Marisol, who asked that her last name be withheld, is in a quarantine camp in an abandoned high school near the Tienditas Bridge in San Antonio, Venezuela. She says she can identify the Venezuelans who walked all the way there from Peru or Ecuador by their appearance.
“They are sunburnt, they suffered in the camps of La Parada,” she said in a phone interview, referring to the Colombian town just on the other side of the border. “And they have blisters on their feet from walking.”
An estimated five million Venezuelans have fled their home country since 2015, according to the International Organization for Migration. Some walked across half a continent in search of a new life as economic collapse in Venezuela left them without options.
The plan for many was to go abroad, find new opportunities, work and send home money to children, grandparents or spouses left behind. Many migrants faced discrimination in their host countries, from xenophobia, to criminalization and sexual exploition. But at least there was food, and work. A 2019 study on cash flows within Venezuela found that more than one in three Venezuelan households were dependent upon remittances sent from abroad for survival.
Then came global pandemic. Most of Latin America has been under some degree of lockdown since March, and the poorest have been economically eviscerated. Government help has been difficult to obtain, even for citizens with official papers.
Lengthy lockdowns in South America have gone beyond anything imposed in the U.S. The majority of people here endure them without government benefits or social security. In addition, strict lockdown policies left the most vulnerable of these populations to largely fend for themselves, and the result has been widespread economic suffering, which has hit the poorest the hardest.
In the southern and northern suburbs of Bogota, families hang red cloths in their windows as symbols of hunger, calling for help to the few organizations that supply it. Colombian citizens from poverty stricken communities find themselves in dire straits. Migrants, who often lack official documentation, find themselves completely cut off.
For Venezuelan refugees, Indigenous communities and others who lack documents, the impact of the economic standstill has been devastating. The Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela found that over 90 per cent of Venezuelan migrants in Colombia worked informally before lockdown. Those employed under-the-table in their destination countries often worked for less than minimum wage and without labor protections. They now find themselves facing evictions and food insecurity.
Colombia is the principal destination of the Venezuelan diaspora, followed by Ecuador and Peru. None have offered meaningful support to migrants as they reel from measures to contain the pandemic, and conditions are worsening. By the end of July, Colombia was second in the world new daily deaths per million citizens, and Ecuador, hard hit by the virus in April, continues to experience a resurgence in case numbers.
All of this means the Venezuelan exodus is now moving in reverse as tens of thousands return home, where they at least have housing and family. Some of those who are walking the gauntlet of lockdowns across multiple borders to return to their homeland are the same who fled on foot over the last five years.
“I’ve applied for the government aid programs twice,” Franceska Salazar, 32, a Venezuelan single mother in Medellin, Colombia said by telephone. “I haven’t received anything.” Salazar was fired from her restaurant job when the Colombian government imposed national mandatory lockdowns in March. She hasn’t been able to find work since.
“The government just left everyone to their own luck,” she said. “It’s a disaster. It’s a great failure on the part of Colombia.”
Unfortunately as tens of thousands of Venezuelans flee joblessness, evictions and hunger, the welcome many are receiving upon entering their homeland is not a warm one.
The turning tide of migration
Diego, who asked that his real name not be used, is a smuggler and a coyote in Cúcuta, Colombia, which lies on the Venezuelan border. For years, smuggling humans and goods across the mostly lawless frontier was big business. Diego, who is 39, says that since the arrival of COVID-19, the services offered by his network have changed dramatically.
“The connections I had initially all dropped out of the business,” he said. “So acquiring new contacts was the first thing I did. Ticket prices skyrocketed, tickets that were once worth eighty thousand pesos [about $25] now cost double or triple that.”
“For $800, we can get you from Lima [Peru] to Venezuela,” he told Toward Freedom in an interview in Cúcuta. “We organize everything.”
Most land-borders in South America have been closed for months, including the border between Colombia and Venezuela. In both Colombia and Peru, domestic travel without special permission from the government is prohibited.
To avoid these controls, coyotes utilize a combination of private cars, smuggling paths across the borders (colloquially known as trochas) and even official humanitarian busses, sponsored by the Colombian government. “For transport within Ecuador and Peru, we use private trucks and take stretches of old, distant roads and the trochas,” he said.
In a dramatic reversal of fortunes, many newly-unemployed migrants who had been sending money home to Venezuela have found themselves dependent upon relatives who remained.
“People use what they have saved in Venezuela to rescue their stranded relatives abroad,” said Diego.
The 1,378 mile border between Venezuela and Colombia has a long history of lawlessness and conflict. Half a dozen armed groups on both sides have long battled over lucrative smuggling trails. There are large swaths of the frontier region that the Colombian state has long ignored, especially territories that were controlled by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) during the civil war.
Border closures have a history of increasing violence in the trochas, and the closure due to COVID-19 has been no exception. Conflict watchers and local media have reported multiple massacres as well as forced displacements. Colombian paramilitary groups, local gangs, guerrillas and Venezuelan paramilitaries have all stepped up their activities under cover of lockdown measures.
To date, three mass killings have been reported in local media in the department of Norte de Santander on the Colombian side of the frontier since quarantine began. Multiple aid groups have reported displacements in Colombia, principally due to fighting between National Liberation Army (ELN) and Colombian paramilitary organization the Rastrojos. Reports from monitoring group FundaRedes on the Venezuelan side of the frontier suggest the number of disappearances in the area may in reality be much higher, an assertion that was backed up by multiple interviews Toward Freedom conducted with residents in the region.
When quarantine first began in Colombia, Venezuelans began to head to the border in small numbers. At that time, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro promised them a warm welcome. “All must be received with love, warmth and all preventive measures,” he said on State TV on April 5th.
But those returning often found themselves quarantined by immigration officials in squalid conditions without sufficient food, running water or electricity, often with no idea how long they would be held in the improvised shelters as they awaited official approval to repatriate.
From a warm welcome to bioterrorism
As the number of coronavirus cases increased within Venezuela, the rhetoric of the Venezuelan government has become considerably less friendly. On May 20th, Maduro called Venezuelans waiting to return home “biological weapons,” and accused Colombian authorities of deliberately infecting returning Venezuelans with COVID-19. The accusation was made without proof.
Beginning the next day, representatives from various states along the Venezuelan side of the border took a similar stance towards returning migrants. “We’re going to put them in a cell under quarantine, just like the United States does when people want to enter from Mexico,” said Lisandro Cabello, spokesperson for the governor of Zulia state.
The change in rhetoric was accompanied by a change in enforcement of smuggling paths by Venezuelan forces. Until recently, smuggling and illicit commerce had continued mostly un-molested despite rising violence, according to reports by Insight Crime.
“At the beginning of the quarantine, both the paracos (Colombian paramilitary forces) and the guerrillas prohibited the passage of migrants through trochas in their territories, but allowed smuggling to largely continue,” said Diego. “But now, Maduro has declared war on the trocheros as well.”
Diego’s assertions are collaborated by reports on crime in the region as well as by statements by Freddy Bernal, a controversial local figure who administers the Venezuelan state of Táchira, which borders Colombia.
Another smuggler, who before lockdown sold black-market Venezuelan gasoline in Cúcuta told Toward Freedom that the unofficial response has been even more brutal as Venezuelan forces attempt to control a border long-known for its porousness. “Bernal’s police and [paramilitary groups] are shooting at the gangs and attacking those who try to pass the trochas at night,” he said. “They are killing migrants and thieves alike, they don’t care, they just want more border control.”
A July 30 report on violence along the Venezuelan side of the border by FundaRedes found almost 30 per cent more killings in the area in April, May and June 2020 compared with the same period in 2019. Even more troubling, the NGO suggests a great deal of these murders may actually be extrajudicial executions committed by the National Bolivarian Police (PNB). Elements of the PNB, such as the Special Action Forces (FAES) and intelligence services (SEBIN), have been accused in multiple UN reports of extrajudicial killings in the past.
All of this means returning Venezuelan migrants are not only at risk of hunger and disease, but also that they could more easily fall prey to violence.
Failed abroad, now failed at home
Marisol, the migrant who has been waiting in a quarantine facility for almost three weeks, describes sleeping in an abandoned classroom with 16 other migrants. “When I arrived I was depressed because the school looked like it was abandoned and the classrooms were dirty,” she said in an interview in late July. “Each day they give us a bag of rice and about five eggs for the 16 people in the room. They gave us mattresses without sheets so dirty that I didn’t even want to sit on them.”
She is concerned that even when she is finally allowed to leave the conditions she returns to may not be much better than the crisis she fled.
“My brothers and my daughter are waiting for me at my house,” Marisol told Toward Freedom in an interview in San Antonio, Venezuela, smiling despite the conditions of her dilapidated quarantine camp. “I’m not sure what kind of life awaits me there, but at least we will be together. I just want to go home.”
In a follow-up interview in August, Marisol described worsening conditions. “More than 20 days ago we were tested for Covid-19 and we still haven’t gotten our results. We are all cramped in one place, there is a strong sewage smell, and the food is getting worse,” she said by phone. “There are sick people, and we don’t know what sickness they have. We held a protest to demand that we be transferred, but nothing is certain.”
As this story went to press, Marisol still had not received word on when she would be allowed to leave the encampment.
Joshua Collins is a freelance reporter based in Colombia. He’s focused on immigration, social movements and the impacts of crime on human rights. Find him on Twitter @InvisiblesMuros.
Ulises Haidar is a writer and independent journalist who covers border dynamics, human rights, and migration.