Border Drama (II): Tension and Uncertainty in San Antonio, Venezuela
Border Drama (II): Tension and Uncertainty in San Antonio, Venezuela
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

It’s a month since Venezuela closed the busy border crossing that links San Antonio del Táchira with the nearby Colombian city of Cúcuta. Since then, 1,600 Colombians have been summarily deported and at least 19,000 more have fled Venezuela in fear. Tensions between the two countries soared. On 21 September, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos held talks on the crisis, moderated by their opposite numbers from Uruguay and Ecuador, at which they agreed on a “progressive normalisation” of the situation. But the border will remain closed for “six months to a year”, according to Maduro.

Ahead of the talks, our Senior Andes Analyst Phil Gunson travelled to the Venezuelan side of the border with Colombia to examine the impact of the closure and the atmosphere in San Antonio.

The normally bustling commercial hub has been hard hit by the interruption of trade between the two countries. It was here that Venezuela first sealed the border and declared a state of emergency in four municipalities on 22 August. Since then, the measure has been extended northward from Táchira state into Zulia, east into Apure and (since the Maduro-Santos meeting) south into Amazonas, affecting almost 30 municipalities and around a million people. According to Maduro, these drastic measures were necessary to combat Colombian paramilitaries and smugglers, a version disputed by Bogotá.

For a parallel account of the disruption that Venezuela’s action has caused on the Colombian side of the border, read the field report here by our Latin America & Caribbean Program Director Javier Ciurlizza.

Since the closure of the border, queues at petrol stations have almost disappeared. CRISIS GROUP/Phil Gunson

Life Under a State of Emergency

Long before you reach the border, it is obvious that something is wrong. The narrow highway that winds for 40km through the wooded mountains that separate the state capital of San Cristóbal from San Antonio is almost empty of traffic. National Guard (GNB) checkpoints that formerly added as much as 90 minutes to your journey time now barely interrupt it. In one respect, however, the sealing of the border does appear to have achieved its objective, at least for now. With petrol smuggling out of Venezuela seemingly drastically reduced, supplies have returned to something like normal and it is no longer necessary to queue for hours just to fill your tank.

The same cannot be said of food and other basic supplies. A week after decreeing the “indefinite” closure of the border with Colombia, President Maduro declared that, “there are no more queues (for basic goods) on the Venezuelan side and there have been no murders for a week”. But by 9am on the morning I was there, dozens of people were already queuing for chicken and cooking oil outside the Cosmos supermarket in the centre of town. By midday, the army had cordoned off the block and ten soldiers with automatic rifles were controlling a queue of about 150, which later doubled in size again.

One middle-aged woman in the nearby Plaza Bolívar angrily waved a plastic bag of groceries. “They make you buy these ‘combos’,” she said. “Four items, and I only had money for three. If you don’t buy the sardines then they’ll only sell you one litre of cooking oil instead of two”. The cost of a carton of 30 eggs has now doubled to more than 1,000 bolívars. Before the border closed, it cost 500 or 600 bolívars (under a dollar at the black market rate, or nearly $10 at the highest official rate). Rice, which is almost impossible to find, is up to ten times as expensive as before.

José Rozo, a former president of the Táchira branch of Venezuela’s main employers’ federation, Fedecámaras, says the border closure has been “terrible”. Previously, he says, people had the option of shopping in Colombia for food, medicine, articles of personal hygiene, spare parts for vehicles and other items hard to find in Venezuela. “It was more expensive, but they were available”. Now that avenue has been closed.

Commercial activity on this side of the border has slowed to a trickle. In more normal times, as many as 10,000 Colombians crossed each day to work in Venezuela. Many shops are shuttered and those that open display few goods on sale. Manufacturing industry has been hit hard. At this time of year, says Rozo, “wholesale buyers from the centre (of Venezuela) would come to the border to buy textile products. But the jeans are only half finished. Either there are workers and no zips, or zips and no workers.”

Those workers used to spend part of their salary in San Antonio. Not only did they eat their lunch there – providing work for Venezuelans – but they bought groceries and other goods that are much cheaper here. Without their custom, some retail outlets could go bankrupt. In turn, that means less tax receipts for the local and national governments. Those directly involved in cross-border trade, such as the transport sector and customs agents, are hit even harder. It is estimated that there are as many as 1,600 motorcycle taxis in San Antonio alone, most of which usually rely on being able to shuttle between San Antonio and its sister city of Cúcuta on the Colombian side.

A demolished building said to be a “brothel” by the local authorities, although local people say it had closed some time ago. CRISIS GROUP/Phil Gunson

Elena’s story

One of those motorcycle taxis belongs to Julio(*), who lives in a small, dusty village outside San Antonio called El Saladito. On 22 August, just after President Maduro declared a state of emergency in the border area, Julio and his Colombian wife Elena(*) left home at 7am. They were stopped by a National Guard patrol and she was detained. “They told us not to worry”, Julio says. “They would check her papers and if all was in order she’d be released”. But Elena, who was four months pregnant, was held all day at GNB headquarters without food, water or access to a toilet. She managed to send text messages but when Julio went to complain, a soldier told him that the Red Cross had seen the detainees and everything was fine.

At 7.30pm Elena was told she was to be deported. She was taken to the Colombian border post on the international bridge and handed over with “deportada” stamped in her passport. She had been living in Venezuela for sixteen years. For the next two weeks she lived with a sister-in-law in Cúcuta. “Last week I went over via the trocha (an illegal border crossing nearby) and brought her back,” Julio says. “She had lost seven or eight kilos in weight. Now she has to hide every time the Guard comes by”.

A crudely built barrio house in La Invasión, marked with a “D” for “demolish”. CRISIS GROUP/Phil Gunson

La Invasión

Hardest hit has been the largely Colombian barrio in San Antonio known as La Invasión. There, the GNB rounded up hundreds for mass deportation, marking many of the houses with a “D” for “demolish”. Part of the barrio has already been bulldozed and one of its perimeters is guarded by tough-looking troops in the red berets of the Parachute Regiment, carrying Kalashnikov automatic rifles. “This place was full of [Colombian] paramilitaries”, says the paratrooper who searches our car.

A few minutes after I arrive, the National Guard and the police launch another raid. I count six armoured cars, a score of Landcruisers, over 30 motorcycles and two troop carriers. In all there must be more than 300 men, and some women, all heavily armed. Bringing up the rear is a sinister-looking black pick-up truck carrying members of the elite GAES unit, the GNB’s anti-kidnap and extortion force. The eight men on board wear black ski-masks or black bandanas emblazoned with a white skull.

The precise objective of this show of force is unclear. I am warned by local people not to take photographs and to hide my notebook. “Don’t you know there’s a state of emergency?” is the only response I get from a National Guard soldier when I ask what it is all about.

According to Venezuelan foreign minister Delcy Rodríguez, La Invasión is a “paramilitary settlement located in a security zone”. Nonetheless, there are abundant signs that the government was providing public services for the “paramilitaries”. Electricity poles have been erected by the state-owned Corpoelec. Public sewers were to be installed. And a group of recently-completed buildings – inaugurated last year by state governor José Gregorio Vielma Mora – houses the government’s “missions”, its flagship social welfare programs.

The latter is no more than a block away from a now-demolished building the government says was a brothel and smugglers’ safe-house. In a nearby “street” – more of a narrow dirt track between the houses – a group of Venezuelan residents sit drinking coffee as their children play around them. “What’s going to happen to us?” one quizzes local councilor José Luis Guerrero, from the opposition Popular Will (VP) party. Their houses are marked with a “D” in blue paint and they are indignant and worried. “The governor said the houses with a “D” were where the prostitutes were,” says one woman. “Can you see any prostitutes here?” No one has told them if they are to be resettled.

La Invasión is just a few hundred metres from the Táchira river that marks the border. A couple who appear to be in their 50s have come to attempt the border crossing but are turned back by the National Guard. The man says he needs medicine for an uncle who is hospitalised. He has negotiated one of the special permits needed to cross the international bridge, but it is dated tomorrow, the case is urgent and he can’t find the medicine he needs in Venezuela. “The army is down there,” says the Guard, gesturing over his shoulder. “There’s nothing we can do”.

Evidence that the government was in the process of regularising the situation in La Invasión and providing public services – in this case sewers. CRISIS GROUP/Phil Gunson


More recently, Llanojorge, a barrio that lies on a low hill south of San Antonio, was also raided. But here the expected mass deportations did not take place. Some inhabitants say the deployment of security forces has at least forced the local criminal gangs underground, for now. But they complain of abuses by the National Guard. “Didn’t they steal money from my nephew just the other day?” says 65-year-old José(*) who lives just 20 minutes’ walk from Colombia via an informal border crossing. “You keep quiet about it because if not, they arrest you”.

As for whether the border closure has improved life, as the government claims, José is scornful. “There’s a Mercal (government grocery store) here in Llanojorge”, he says. “But there’s nothing worth buying. If you want a kilo of powdered milk the queue stretches for two blocks”. He says he voted for Maduro in the 2013 presidential elections, but only because he was threatened with being sacked from his job as a garbage collector if he didn’t.

“If this (the border closure) continues”, he says, “there’ll be an uprising. There are already rumours”. Many of the government’s own supporters are unhappy too. Antonio(*), president of a community council, complains that while the government claims to speak in their name, “they never come here to talk to the people”.

Informal border crossing near Llanojorge. Colombia is a 20-minute walk away. CRISIS GROUP/Phil Gunson

Fear for the Future

According to Fedecámaras Táchira, the employers’ group, the border closure is costing $3 million a day. The real figure is surely higher because so much of the local economy is informal. The contraband trade continues, though on a smaller scale for now. It’s true that the smuggling is partly run by former Colombian paramilitaries, locally referred to as “paracos”, who once fought Colombia’s left-wing guerrillas. But they no longer pursue an ideological agenda. Nowadays they are solely interested in money and few observers seriously believe they are seeking Maduro’s overthrow, as the president claims.

This fresh tension between Venezuela and Colombia brings with it the risk of escalation and of an exodus much greater than that already seen. But within Venezuela itself, one of the most immediate threats is to the integrity of the parliamentary elections due on 6 December. Freedom of movement and assembly has been suspended along the border from Zulia to Amazonas. The general in charge of the emergency zone here recently issued a resolution banning open-air “gatherings”.

In theory, such bans do not apply to election meetings, but the actual campaign only lasts three weeks. Outside that period, the government can easily prevent the opposition holding rallies. On its own, the state of emergency will not reverse the twenty-point lead the opposition has in the polls. But it will certainly make it harder to turn that into votes, and hence parliamentary seats. If that is the intention, then San Antonio del Táchira – and the rest of the border – may not see the state of emergency lifted until next year.

This all rubs salt in the wounds of Venezuela’s border states. Had Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chávez not pulled Venezuela out of the Andean Pact in 2006, wrecking the process of integrating the Colombian and Venezuelan economies, it is possible that plans for a Border Integration Zone (ZIF) would have made progress, bringing development and modernisation to an area too long neglected by both governments. A decade later, the consequences of that neglect are more evident than ever before.

Lunchtime at a shelter run by the Colombian Red Cross in a sports stadium in Villa del Rosario. CRISIS GROUP/Javier Ciurlizza

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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