Crossing the border wasn’t new to Jean Carlos. The 27-year-old owned a small convenience store in San Antonio, Venezuela. The city sits close to Simon Bolivar bridge, Venezuela’s busiest border point with Colombia, and Jean Carlos would frequently walk across the bridge, which hovers above the Táchira River, to buy supplies in the neighboring country.
Four months ago, the bridge was bustling with activity from sunrise until dawn. Over 40,000 people crossed daily, mostly Venezuelans like Jean Carlos who were heading to Colombia to shop or go to the doctor—everyday tasks that have become almost impossible in Venezuela after years of economic collapse.
Then, in late March, the Colombian government closed the border to curb the spread of COVID-19. Since then, the only way to cross is through one of the over 80 trochas near the area. These irregular pathways across the river are controlled by a dozen illegal armed groups—paramilitary, guerrillas, narcotrafficking, and other criminal networks—and are plagued with homicides, kidnappings, and sexual abuse. With the pandemic border closure, criminal gangs have strengthened their power along the riverbeds.
Unable to find diapers and milk in San Antonio for his baby daughter, Jean Carlos ventured into Colombia through a trocha on a Saturday morning in April. Hours went by and his wife stopped getting any replies to her text messages. At some point, Jean Carlos’ phone was disconnected. Three days later, his body was found on the riverbed, his head smashed by a stone. The family believes he got robbed on his way back to Venezuela.
"[Trochas] are very dangerous, and now even more," said Jean Carlos’ cousin Alejandro, who preferred to not use his real name out of fear for his safety. "When we went to find his body, we saw people getting robbed in front of everyone—their phones, money. But what can one do? Nothing. Just put your head down."
Ironically, crossing the border has become more critical and at the same time more dangerous. Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, power and water outages have become even more painful in Venezuela’s border region. Some can last over 12 hours, making it hard for people to cook or wash their hands regularly. Store shelves are emptier and the most essential goods, if available at all, are exorbitantly expensive.
“The very little [money] we had for food is gone,” said Alejandro. “If things were bad in Venezuela before the pandemic, now it’s even worse.”
With safe border points closed due to COVID-19, civilians have been left at the mercy of criminal gangs. The closure coincides with a spike in violence in the region. From April until June, homicides went up 28 percent, while disappearances and kidnappings grew by 83 percent compared to the same period in 2019, according to Venezuelan NGO FundaRedes, which monitors human right violations in the region. The organization points at the increase in illegal activities at trochas and the expansion of criminal gangs, who are openly combatting for territory, as the main causes for the increase.
“They are killing people every day,” said Jean Carlos’ cousin. “Sometimes they throw them in the river and they’re never found. A lot of people have family members who were disappeared.”
Some people who live near the border and regularly crossed trochas in the past told VICE News that violence has worsened in the irregular pathways since COVID-19. They also said more people are getting killed. In some areas, the number of crossings has dropped because people are scared.
On the Colombian side of the border, an exponential increase in crime and homicide since June led authorities to sound the alarm. July was a “perverse” month, said Security Secretary in Cúcuta border region Sergio Martinez. Sixteen farmers were killed in the rugged rural areas near Cúcuta where state presence is weaker and coca fields are growing. The killings perpetrated in two country communities by the paramilitary group Los Rastrojos—active on both sides of the border—were particularly bloody. People were executed, some of their bodies dismembered and tossed into the river.
Victor Bautista, Border Secretary in the Cúcuta region of Colombia, said that those benefiting most from the pandemic border closure are criminal groups. For crossing, the local NGO Uniandes says these groups charge people between 10,000 and 50,000 Colombian pesos, or $3 and $13, when Venezuela’s minimum monthly wage is just $3.61. These pathways are also an easy alley for gangs to recruit new members and forced laborers who are then taken to mines, coca fields, and brothels, among other illegal activities.
Smuggling has also skyrocketed since the border closed, according to Colombian authorities and NGOs monitoring crime on the ground, and criminal groups charge higher fees for transporting goods across the river. Thousands of tons of illegally transported goods are entering Venezuela through irregular pathways every month from Colombia, according to Fundación Progresar. The bulk of the business are essential products currently unavailable inside Venezuela—mostly non-perishable essential goods like rice, oil and soap. They are a reminder of the economic meltdown the country is experiencing.
“Changing the formal border crossings for trochas is the worst ‘business’ a state can have,” Bautista said. “And in addition to that, there’s the lack of cooperation with Venezuelan authorities. That’s the most complex and critical landscape one could imagine.”
The COVID-19 lockdowns in Colombia, as well as in other countries in the region that Venezuelans fled to in recent years, like Ecuador and Peru, left thousands of migrants out of options and on the streets. This is driving a wave of returns that is now overwhelming Colombia’s border region of Cúcuta, where they get stuck at the border for days without sanitary conditions and generating a public health hazard.
La Parada, the area closest to Simón Bolívar bridge, has become a bottleneck where over 1,500 Venezuelans are currently waiting to cross back, according to local authorities. With nowhere to go, they have set up improvised tents tied to the green fences leading to the bridge, in an overcrowded space where social distancing measures cannot be implemented.
The Colombian government has set up a sanitary station as a temporary fix to the massive arrival of Venezuelans, with capacity for 500 people. They also created an isolation center for migrants who have contracted COVID-19, with 60 beds. For the last 17 days, the center has been operating at full capacity, authorities say.
Buses from all over Colombia and other countries are still arriving in Cúcuta every day, and hundreds more do it on foot, in a very weak and fragile state after weeks of walking and sleeping outdoors.
“Figures are still overflowing our capacity and we’ve never been able to have the situation fully under control,” Bautista said.
When lockdowns started, Venezuela applied an “open arms” policy and invited citizens to come back, with some 500 people crossing the border daily. But as COVID-19 infection rates grew on the Venezuelan side of the border, president Nicolás Maduro decided in early June to restrict the number of Venezuelans allowed to enter the country. For almost two months, only 300 Venezuelans were allowed three days a week, and none on the other four. After negotiations with Colombian authorities, there are now between 200 and 300 entering daily.
Cúcuta region declared the emergency state in late July, as ICU beds reached 94 percent of capacity. At Erasmo Meoz hospital, the main public hospital in Cúcuta, 34 percent of patients being attended for any kind of treatment are Venezuelan migrants—from pregnant women who crossed the border to give birth to elderly people with chronic diseases. Authorities worried about Venezuelans increasingly crossing into Colombia to seek COVID-19 treatment, and potentially spreading the virus.
The border closure has made the life of those stuck on both sides of the Colombia-Venezuela border harder. In San Antonio, across from Alejandro’s home a high school was converted into a quarantine shelter for returnees, hosting some 400 people. Locals were scared about the spread of COVID-19, he said, because some of them were fleeing the unsanitary conditions at the center and came knocking on their doors. With time, they also worried about the scarce resources available in the city.
Alejandro has witnessed how prices of the most basic goods have doubled since the border closure, because everything is brought in via trochas. But after what happened to his cousin he’s too scared to venture into Colombia by himself through one of the irregular pathways.
“The situation is terrible,” he said. “Because in San Antonio, life is the border.”