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Inside the violent battle on the Venezuela-Colombia border

Venezuelan troops are firing rubber bullets at protesters hurling Molotov cocktails and rocks.

by Megan Janetsky
Feb 25 2019, 10:15pm

CÚCUTA, Colombia — A cloud of tear gas hung over the Ureña bridge on the Colombia-Venezuela border and rubber bullets littered the ground as security forces loyal to President Nicolás Maduro clashed with Venezuelan resistance members — some as young as 6 — hurling makeshift Molotov cocktails and rocks.

Smoke still wafted off the smoldering trucks loaded with now-charred food and medicine on the bridge where Saturday the Venezuelan opposition attempted to push 280 tons of “humanitarian aid” into the country. The result was hours of violent clashes between resistance members and Maduro’s forces on bridges linking Venezuela and Colombia, which left more than 300 injured and, on the Brazil border, four dead.

At some point during the conflict, several trucks full of aid burned as well.

The clashes came after a weeks-long campaign by Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó to break Maduro’s military blockade preventing international aid from getting into the country.

In Cúcuta, the heart of the standoff, young resistance members continued to fight with Venezuelan forces Monday morning, some saying they won’t stop until the food and medicine gets through.

The smoking ruins of the boxes of aid nearby marked the deterioration of a plan that had symbolized hope for millions of Venezuelans in the midst of humanitarian crisis.

But the outbreak was met with harsh criticism by world aid leaders. “People have been shot and killed,” said Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Others have reportedly received wounds from which they will never completely recover, including losing eyes.”

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An anti-Maduro protester suffering from tear gas fired by Venezuela's national guard on the Simon Bolivar Bridge in Cúcuta. Photo: Daniel Vergara/VICE News

As the violent stalemate stretched into Monday, the question lingered for the hundreds injured and many more Venezuelans trapped in Cúcuta: What did this achieve?

For Jeny Rodriguez, the answer was: not much. The 38-year-old Venezuelan mother had crossed the bridge two days before hoping, first, to get milk for her starving 2-year-old and, second, to respond to Guaidó’s call for a “humanitarian avalanche” of volunteers to push the aid through.

“We can’t even return to our own country because we’re considered traitors.”

Now she was among hundreds of Venezuelans stuck on the Colombian side of the border, with only a dirty white shirt tied over her face to protect her from the gusts of tear gas blowing over the Ureña bridge, where she’d slept the night before.

She wanted to go home, but she was scared that if she tried to cross the border, Venezuelan military forces would kill her.

“We thought we were going to push through humanitarian aid,” Rodriguez said. “And now we can’t even return to our own country because we’re considered traitors of our homeland, simply because we want to respect rights of our people to receive food and medicine.”

Still, she wanted to keep fighting.

“My family is waiting for this aid, for liberty, and the fall of this regime,” she said.

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Venezuelan resistance fighters carry a crate of Molotov cocktails in Cúcuta. (Photo: Daniel Vergara/VICE News)

The aid delivery was a bold move by Guaidó and the opposition, in the face of Venezuelan forces who remain steadfastly loyal to Maduro. But it also seemed there was no clear plan for distributing the aid, if it got through, to millions of starving people.

Guaidó is banking on Venezuelans like Rodriguez to stick by him, saying Sunday that he was leaving “all options open to achieve the liberation of our homeland.”

U.S. politicians backing Guaidó, meanwhile, seized on the border violence as a potential pretext for international intervention. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican and a major voice on U.S. policy toward Venezuela, said the clashes “opened the door to various potential multilateral actions.”

“As President Trump has made clear, all options are on the table.”

Vice President Mike Pence announced in a meeting with world leaders in Bogotá, Colombia, Monday that the U.S. would slap another round of sanctions on Maduro’s government. He called on leaders to not be “bystanders in Venezuela’s struggle for freedom.”

“As we continue to bring economic and diplomatic pressure to bear on the Maduro regime, we hope for a peaceful transition to democracy,” Pence said. “But as President Trump has made clear, all options are on the table.”

It was dangerous rhetoric, said Geoff Ramsey, assistant director of Venezuela at the Washington Office of Latin America, suggesting it might spark conflict that could be “costly, bloody and could last for decades.”

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Venezuelan and Colombian protesters riding aboard trucks with humanitarian aid bound for Venezuela on Feb. 23, 2019. (Photo: Daniel Vergara/VICE News)

The mostly U.S.-donated aid has been the center of a political controversy. The Venezuelan opposition and the United States dubbed the convoys “humanitarian aid,” but aid groups and analysts alike have expressed skepticism.

In the lead-up to Saturday’s expected conflict, organizations like the Red Cross repeatedly warned about the dangers of politicizing the aid and trying to push it through border checkpoints where it would surely come up against strong force.

Ramsey said Saturday’s push was more of a politically motivated spectacle, something to test the loyalty of the military in the wake of Guaido’s recent rise. “The entire thing was about optics from the beginning,” he said. “[Saturday] was very clearly about framing the narrative.”

As world leaders discussed possible responses to Saturday’s show of force and the prospect of a military intervention, the European Union bluntly rejected the idea and the Spanish government said they would “roundly condemn” any foreign military action.

But on the Colombian border, people were just picking up the pieces from Saturday’s outbreak.

“I felt this deep sadness, because when they burned the first truck, it had medicine for people sick with cancer, on dialysis, pregnant women,” said Jiliana Guerrero, a 30-year-old Venezuelan among those who tried to push the aid through.

“It had food for malnourished children in Venezuela, where we are basically dying from hunger.”

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Opposition fighters clash with Venezuelan national guard on the Simón Bolivar Bridge on Feb. 23, 2019. (Photo: Daniel Vergara/VICE News)

On the nearby Simon Bolivar bridge — where, before the clashes, 42,000 Venezuelans had flooded across every day — the scene was eerily quiet. Medical clinics and kitchens that served thousands of migrants daily declined to comment on the aid, but said they temporarily closed their facilities while things settled back to normal.

Heavily armed Colombian police and military waited at the ready as migrants with luggage hefted on their backs sprinted through illegal border crossings, their normal pathway to home blocked off.

“I have my little boy, my kids waiting for me. They need me,” said Gabolina Delgado, a Venezuelan mother among a group of migrants preparing to cross back home through a hidden pathway after months separated from her family in Peru.

“But I’m scared what I will find in my country,” she said.

Cover: Anti-Maduro protesters clash with pro-government troops on the Simón Bolivar Bridge on the border between Venezuela and Colombia on Feb. 23, 2019. (Photo: Daniel Vergara)