece of advice I got was from Padre Juan Carlos Rodriguez, a priest and representative of PDPNOR or Programa de Desarrolo y Paz del Nororiente Colombiano (Program for Development and Peace for Northeast Colombia).

“Well maybe in Colombia we have a security problem in some areas. Maybe they see a foreigner and decide ‘I’m gonna rob this guy.’ But the difference is in Colombia, maybe they rob you with a knife for your cellphone and you walk away. But a Venezuelan criminal, he sees a gringo in Venezuela and he simply kills you. Then he checks your pockets.”

Despite the constant warnings I actually never felt threatened once during my time in Cucuta and surrounding areas. Quite the opposite, I actually rather enjoyed the friendly curiosity with which most people greeted me. I often ended up in conversations with strangers who stopped me in the street to practice the one or two English phrases they happened to know.  Many of the other larger cities in South America have sections that felt far more dangerous. But then, we never actually crossed into Venezuela.

My anecdotal experience aside, I was assured by multiple people that crime has in fact risen in recent years in Cucuta. “We see an increase in crime in all types. It’s both criminals from here preying on the Venezuelans and Venezuelan criminals who come here for money“. Padre Rodriguez assured me. He also mentioned that a few years ago, Maduro agreed to empty the jails of non-political prisoners if they would all go to Colombia. One of the We-Build representatives, Stephen, pointed out that sounds like classic propaganda talk, however. And while I was able to find plenty of evidence of extra-judicial killings, horrific conditions in prisons, and indiscriminate arrests of Colombians in Venezuela, I was unable to collaborate the claim of mass-prison release from a reliable source.

As for crime statistics in Cucuta, while there has been an uptick in recent years, it is actually safer now than it was in the years before the Colombian Peace accord with FARC, with 290 homicides in 2017. Or 34.8 per 100,000 people. And while that is not exactly a low rate compared to American cities (actually the 50th most dangerous city in the world that year), statistics suggest that you were far more likely to be a victim of homicide 5 years ago- a time when both civil war in Colombia and the Venezuelan collapse contributed to the situation. Smuggling, on the other hand, organized crime and petty robberies have surged due to the crisis. La Opinion, a local Cucuta newspaper reports that not only are robberies up from last year, but vandals are stealing recyclable materials from street lights and other public property to sell on the black market.

And yet for some, the city is thriving. Although the official unemployment rate is higher than most Colombian cities at 10.8%, some business owners illegally employ Venezuelans and pay them a much lower rate than the Colombian minimum wage. Statistics on how often this occurs, are obviously murky. But driving around the city, one sees many brand-new luxury vehicles and the economy as a whole in the region is growing.  There are new buildings being constructed everywhere and the population is increasing. The economic situation, much like the topic of the mass migration in general, defies a simple explanation. The situation is a crisis for some, and an opportunity for others.

Messenges of thanks at the Red Cross Station from Venezuelans

But the immigrants we encountered on the border weren’t very interested in any of that. Between an inflation rate of nearly 1 million percent, widespread food shortages, a lack of basic medicine, rampant government corruption and one of the highest homicide rates in the world, most had simply had enough. There are no opportunities. Who can spend a month's wages to purchase food for a day or two? Subsistence can only be obtained through trade or purchased through the black market. Anything is better than what they face in Venezuela. And as they move west, an informal network has evolved to assist them. 

We will be exploring more on that in our next article, The Road to Bogota

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