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Venezuelan Military Defectors Want to Join Guaido's Uprising, but They're Trapped in Colombia

“We are totally abandoned.”

by Dylan Baddour
May 2 2019, 5:21pm

VILLA DEL ROSARIO, Colombia — For the third straight day, a few hundred Venezuelan military defectors loafed around tightly guarded Colombian hotels watching helplessly through social media as the uprising to topple President Nicolas Maduro fizzled in Caracas.

Two days before, they had been hopeful. When opposition leader Juan Guaidó announced his final plan to depose Maduro, flanked by armed soldiers and declaring the backing of the military, some 50 Venezuelan defectors housed here rushed to the international bridge that connects Colombia with their home country, eager to join the fight.

“We answered their call to fight for liberty. But since then, they haven’t said one word to us."

“Today, brave soldiers, brave patriots, brave men devoted to the constitution have heeded our call,” Guaidó said Tuesday morning near a military air base in eastern Caracas. We’ve also heeded the call, and we have found ourselves in the streets of Venezuela once and for all.”

But the defectors didn’t receive any orders. Instead, Colombian authorities nervously sent them back to their hotels where they have lived for two months.

“We answered their call to fight for liberty,” said one defector, who asked for his name not to be published because Colombian authorities had asked him not to talk to media. “But since then, they haven’t said one word to us. We are totally abandoned.”

As the Venezuelan opposition again struggles to topple Maduro, the few hundred soldiers here who have switched sides wonder why they’ve been ignored by Guaidó.

“If Guaidó can’t support 1,000 military members here, how will he support an army of 300,000?”

Instead of becoming assets for the revolution, they’ve become a symbol of its disorganization and a major headache for Colombia.

“This is the most delicate situation I’ve confronted during my 14 months in this position,” said Colombia’s border manager, Felipe Muñoz, who was appointed by the Colombian president last year.

Colombia insists the defectors are non-combatant asylum-seekers who’ve left military life behind. But the Venezuelans publicly say they’re only waiting on Guaidó’s orders to fight.

Many heeded his call to defect in February, when the opposition, with U.S. backing, planned a stunt to confront Venezuela’s border guard with a convoy of U.S. humanitarian aid. Leaders said the Venezuelan military would forsake Maduro en masse, joining them and swinging the balance of power in the country.

The plan ultimately failed, but nearly 1,000 members of the Venezuelan armed forces did defect, crossing the border and turning themselves in. Ever since, they’ve been living in three local hotels, fed and housed by the Colombians and the U.N., waiting for word from the opposition leadership.

Sitting in their hotel, they follow every word of sabre-rattling from the Trump administration, which has repeatedly made threats of military force against Maduro. They live each day plugged in to the news of the Venezuelan opposition, a movement that seems to need all the help it can get. But their confidence in that movement has waned more with each day they go without hearing from their leaders back home.

“There is wide discontent and disappointment by the military men towards Guaidó,” one defector said in an interview. “If Guaidó can’t support 1,000 military members here, how will he support an army of 300,000?”

Venezuelan military defectors
Boots belonging to defected members of Venezuela's National Guard sit out to dry where several dozen Venezuelan military defectors are sleeping at a shelter run by a priest in Cucuta, Colombia, Monday, Feb. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Christine Armario)

In the first days after they arrived here, three defectors said, Colombian officials helped many contact family abroad and make plans to move on. Most of the several hundred remaining have no one to receive them outside Venezuela and have no idea how long they'll be housed in a hotel.

“We do absolutely nothing,” the defector said. “We want to fight for our country.”

Yet it is unclear what they could even do. Colombia won’t permit an insurgency to be armed in its territory. Without guns or money, this crowd of mostly skinny young men wouldn’t likely get more than a few paces past the border.

“The U.S. and Colombia are walking a very careful line with the defectors.”

“The U.S. and Colombia are walking a very careful line with the defectors,” said Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela researcher with the Washington Office on Latin America. “Both are publicly keeping some distance because they do not want to be accused of funding paramilitary activity.”

Earlier this month, the defectors on social media announced plans to march 300 miles to the Venezuelan consulate in Colombia’s capital to ask their government to involve them in its efforts to unseat Maduro. Colombian authorities shut down the plan.

For now, the defectors get three meals a day in the hotel, are allowed to leave for up to two hours daily, and are prohibited from working jobs while their asylum cases are processed. Sometimes, they said, they sit and talk about how they will “take” the nearby Venezuelan border state if fighting breaks out, even though they lack weapons and money.

Pepe Ruiz, the mayor of Villa del Rosario, a small town outside Cucuta on the Colombian border where hundreds of defectors are housed, said he had asked federal officials to move them to Bogotá.

“They present a danger here,” he said.

Speaking at a press conference Tuesday, Colombia’s foreign minister, Carlos Trujillo, said there was no limit to how long the defectors would be housed.

“We are looking for additional help in order to keep attending to them,” he said.

He also reiterated calls for more Venezuelan military to defect.

But Colombian officials said they haven’t yet secured more funding for the defectors from any additional sources.

For now, the U.N. refugee agency, whose logo appears on tents seen inside the courtyard of a hotel housing defectors, is Colombia’s main partner in supporting Venezuelans under asylum proceedings, including the defectors. A U.N. spokesperson said its aid to the Venezuelan defectors comes on the condition that they renounce their military activities.

“They present a danger here.”

The defectors represent a tiny fraction of the 1.2 million Venezuelans who’ve come to Colombia in recent years, yet they create an outsized headache. Three years of a steadily growing exodus from Venezuela’s ever-deepening collapse has left Colombia struggling to maintain public order in areas overrun by the migration.

Privately, Colombian officials have worried that discussing their support for the defectors could stir jealousy among the other migrants here who didn’t receive hotel stays and three guaranteed meals on arrival.

Josh Balser, deputy director of programs for the International Rescue Committee in Colombia, said NGOs would be wary to get involved with an issue as political as military defectors.

“It’s a very touchy subject. It’s politically charged,” he said.

Another NGO leader said the Colombian government had convened humanitarian groups and asked them to help provide cash assistance for the defectors, but the groups declined to get involved.

The Colombians say they haven’t secured any additional commitments for support of the defectors. Many analysts look to the U.S., the closest political partner to the Venezuelan opposition.

Humanitarian support for the defector group from the U.S. is “long overdue and quite logical,” said Ivan Briscoe, Latin America director for the International Crisis Group. Adam Isacson, director of defense oversight at WOLA, a human rights advocacy organization, said he wouldn’t be surprised to see it happen.

But analysts look on warily, recalling how humanitarian support for Cold War-era Central American rebels grew into an arms effort that fueled civil war in Nicaragua. An architect of that program, Elliott Abrams, now serves as the special U.S. envoy for Venezuela.

“We know that the U.S. will save us,” one defector said over lunch at a local Subway. “Lamentably we can’t do this alone.”

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Dylan Baddour is a journalist covering Venezuelan migration in Colombia.

Cover: Anti-government protesters, one carrying a homemade mortar, take cover as security forces fire tear gas to disperse demonstrators in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, May 1, 2019. Opposition leader Juan Guaidó called for Venezuelans to fill streets around the country Wednesday to demand President Nicolás Maduro's ouster. Maduro is also calling for his supporters to rally. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)