The Colombian Underground Railroad
the informal network shuttling thousands of Venezuelans east
A young Venezuelan couple on the road to Bogota
Cucuta, Colombia- One of the most popular crossing points for Venezuelans fleeing into Colombia and points beyond is through the frontier city of Cucuta. And as millions make the journey, International aid agencies and the Colombian government are straining to meet their needs.
An Underground Railroad of sorts has evolved over the last two years to provide shelter, food and information to those forced to make the journey by foot. It is a loosely connected series of shelters, kitchens, churches and aid organizations. They represent a lifeline to the thousands of migrants have no recourse but to make the journey by foot.
Two years ago, nearly all of the organizations operated independently. Many like PDPNOR (The Program for the Development of Peace in Northeast Colombia) were originally created for unrelated purposes, but have since become nearly exclusively devoted to dealing with the exodus.
It is a journey that takes 9–10 days, and that ends for many in the tent shelters of the capital, Bogota.
Father Juan Carlos Rodriguez leads the PDPNOR from Pamplona. “We are a coalition of churches in the Santander region that banned together after the Paz (the accord which ended the civil war between FARC and the Colombian government) to foster improved relations in formerly guerrilla regions and to provide resources for those living in extreme poverty.” he tells us.
“But since August 2017 we have found ourselves confronted with a new problem. When in the past we used to see groups of 5 or 6 Venezuelans passing through our towns, we suddenly began to see groups of 30 or 40. And since then the numbers have only continued to grow.”
He informed us that the previous day his church, one of three aid stations in Pamplona, fed 70 people.
“We are a small town. We simply don’t have the resources to deal with this situation. And international aid has been a help, but it is not nearly enough.”
As the flow of migrants grew in 2017, rumors began to circulate of Venezuelans dying of exposure in the high-altitude swamps of Berlin. Since then, the organizations began communicating among themselves and with the Red Cross to find solutions to the logistical problems they face.
Martha Duque has a house on the outskirts of Pamplona that she has converted into a permanent shelter for Venezuelan women and children.
“One night I saw a mother and her child sleeping under a truck. I couldn’t stand to see them like that. So I invited them in. That was the beginning. Since then I have helped as many as I can. My house used to be empty, but now it is filled at night with the sounds of family and singing children. As long as there are Venezuelans in need, my door will be open.”
These groups offer food to the passing Venezuelans, advice on the weather conditions, warm clothing and maps of the shortest and safest routes to Bogota and points beyond. In 2018 they began to operate public Whattsapp channels and link the shelters through public Facebook groups in an attempt to better inform the hundreds of thousands of arrivals.
Venezuelans catching a ride on a passing truck
The Venezuelans we spoke with all talked of an inability to acquire sufficient food and impossibly low wages.
“Imagine it. You really don’t understand.” said “Mateo”, a Venezuelan who worked in agriculture and declined to give his real name. “And I say that with all respect. But that feeling to struggle (for what little you can provide) and to wake up in the morning and have your family tell you ‘I’m hungry’. You really can’t understand because you have never lived it. To hear your child say that. And they don’t understand either. They don’t understand why you can’t feed them.”
Two young families travelling together told us they had earned more in one day of selling coffee and water on the streets of Cucuta than they had been able to earn in a month working in Venezuela.
Victor Ramirez tells me the two families met on the road. “And now we’re all family.” he says. “We’re going to stick together all the way to Peru. The people (of Colombia) have received us well. They’ve given us a little food, a little water. To the children especially they’ve been extremely kind.”
Victor Ramirez, left, his family and another young family on the road
Both Mrs. Duque and Father Rodrigues informed us that they have had little help from local governments, sometimes even encountering pushback from their communities over their efforts. “There simply isn’t the political will to address this problem.” he told us.
Many Venezuelans arrive with long-untreated health conditions or chronic illnesses due to their country’s completely nonfunctional health system. Because many children have never had the opportunity to be vaccinated there have been outbreaks of measles and mumps.
“We help how we can. Blankets, food, water, very basic health care. But our main purpose, I think, is to educate them on how to make the journey safely.” said a Red Cross worker stationed in Pamplona.
The shelters in Bogota face their own challenges. “In theory, the Colombian people are very supportive of the idea of helping the Venezuelans. But no one wants the shelters in their neighborhood.” said an organizer at the shelter Hogar el Camino 69. The camps have virtually all been declared temporary, promising the communities in which they reside that they will be relocated by various deadlines.
The outdoor kitchen at Martha Duque's shelter
They offer education for the children and some resources. But there are complaints as well from the migrants, from an inability to prepare their own food due to the banning of cooking fires that makes them dependent on the often-limited resources of the shelter kitchens, to clashes with local residents.
Since the events of January 23rd, the events of Venezuela have only further destabilized the country. And with devastating new US sanctions, the situation is expected to worsen before it improves. This ragtag network has a struggle ahead of them. As do the people of Venezuela.