Juan was completing a work assignment in a mountainous area of Táchira, the Venezuelan state bordering Colombia. There he came across a group of people with bags and suitcases. They asked him where to get down to the border. It is not the first he has come across in recent weeks. Migrants who leave, or leave the country again on foot, are multiplying again after seven months of quarantine by covid-19. In the first months of confinement, thousands of people returned due to lack of resources and fear of the disease. Now, the crisis in Venezuela expels them once again. The closure has led to an almost total paralysis of the country to which fuel shortages, the collapse of public services and social and political tension have been added.
Every day Juan, who prefers to keep his name hidden for safety, sees groups of people who left their homes on foot to another country. More than five million have left in search of opportunities in the last six years, according to the United Nations estimate, and around two have settled in neighboring Colombia. He has documented them for the Street Newspaper, a community medium in the border city of San Antonio del Táchira, and through social networks reports on what is happening in the tense binational corridor. "Days ago we saw the entry of compatriots, but since the economy in Colombia was reactivated, people think it better to go back and others are going to try because things are very bad here," says the 40-year-old reporter. In Venezuela, 96% of the population barely has an income to eat and the minimum wage, that is, the one received by the majority of the active population, is less than a dollar, the lowest in the region.
Juan has interviewed entire families who walk from the states of Yaracuy, Barinas, Valencia, Caracas, even from Barcelona, on the eastern coast of the country 850 kilometers from the border. "The history of the walkers was something that was seen from the Colombian side," says Juan. “People who emigrated came to San Antonio on buses and the terminal was abuzz. Now they have no money and there are no buses due to quarantine and lack of gasoline. They have to walk ”.
One of those who crossed was Migdalia Tabares, 34, who was with her four children between seven and 14 years old. The woman had returned to Venezuela in August, after spending five years in the city of Bucaramanga. He intended to stay in his country. “When I saw everything, that the bolivar (the local currency) does not exist, that the food is very expensive and that my two young children are so skinny, I decided to go back and take them because they couldn't continue there with my mother. Things are horrible there, ”he says by phone one Friday morning before going out to sell the empanadas and coffee with which he survives in Colombia. They walked 21 days between Maracay and Cúcuta. In some sections they asked for a ride, in others the five slept on the side of the road.
The border municipalities of Venezuela have been in strict quarantine since March, with a curfew that runs from four in the afternoon until ten in the morning. The multiplication of military and police posts on the main roads to control the confinement has made hikers take steep mountain roads to evade the police and possible extortion to allow them to continue their journey. It can be an eight-hour mountain walk between San Cristóbal, the capital of the Táchira State, and San Antonio, the last Venezuelan city before crossing to Cúcuta. Even so, Juan assures that hundreds arrive every day.
The border remains closed by the authorities, but through the trails or informal roads the movement of migrants continues, who must pay between 10 and 30 dollars to the irregular groups that control those hundreds of crossings. "If they arrive at dawn, or have to wait to pass because there is a problem on the trails, they stay sleeping in the squares in San Antonio, on the street, you can see them everywhere," says the neighbor and reporter. Photos of walkers on both sides of the border have also spread on social media. This week the scene of a gandola – a large truck with a trailer – was seen giving dozens of Venezuelans a 70-kilometer ride between Cúcuta and Pamplona. Local newspapers reported that about 600 Venezuelans pass through that Colombian city every day, entire families with children, whom an already consolidated solidarity network helps with a plate of soup and water.
In January 2019, the Venezuelan comedian José Rafael Guzmán accompanied the walkers on their pilgrimage between Cúcuta and Bogotá, a journey of 570 kilometers and seven days on roads that left many blisters on their feet and he, the English, raw . The documentary Hikers, which collected what he lived through in those days, premiered a few weeks ago on a network in the United States.
Then Guzmán found the same impulse to undertake a migration on foot. “The main motivation was to eat. In Venezuela you do not get anything and what you get is too expensive, the salary is not enough for anything, "he says from Mexico City, where he emigrated after they censored the humor programs on television and radio in which he worked in Venezuela and received prison threats for messages disseminated on their social networks that allegedly violated the so-called Law against Hate, with which opponents of the Government of Nicolás Maduro have been imprisoned.
The road is one of hardships, says Guzmán, although his intention at first was to make humor. “On the way you come across any kind of calamity, they can make you want to cry about various things. But when you have been walking with them for two or three days, you are one more. I did not get blisters on my feet like the rest, but I did get one diaper rash wild. I ended up with my crotches in fire and blood from so much walking ”, he says. "There is a lot of fatigue and pain and you have to deal with your demons because there is no way back."
Guzmán drew some lessons from the walk, which is a minimal portion of the journey made by tens of thousands of Venezuelans out of the millions who have emigrated. Those who emigrate in this way should bring food with a high concentration of calories such as bananas or nuts, because there may be a day and a half distance between a shelter. On the highway, the constant flow of Venezuelans has generated a network of communications and support that are essential along the way. The hardest stretch is the Berlin Páramo and there it is important to heed the advice of the locals. Guzmán arrived at that point in the journey when there was still the wake of the news of a Venezuelan who was with a baby and died of cold in one of the common frosts in the area. "The girl wanted to continue even though they had told her it was better to wait." Going in small groups makes it easy to get a lucky ride. He had to travel with five other people in the luggage compartment of a bus for six hours: "I don't know how we don't die from the monoxide."
Abuse of returnees
At the end of September, the director of Migration Colombia, Juan Francisco Espinosa, announced the extension of the closure of the borders until November 1, which they planned to lift on October 1. He then pointed out that of the 100,000 Venezuelans who had returned to their country during the pandemic, 40,000 intended to return. He calculated that with the opening of the crossings, more than 200,000 Venezuelans will reach the neighboring country. However, flow restrictions have also been imposed by the Maduro regime, which has attributed the increase in coronavirus cases in the country to the return of infected people in Colombia, whom it has called "bioterrorists." In Venezuela they are subjected to a mandatory quarantine in 271 isolation centers, the so-called Comprehensive Social Care Posts.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) and John Hopkins University denounced this week in a report the abuses committed by the Government with the more than 130,000 returnees during the pandemic in shelters in unsanitary conditions and with little food, where the appropriate protocols are not applied. . "Sending returnees to unhealthy and overcrowded quarantine centers, where it is impossible to comply with social distancing measures, is a perfect formula to spread covid-19," says Kathleen Page, a doctor and academic at the Faculty of Johns Hopkins University Medicine. "Requiring them to stay there for more than the established 14-day period only increases their risk of infection and does not contribute to any reasonable public health purpose."
Venezuela, according to the official registry, has confirmed more than 86,000 cases of coronavirus and adds 731 deaths in seven months. The limited diagnostic capacity, with only two laboratories enabled in the country, puts the figure into question. In September, mathematical models from the Academy of Mathematical and Natural Physical Sciences warned that the epidemic was expanding and projected more than 14,000 daily cases by the end of the year. However, the authorities have reported a decrease in cases in their reports, which have never exceeded 1,500 infections per day. Maduro even speaks that by December, when he hopes to renew Parliament in a questioned election, more economic sectors will be reactivated.