Border drama: A first-hand account from Cúcuta, Colombia
Border drama: A first-hand account from Cúcuta, Colombia
Border Drama (II): Tension and Uncertainty in San Antonio, Venezuela
Border Drama (II): Tension and Uncertainty in San Antonio, Venezuela
Lunchtime at a shelter run by the Colombian Red Cross in a sports stadium in Villa del Rosario. CRISIS GROUP/Javier Ciurlizza
Commentary / Latin America & Caribbean 10 minutes

Border drama: A first-hand account from Cúcuta, Colombia

On 22 August, the government of Nicolás Maduro closed the border crossing that links San Antonio del Táchira with the Colombian city of Cúcuta. In the succeeding days, more than a thousand Colombians were summarily deported via the Simón Bolívar international bridge between the two countries. Amid a sharp increase in the number of troops deployed in the area there were numerous complaints of human rights violations. At the time of writing, more than 20,000 people (most of them Colombians) have crossed the border of their own volition, fearing deportation and abuses. Almost 4,000 are in temporary shelters in and around Cúcuta.

Our director for Latin America and the Caribbean, Javier Ciurlizza, travelled to Cúcuta and the neighbouring town of Villa del Rosario to visit the shelters and examine first-hand the situation at the border. His report tells of the human drama being played out while the political confrontation between the two governments remains unresolved.

Regresando de un intento frustrado de cruzar la frontera.

The shelters

Rogelio (*) had lived for 40 years in Venezuela, having arrived in search of a better future after doing military service in Colombia. In Colombian-accented Spanish spattered with Venezuelan idioms, he tells me that “the guards” (Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Guard) called them to a meeting one day in his barrio and brusquely demanded their documents. His was one of the millions of identity cards that Venezuela’s late president, Hugo Chávez, ordered issued to Colombian immigrants to enable them to vote. Those documents allowed them fourteen years residence – his was due to expire in November. The guards ignored that and tore it up. When he complained, he received a blow from a peinilla – the long, narrow machete they carry – which was aimed at his face but which he succeeded in fending off. His arm still bears the marks.

INFOGRAPHIC | Colombia’s Returnees

Rogelio is one of the 370 people lodged in the Unión Junior hotel just a few metres from the reception and command centre set up beside the international bridge in the La Parada barrio of Villa del Rosario, in the Colombian department of Norte de Santander. The hotel administrator, Joaquín, tells me proudly that at last the hotel, which was showing signs of age, has found a good use, as he shows me the 55 tents set up just beside the lobby.

An officer from the Colombian army’s Risk Control Unit inspects on of the tents at the army-run “Paths of Peace” shelter which, on 8 September, held 162 people.

This is one of 23 shelters established to accommodate the 3,760 people who have asked for somewhere to sleep. Many arrived with nothing. They have been here a week and are beginning to worry about what will happen to them, as one woman carrying two babies puts it, “once they tire of us”.

The response of the Colombian government, it must be said, has been good, considering how suddenly the emergency arose and the resources required to tackle it. Especially since the visit to Cúcuta by President Juan Manuel Santos and the speech he made there, the capacity of the institutions dealing with the new arrivals has increased to match their numbers. As Colonel Jesús Gómez, who coordinates the “Paths of Peace” refuge proudly explains: “We all put our shoulder to the wheel”. But, he adds by way of a warning: “Temporary is temporary … a month at most”.

An officer interviews a recent arrival at a shelter.

The army organised tents, mattresses, food, toilets and recreation in less than 24 hours for 162 people. The police unit that normally attends emergencies such as hang-glider pilots stuck in trees, has also played its part. The shelter run by the police is in the Francisco de Paula Santander University stadium, a fact that does not seem to bother the students, some of whom are playing with the children. But there are those who fear an increase in crime in the neighbourhood. Other shelters are run by the Colombian Red Cross, Civil Defence and the local authorities. The operation as a whole is coordinated by the National Disaster Response Unit.

Everyone agrees that, although up to now it has been possible to find the resources to deal with the arrivals, the situation will be much more difficult if there is a sudden increase. Only 15 per cent of all those who registered with the Colombian immigration authorities are being looked after in shelters. Many more (around 20,000 in all) are either waiting to receive the 750,000 Colombian pesos ($250) the government offered, so as to be able to rent temporary accommodation, or have travelled to other Colombian cities or are simply waiting for an opportunity to return to Venezuela.

Afternoon on the Simón Bolívar international bridge. A group of students prepares to return to Venezuela after attending classes in Cúcuta. An estimated 15,000 Venezuelans study on the Colombian side.

The border crossing

The Simón Bolívar international bridge is closed and a long line of people wait to cross from Colombia to Venezuela. This is the first day on which the Venezuelan authorities have allowed school children from the Venezuelan side to resume their studies in Colombia, where many parents choose to send them because of the higher quality of the education. Taking advantage of the greater flexibility, I try to cross the bridge into Venezuela. I had done the trip many times before, not least because – inexplicably – there are normally no border controls, whether you are Colombian or not.

The Colombians warn me that the situation “is different every day” and that it is best to walk to the middle of the bridge and ask the National Guard. I pass the Colombian police checkpoint with no difficulty and join a small group of people hurrying across the bridge. The Guard rapidly wave the Venezuelans through and ask my nationality. “Peruvians can’t enter today,” comes the response. I try to ask why but am rapidly rebuffed and consider it prudent to retrace my steps, whereupon several Colombian policemen intercept me and ask how it went. They tell me to try later, that I will probably be able to cross. I seem to be a kind of guinea-pig for them.

On the bridge and in the surrounding area, dozens of motorcycle taxi-drivers and people on foot offer a border crossing for 20,000 pesos ($7). When I ask for details they merely shrug and say it is a “safe trip” and that the only risk is having to fork out another 20,000 (always in Colombian pesos, forget Venezuelan bolívars) to pay off the Guard. They use the dozens of informal crossing points that traverse the border river, whose waters are nowhere more than knee-deep.

Border checks on the Colombian side are routine. Those wishing to cross must then walk 500 metres to the Bolivarian National Guard post on the Venezuelan side, where documents are rigorously checked and Colombians are refused entry.

Life on the border

The stretch of border between the Colombian city of Cúcuta and San Antonio on the Venezuelan side is densely populated and under normal circumstances experiences heavy cross-border trade. Crossing has always been a formality for those who live and trade on both sides of it, and few have ever paid much attention to the line that divides the two countries.

Thus many families are genuinely binational and their members bear documents from both. For many years

it was mostly Colombians who crossed into Venezuela. No one knows for certain how many, but estimates range from two to six million. The number of identity documents granted to Colombians by the Venezuelan government between 2002 and 2009 gives an idea of the size of the Colombian population on that side of the border: more than 700,000 were handed out so that people could vote, and many of them did so repeatedly for Hugo Chávez. But these documents are no longer worth the paper they are written on.

Returning from an abortive attempt to cross the border.

Wading across the river

One of those who received a Venezuelan ID card is Pacho (*), who offers to show me an informal border crossing he uses each weekend to visit his wife who lives in San Cristóbal, Venezuela. Pacho says, “Chávez was smart and I supported him, like many other Colombians”. Now, though, he says he is disillusioned and only wants to see the fall of Maduro.

We chat about politics as he drives me in his old taxi with Cúcuta licence plates to a group of settlements on the outskirts of the city. We stop for a moment to look at a brickworks where, according to Pacho the paramilitary leader “Hernan” used to incinerate his victims. This area formed part of the territory of the “border bloc” of the United Self Defences of Colombia (AUC) paramilitaries, led by “Gato”, who terrorised the population and bought off many local politicians. The impact of the paramilitaries was appalling throughout the department of Norte de Santander and is still felt in the presence of the criminal bands they morphed into.​​​​​​

The Colombian immigration post has been turned into a reception centre for deportees and returnees.

On the way we pick up a pamphlet distributed by the “Usuga clan” – a criminal organisation considered a security threat by the Colombian government – in which a number of individuals belonging to rival groups such as “Los Rastrojos” are declared to be “military targets”. “[The gangs] are all over the place,” says Pacho, “but nowadays they are less visible on account of the military and police presence”.

When we reach the border crossing we park the taxi beside the road at a point where some youths are offering to bring pimpinas from the other side. These are plastic jerrycans containing Venezuelan petrol. But there are few of them.

The closing of the border has deprived thousands of people who depend on the pimpina trade of their daily bread, I am told by the Bishop of Cúcuta, Monsignor Ochoa. The impact of an indefinite closure is likely to be devastating for these families and for many others who are desperately dependent on the cross-border trade. In a city like Cúcuta with serious problems of poverty and poor public services, this could create an explosive situation.

Soldiers finish setting up the “Paths of Peace” shelter.

After walking for a while through recently harvested rice-fields, Pacho and I reach the Táchira river. The atmosphere is relaxed and one might almost think people are just out for a walk. A family crosses with their sleeping daughter and prepares to climb up the opposite bank on a rickety ladder. Above is la pavimentada – a paved Venezuelan highway where a bus can be caught to San Antonio or San Cristóbal. Those who want to avoid getting wet can be carried across the river, for 3,000 pesos ($1).

This crossing point, which connects the Venezuelan town of Llanojorge with Juan Frío on the Colombian side, is just one of dozens that allow people to get from one side to the other almost unimpeded. For them the border remains open and the National Guard and the Venezuelan army only rarely show up to demand papers. The real fear is among those Colombians carrying the famous Chávez ID card or who have no documents at all. The increasingly aggressive attitude of the military on the other side has instilled terror.

The biggest shelter in the city of Cúcuta is in the sports stadium of the Francisco de Paula Santander University. It is run by the National Police Disaster Management Unit and cares for 380 people.

Border dramas

Xenophobia, which has occasionally flared up along the border in recent years, now seems to be more virulent. There is no hard evidence yet as to how the bulk of Venezuelans living in the border region have reacted to the draconian measures imposed by Caracas, but discontent over the presence of illegal groups from the Colombian side has been growing for a long time. Extorsion and contraband of various kinds, along with violent turf-wars, have spiraled. But the xenophobia is not merely one-sided. In Cúcuta there are voices demanding deportation and border closure. “For years they have depended more on us than we do on them,” says the owner of a shop selling spare parts for cars. With widespread scarcity of basic goods in Venezuela, the border closure makes it even more difficult and costly for those who live on that side to meet their daily needs without resort to the black market.

Legal trade has slumped to a historic low, due to lack of payment and the consequent demand by many Colombian businesses for cash up front. Last year Colombian exports to Venezuela amounted to just $600 million, or a little less than 4 per cent of the country’s total exports. The decreasing importance of Venezuela as an export market, however, does not mean it is dispensable. Colombia has no way of replacing it directly, since the existence of a common frontier makes transport costs so much lower than for other markets.

A large number of children engage in recreational activities.

Life, however, continues along the border. Small businesses and smugglers find ways of maintaining the flow of goods and people from one side to the other. It is impossible to close such a porous, lengthy and integrated border. Many – such as an official at the binational chamber of commerce – express confidence that reality will prevail and argue that this is a political problem which has nothing to do with the people.

Nonetheless, the effects of the measure are being felt. Among the returnees who face uncertain times. Among the children and young people who have to go to school surrounded by heavily armed men. Among the separated families who are desperately seeking reunification.

Some local analysts tell me the situation is not new, that deportations have been going on for years (90,000 in the past three decades, according to a Church-run Migrant Care Centre). But this time the atmosphere is different and many are preparing for a wait they believe may be long and problematic.

Playing with the children in a shelter, I ask María (*) who is twelve what she would like for her birthday (the next day). Her response is firm: “That they let me live with both my parents and that life returns to normal”. María lives with her grandmother in the shelter; they fled a barrio on the outskirts of San Antonio. Her parents, who fear deportation, were left behind. “I can walk out of here with this,” says another child, pulling out a Venezuelan ID card. “But where am I going to go? I don’t know anybody here”.

It is hard to see paramilitaries and criminals in the tired faces of the returnees. Harder still to blame the people of both border zones for a contraband trade that almost everyone takes part in. They are the clear losers in a bilateral disputes that threatens to turn into a time-bomb.

All images © CRISIS GROUP/Javier Ciurlizza

(*) Names changed.

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