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Venezuela’s Dangers Spill across the Colombian Border
Venezuela’s Dangers Spill across the Colombian Border
Under a Merciless Sun: Venezuelans Stranded Across the Colombian Border
Under a Merciless Sun: Venezuelans Stranded Across the Colombian Border
Colombians deported from Venezuela return for their belongings and carry them across the Tachira River, border between the two countries, to Cucuta, in the Colombian North of Santander Department, on August 25, 2015. AFP/Luis Acosta

Venezuela’s Dangers Spill across the Colombian Border

On 21 August, the Venezuelan government declared a state of emergency in five (later extended to ten) municipalities on the border with Colombia, deploying up to 5,000 additional troops to the area and closing the border for what President Nicolás Maduro said would be an “indefinite” period. The measures were justified as a response to an incident in which three Venezuelan soldiers were wounded by a gunman the authorities said was a Colombian paramilitary acting on behalf of smugglers. The border has been closed on a number of occasions in recent years, the last time being in 2014. What has caused alarm on both sides of the border is the suspension of constitutional guarantees and the summary expulsion of Colombian citizens, over 1,000 of whom have already been deported, with at least a further 10,000 or so fleeing of their own accord.

Critics of the Maduro government claim the measures are intended to affect the outcome of parliamentary elections scheduled for December. Amid deadlock over the issue, the two governments have withdrawn their respective ambassadors “for consultations”. The Colombian-Venezuelan border is a hotbed of criminal and political violence, not to mention corrupt officials – both civilian and military, as revealed in a Crisis Group report in 2011. Its closure, and the militarisation of border communities, can only exacerbate tensions and play into the hands of criminal organisations.

Meeting this week at Colombia´s request, members of the Organisation of American States (OAS) were unable to agree on playing a role in the crisis. Colombia also convened the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), but the latter’s failure to meet promptly caused it to pull out. The two organisations should be up to the task not only of cooling tempers but of offering credible mediation mechanisms to prevent a violent outcome, including a fact-finding mission which can identify rapidly how to de-activate the factors fuelling the crisis. So far, however, they have failed to do so.

The view from Caracas

Map of the Colombia-Venezuela border. WIKIMEDIA

The border crisis between Venezuela and Colombia that erupted on 19 August was ostensibly sparked by an incident in which an unidentified gunman, riding pillion on a motorcycle, wounded three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian engaged in an anti-smuggling operation in Táchira state. The incident remains shrouded in mystery. Some press reports have attributed it to a turf war between different elements of the Venezuelan armed forces, allegedly battling to control the extremely lucrative contraband trade.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the government’s response appears entirely disproportionate. This is the first time Articles 337-339 of the 1999 constitution, dealing with states of emergency, have ever been invoked, and it is far from self-evident that the border shooting constitutes the kind of “grave threat to the security of the Nation” for which the government requires additional powers.

Tensions have been further exacerbated by the deployment of an additional 1,500-2,000 troops to the already heavily militarised border and the summary expulsion of hundreds of Colombians, many of whose houses have since been destroyed. The government accuses them of being smugglers and members of paramilitary organisations. The border zone has absorbed large numbers of Colombian migrants in recent decades, many fleeing the armed conflict. It is estimated that at least 3 million Colombians live in Venezuela, some of them under the status of refugees.

Border commerce and daily life for Táchira residents have been severely disrupted. The main airport serving the area has been closed, causing further transport chaos. A number of constitutional rights have been suspended, including freedom of assembly and the inviolability of the home. Even peaceful protests now require a government permit, which must be applied for two weeks in advance.

INFOGRAPHIC | Colombia’s Returnees

All this comes amid a severe national economic and social crisis which the border closure can only make worse. It further strains the political atmosphere as campaigning gets under way for parliamentary elections, due on 6 December, which opinion polls suggest the government has little chance of winning. The man who stands to lose the most if Maduro fails to retain control of the National Assembly (AN) is the regime’s second most powerful figure, AN chairman Diosdado Cabello. Cabello and his allies in parliament are recommending extending the state of emergency to other parts of the country, especially border areas, and stand ready to renew it after 60 days if the president so decides.

The government has now announced that it intends to move against illegal miners, many of them Brazilian, near the southern border, raising the prospect of further international tension. It is already embroiled in a bitter dispute with its other main neighbour, Guyana, over the Essequibo territory which is claimed by both.

Venezuela now faces the worrying prospect of an election held under a state of emergency, in which normal campaigning would be impossible across large swathes of the country. In a clear bid to stir up patriotic support, the Maduro government has made a staple propaganda item of a supposed association between leaders of the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance and Colombian paramilitaries – an allegation for which there is no substantive evidence. If, in turn, the right-wing opposition in Colombia forces the Santos government to take a more belligerent attitude to the border crisis, this will further strengthen the hand of the Venezuelan hawks.

The state of Táchira is by no means so marginal to Venezuelan politics as its remoteness from Caracas might suggest. Seven 20th-century Venezuelan presidents, who ruled for a total of 60 years, were tachirenses and the state capital, San Cristóbal, saw the fiercest clashes between government and opposition factions during street fighting in 2014 that killed several dozen people nationwide. The mayor of San Cristóbal, Daniel Ceballos, was removed from office last year and jailed for failing to remove barricades. He remains under house arrest.

Colombian Minister of Foreign Affairs María Ángela Holguín (left) and her Venezuelan counterpart Delcy Rodríguez (right). UN PHOTO

The Maduro government’s actions seem calculated not only to annoy the Colombian government – reinforcing its right flank – but to further whip up anti-government feeling in Táchira, possibly provoking a return to street violence like last year’s, or worse. This might even be designed to provide a pretext for postponing the December elections. A meeting on 26 August between Foreign Ministers Delcy Rodríguez of Venezuela and María Ángela Holguín of Colombia produced no breakthrough and there is every indication that the Maduro government intends to persist with its current policy.

Venezuela’s political, economic and humanitarian crisis appears to be moving into a new and more dangerous phase. This could leave the international community – and in particular Venezuela’s neighbours, who have been reluctant to intervene –with no choice but to act. Mediation of the border dispute itself may be required. But above all, the Maduro government must be persuaded to hold a free and fair election in December. Its failure to do so could plunge the country into even more serious conflict, with grave consequences both at home and abroad.

The view from Bogotá

The 2,219-kilometre border between Colombia and Venezuela has long posed a serious challenge to the government in Bogotá. Along much of its length, illegal armed groups have held sway, with the state’s inability to control its own territory particularly evident in departments such as La Guajira, Cesar, Norte de Santander and Arauca. Trafficking of all kinds, extortion and contraband have been the order of the day, and disputes between rival groups over trafficking routes have frequently led to violence.

Progress in border security and bilateral cooperation has been minimal, even following the rapprochement between Presidents Hugo Chávez (1999-2013) and Juan Manuel Santos (2010- ) aimed at defusing the political and diplomatic conflict arising from former President Alvaro Uribe’s complaint that Colombian guerrillas had camps on the Venezuelan side of the border.

The problem of border security is real, therefore, and will only be made worse by Venezuela’s unilateral sealing of the frontier and expulsion of Colombian citizens. In the past, Bogotá has mostly used cautious diplomacy to deal with such occasional border closures. On this occasion, the social and political impact on Colombia is of a magnitude that will be difficult to ignore.

Colombians leaving Venezuela with their belongings cross the bordering Tachira River to arrive in Cucuta, Colombia, on 27 August 2015. AFP/Luis Acosta.

According to humanitarian organisations, more than 10,000 Colombians have already been forced to cross the border. Over 1,000 have been deported, while the rest fled for fear of Venezuelan security forces. This sudden influx has primarily affected two municipalities in the department of Norte de Santander – Cúcuta and Villa del Rosario – already facing serious difficulties in attending to thousands of people displaced by Colombia’s own armed conflict.

The political impact is also severe. The Venezuelan government’s actions have thrown a bucket of cold water over the appeasement policy implemented by Colombia in a bid to avoid a potentially more serious conflict between the two nations. Moreover, it may well have negative consequences for the Santos government’s flagship initiative – the peace process with leftist guerrillas.

A border emergency bodes ill for the final phase of negotiations in Havana with the country’s largest armed group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The Venezuelan government, which has a close relationship with the FARC, has played a positive role by “accompanying” the talks, and thus boosting the guerrillas’ confidence in them. But they need a stable environment if they are to disarm and demobilise. The Catatumbo region, on the Venezuelan border, is one of their most important strongholds and the main base for FARC commander-in-chief Rodrigo Londoño, alias “Timochenko”.

It is not only the FARC who are based along the border. Rivals of FARC like the National Liberation Army (ELN) and remnants of the Popular Liberation Army (the EPL, for whose leader a huge manhunt is currently under way), have their most important areas of operation very close to the border crossings that Venezuela has now closed. Criminal gangs, whose origins lie in the now-demobilised, rightwing paramilitaries, also maintain an active presence in the area. All these illegal armed groups are linked to the extensive illegal economy on both sides of the border.

The Colombian government initially insisted on pursuing a solution via diplomatic channels and has resisted further domestic political pressure to escalate the crisis. But President Santos is faced with opposition led by his predecessor, former President Alvaro Uribe, who has won more popular support as a result of popular indignation over the abusive treatment received by the deportees. The aggressive behaviour of the Caracas government has weakened Santos and strengthened the position of those who want a more forceful response.

Hence the personal involvement of Santos in the crisis, the recall “for consultations” of Colombia’s ambassador to Caracas and Colombia’s various diplomatic offensives, all of which were intended to send a signal that he was determined to act more firmly. The situation may also merit a more active presence on the part of humanitarian organisations, which have a long history of operating in Colombia, not only in order to provide immediate assistance but also potentially to contribute to an easing of tensions.

Critics seeking to use the border crisis to embarrass Santos have, however, offered no real alternative to his diplomatic strategy. To break diplomatic relations, close the border on the Colombian side or impose trade sanctions – or even to boost the already significant military presence in the area – would merely worsen conditions for the millions of people of Colombian origin who chose to make Venezuela their home in more peaceful and prosperous times and whose connections with their homeland remain strong.

The benefits of the process of détente initiated by Presidents Santos and Chávez (such as Venezuela’s participation in the peace process) appear to be evaporating, while the concrete measures implemented from 2010 onwards – including strengthening border security, improving living conditions and effecting bilateral confidence-building measures – have not been sufficient.

Venezuela’s political and economic crisis is beginning to be felt in full force in Colombia. Living alongside a highly controlled even if plummeting economy has boosted smuggling opportunities and easy money, but now these short-term benefits are outweighed by the potential dangers of an escalated confrontation, in an atmosphere of growing jingoism.

Contributors

Former Program Director, Latin America
Senior Analyst, Andes
philgunson
Inhabitants of La Bendición de Dios, an informal neighbourhood near Maicao, line up to receive water. Bram Ebus

Under a Merciless Sun: Venezuelans Stranded Across the Colombian Border

As Venezuela’s economy plumbs the depths of collapse, a new cohort of refugees is trekking across parched landscapes to Colombia. It consists of the most vulnerable, including poor expectant mothers, unaccompanied children and the sick, people with no defence against the predations of armed bands.

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It is a measure of life’s hardships in Zulia state, the oil production hub in north-western Venezuela, that its people must brave lawless borders just to get to the hospital. Across the frontier, in Colombia, the San José de Maicao hospital is full of pregnant Venezuelan women, some of them sitting on the floor. One new mother I met there had arrived in the morning after traversing a trocha, an illegal crossing between the two countries, which have no diplomatic ties. She borrowed money to pay a shadowy armed band for safe passage, and once in the maternal ward, gave birth to a healthy daughter. She lay in bed, the baby in her arms, a bit bewildered at her good fortune. Infant mortality is high among refugee mothers, most of whom, like this young woman, receive no prenatal care. She got to San José de Maicao just in time for a safe, orderly delivery.

Such harrowing tales of flight have become common in Zulia. Hunger, power cuts and collapsing public services have turned this region – once accustomed to easy wealth and ice-cold air conditioning – into one of the areas of Venezuela suffering the greatest humanitarian need, according to the UN. The human rights NGO Codhez, based in Zulia, calculates that seven in ten households have daily incomes of $1.09 or less, meaning that families often cannot eat three meals a day. Its hospitals are at once rundown and prohibitively expensive for most Zulia residents because they now demand payment in dollars for basic services that were once free. The nearest escape valve is the Colombian border. More than 160,000 Venezuelans now live across it, in the Colombian state of La Guajira, after escaping their home country’s tumult.

But La Guajira, in Colombia’s far north east, is no sanctuary. More than half the population of this semi-arid desert state lives in poverty. With Venezuela to the east and the mountains of Perijá – a hotbed of guerrilla activity – to the south, La Guajira is in a double bind. It faces not only the humanitarian needs of migrants and refugees, who now make up roughly 19 per cent of the population, but also the violence of guerrillas, narcos and other men with guns who prey upon its very desperation.

The Border Crossing Boom

The only official crossing from Zulia into La Guajira brings new arrivals to the small village of Paraguachón. Movable metal barriers featuring the logo of Colombia’s migration office stand along the main road. Scrawny, malnourished Venezuelans, exhausted after their long trip, mingle with locals hawking basic medicines and food items. As in other Latin American border towns, the informal economy hums with activity, as porters trot by pushing handcarts piled with luggage, moneychangers offer stacks of bolívars to the few Venezuelans returning home and penniless migrants sell their hair to wig makers for a fistful of dollars.

For years already, contraband gasoline from Venezuela has been fueling the informal economy of La Guajira's border areas. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus

But a lot more is going on in this particular border town. A nervous resident points out that various armed groups – narcos, guerrillas and others – rule Paraguachón. They have tightened their stranglehold on La Guajira’s border since 2015, when the Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro closed the entire frontier in response to attacks on the Venezuelan army by unknown parties. Following the closure, the trochas became regular transit points and a gold mine for criminal gangs collecting informal tolls. The border reopened in 2016, but the illegal crossings retained their appeal to smugglers, traffickers, and the many migrants and refugees without identity papers.

Just a short distance from the official crossing in Paraguachón are two major trochas: la ochenta (the eighty) and la cortica (the short one). In plain view of Colombian police, motorbikes bearing jerrycans bump alongside old white Toyota pickups crammed with passengers and goods over the sandy roads to and from Venezuela.

A total of 90 trochas are located in Maicao, the municipality that includes Paraguachón. According to Colombia’s Ombudsman, an independent state agency charged with protecting civil and human rights, the number along the border between La Guajira and Zulia runs close to 200. At each of these points, criminals charge fees for passage, turning the trochas into big business and a trigger for competition with each other, as well as with state security forces. Aida Merlano, a fugitive Colombian parliamentarian wanted for electoral fraud, found refuge in Venezuela via a trocha in the La Guajira badlands. Three alleged al-Qaeda operatives arrested in January in the U.S. sneaked from Venezuela into Colombia using a similar route.

Contraband fuel is the economic mainstay on the Colombian side of the border.

Contraband fuel is the economic mainstay on the Colombian side of the border. With their faces covered in cloths or towels, adults and children, some no older than ten, wave funnels at passing cars while their skin burns under La Guajira’s merciless sun. They are engaged in pimpineo, the sale of dirt-cheap Venezuelan gasoline that is smuggled across the border in jerrycans (pimpinas in Spanish) and then poured straight into fuel tanks or retailed in soft drink bottles. In 2019 up to mid-November, Colombia’s Fiscal and Customs Police seized over 230,000 gallons of contraband fuel and confiscated about 300 vehicles along the La Guajira border. Still, trafficking continues unabated. 

Two indigenous Wayuu women agreed to meet to talk about smuggling fuel. They chose a discreet location, fearing violent reprisal from local gangs should they be seen conversing with a stranger. The smugglers, or pimpineros, use three courtyards on the Venezuelan side, to fill the jerrycans with gasoline, the women said. The fuelling station is located next to the local command building of the Venezuelan National Guard. “They [the National Guard] eat off us. They live from this”, one woman explains, adding that plainclothes Guard officers charge a fee on the contraband fuel, which costs about $1.50 per punto (5 litres), and $15 per pipa (60 litres).

A Surfeit of Crime

The stakes are high around the trochas. The smugglers recruit poor Wayuu children as moscas (flies) to look out for soldiers or police, giving them cellphones to sound the alarm. The children also carry guns, sometimes assault rifles, so that they, too, can collect the fees for safe passage. 

For ordinary civilians, the crossings have become more bane than boon. Recent arrivals in Colombia report that Venezuelan security forces and armed groups confronted them at several checkpoints in a single trip. One social worker based in Riohacha said women using the trochas risk sexual abuse, sometimes reaching their destination with their clothes ripped off. In a refugee shelter in Maicao, a distraught Venezuelan man told me that all his money was stolen when walking across. He had come to Colombia with his daughter, who has Down syndrome, in search of essential health care.

Many youngsters from the region are recruited by armed groups and criminal organizations. Some of them are posted along the border to work as 'moscas' and monitor the movements of border authorities. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus

Internecine violence makes matters worse. Criminal organisations and Wayuu clans collect fees from the traffic through various trochas, and often clash with each other in disputes over who is in control. Also joining the fray is the guerrilla National Liberation Army (ELN), whose Luciano Ariza faction, part of the Northern War Front, engages in extortion and livestock smuggling further south along the border, toward the Perijá mountains.

The sheer variety of illicit business makes the rivalries even more pointed. Weapons, minerals and human beings are trafficked into Colombia, while drugs move in the opposite direction. “This is a continuous time bomb”, said one resident in Paraguachón. “The narcos and the guerrillas want control over the border, and the Wayuu, the owners of the territory, are involved in a war that only benefits the people who do not belong here”. Meanwhile, the breakdown in communication between the security forces on either side of the border makes it easy for criminals to dodge arrest or to hide out on whichever side is more hospitable to them. Locals say the police are paid off not to interfere.

A short distance from Paraguachón, on the Colombian side of the border, lies a rancheria, a Wayuu settlement, filled with victims of these border skirmishes. Around 35 huts built of logs and plastic sheeting house up to six families each. Some of the children are blond, a symptom of the malnutrition common in La Guajira. According to the World Food Programme, the basic needs of 90 per cent of the state’s rural population are unsatisfied.

The children began getting trapped in shoot-outs.

All the Wayuu in the hamlet recently decided to leave their homes on the Venezuelan side of the border after teachers in the local schools walked out over low wages and never came back. To continue their education, the Wayuu children had to attend classes on the Colombian side. At first, they crossed the trochas every day. But then, the local Wayuu leader explained, the children began getting trapped in shoot-outs between armed factions and security forces. So all the families relocated.

“The Zone”

The most notorious armed outfit to have operated in the area was a relative upstart. La Zona (The Zone) undertook a swift and brutal expansion before its equally rapid demise. Along Zulia’s borders, and especially in the Venezuelan town of Guarero, the gang is accused of distributing lists of names and pictures of young people associated with other gangs or with no known affiliation. They were all marked for death, and according to a woman from Guarero, most of them were in fact killed. In an October 2019 report, the Colombian Ombudsman pointed to mass displacement from the town, with entire Wayuu families running away lest La Zona attack them or target their children for recruitment.

“The neighbours left”, said a Wayuu woman from the town who fled to Colombia. “Guarero is abandoned. Many people have gone far away to protect their lives”. She agreed to meet me in the dusty backyard of the Maicao family that employs her as a maid. It was the evening, and the oven-like daytime heat had finally subsided. Sitting on a plastic chair, she shooed the insects attracted by the flickering light bulb away from her face. Starting in early 2018, she stated, La Zona killed more than 100 people from the town, including her nephew, who was shot execution-style in broad daylight. The killers drove away afterward without impediment, she said; in fact, the Venezuelan National Guard stopped traffic to clear their way. “This happened in front of many people”, she declared in disbelief.

From mid-2019, however, La Zona met with a far more ruthless response from both Venezuelan security forces and other armed groups, both of which resented the criminal outfit’s rise and coveted its border revenues. “All [the Venezuelan] security forces started to look for the leaders of La Zona in their houses, and they have been carrying out extrajudicial killings”, said a human rights defender based in Zulia. “They ran away over the savannahs, and now they are stealing to survive”, added a Guarero local.

The Colombian ELN guerrillas have taken the opportunity to increase their presence in Zulia. A refugee in Maicao indicated that the insurgents move only at night and hand out pamphlets in the villages they visit. The guerrillas have sought to hold meetings in Wayuu rancherias, and sworn to combat La Zona and its predatory offshoots. In the eyes of the Wayuu woman from Guarero, they could be a solution to the region’s problems, since they claim to want to protect the people.

Surrounded by handcarts, a soldier patrols the road that connects Paraguachón with Venezuela. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus

Refugees

Violence, poverty, hunger and the need for basic public services are driving people out of Zulia. Aid institutions in La Guajira regard the incoming migrants and refugees as fundamentally different from those of previous years. The first migrant wave comprised wealthy people with passports, headed for Florida, Panama, Spain and other international destinations. By 2016-2017, many middle-income families were joining the well-off in exile, travelling to South American nations such as Colombia, Chile and Peru. In the third phase, around 2018, people lacking passports and the money to travel began trekking across the border to their destinations. They became known as los caminantes (the walkers).

The exodus of the sick and unwell [has begun].

But in La Guajira, arguably, a fourth phase has begun: the exodus of the sick and unwell. Each day people arrive with worse health conditions, including chronic diseases and mental disorders, a local social worker explained to me. Many of these extremely vulnerable people are stuck after criminals or corrupt Venezuelan officials stole their belongings, money and identity papers – or they simply had no money to begin with. In a refugee shelter in Maicao, the courtyard filled up with refugees drowning out each other’s voices to tell me their stories. A woman from Maracaibo complained with evident distress that she cannot reach her family in Barranquilla, Colombia – less than 300km away – after she was robbed of all her possessions in a trocha.

For those who get stuck, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has set up a reception centre with space for 600 people, but the waiting list is long – over 4,000 at present. Tens of thousands of Venezuelans end up in informal settlements on the outskirts of towns such as Riohacha, Maicao and Uribia, where naked children with scabies play in the dirt and men walk for kilometres to haul back jerrycans of water for household needs. There is no electricity or sewage disposal. Most of the time, the inhabitants tell me, they have too little food to eat three meals a day.

For lack of a better alternative, many Venezuelans stay in these camps for some time. According to Miguel Romo, director of the Colombian migration authority’s local branch, La Guajira is unprepared for the influx. The state government has little money, and it is dogged by corruption charges: there have been thirteen governors in the last eight years, many of whom have faced serious allegations of graft. Nevertheless, he acknowledged, the Venezuelans are unlikely to leave La Guajira, and thus humanitarian aid risks becoming “a bottomless barrel”.

Many Venezuelans that cross from Zulia state into La Guajira get stuck in informal settlements in the arid region. The lack of possibilities to pay for further transport makes La Guajira a bottleneck in which many migrants and refugees are stuck. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus

The informal economy – including organised crime – absorbs Venezuelans without the means to move further inland or abroad. Exploitation and death are commonplace. Maicao is one of the most dangerous towns in La Guajira, with a murder rate over twice the national average. “We are in an environment where there are no mourners”, said a woman in Maicao who runs a foundation working with vulnerable children and women. There are so many deaths, she explains, that the living have no time to grieve. In October 2019, the Colombian police broke up a criminal network run by Venezuelans and Colombians that forced underage boys and girls into sexual slavery. Many Venezuelans, including unaccompanied minors, sleep on thin squares of cardboard in shop or office doorways. Rapes occur nightly, according to the foundation manager. “Everything has broken down here”, she said.

Local hospitals, meanwhile, are thronged with Venezuelans, who according to a doctor in Maicao make up around 70 to 80 per cent of incoming patients, some of them with conditions such as tuberculosis and HIV in terminal stages. The hospitals in La Guajira are not prepared to give the complex care that people with such illnesses require, and there is no money to transport the Venezuelan patients to better-equipped facilities elsewhere. In theory, emergency rooms should take in Venezuelans without documentation, but an aid worker admitted that many do not receive treatment. Since 2014, a Colombian migration official said, more than 100 corpses have been left unclaimed in the Riohacha morgue by families who cannot afford to pay for repatriation. 

Along with the ill and the dying come the newborn. Beside the new mother I met in the San José de Maicao hospital were numerous other pregnant Venezuelan women who were unable to give birth in Zulia’s hospitals, which often cannot perform a caesarean-style delivery, and which are now charging patients in dollars for surgical gloves, gauze pads, anaesthetic and other medical gear. The government is supposed to provide such items – indeed, all health care – for free in Venezuela. An obstetrician explains that pregnant 13- or 14-year-olds are a common sight.

“We are working blind”, says the doctor. About 80 per cent of Venezuelan women have no passport, and the poorer young women coming here are even less likely to have one. The lack of affordable prenatal care in Venezuela means that most reach the hospital in La Guajira without the vital information such checkups provide about the general health of mother and baby.

Responding to the Flight

La Guajira cannot cope with all the stranded Venezuelans’ demands. Until it is able to offer adequate employment, the black market will continue to flourish – and the attendant violence to rise – in trochas such as those around Paraguachón.

At the same time, the scale of the economic calamity in Venezuela – where dollarisation and the scrapping of import and price controls have benefited only a tiny minority in Caracas – means that Venezuelans will continue to arrive in La Guajira without the money to travel any farther. Until Venezuela’s government and opposition make progress toward a negotiated settlement that allows the economy to stabilise, foreign donors should step up their investment in health care and social services for migrants and refugees. Colombian government figures indicate that outsiders have given $397 million to tackle the Venezuelan migration crisis over the past two years, even though the UN emergency call for 2019 alone asked for nearly twice that sum. Of the total, the EU and European countries have contributed 44 per cent, of which 11 per cent comes from EU donations.

Life is harsh in La Guajira, and that affects everyone – not just the Venezuelan newcomers. Donors should help make the above services available to Colombian residents as well. If international aid serves the Venezuelans alone, the Colombians could react with xenophobic outrage, feeling that they are being treated as second-class citizens in their own country.

Until conditions improve for migrants, refugees and residents, violent crime will continue to afflict the border area. An uncontrolled frontier with no cooperation between security forces is a bonanza for organised crime and an ordeal for the defenceless. The two countries could doubtless contain the criminality far more effectively if they could find a way to mend the bilateral relations that they severed early last year. No amount of diplomatic point scoring can justify the pain that all these people are suffering.

There are two informal border crossings, or “trochas”, that connect with Paraguachón, called “la ochenta” and “la cortica”. Cars carrying contraband goods slowly bump up and down the sandy roads. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus