More than 110,000 Venezuelan migrants were forced to return to their country, according to numbers from Migración Colombia, due the economic and social crisis produced by the pandemic. The story of María Eugenia López (*) is just one of the many stories of discrimination, mistreatment and stigmatization that many Venezuelans suffer trying to return.
Her name was changed for security reasons.
Return to Venezuela a nightmare
While trying to seek stability and a better quality of life for my three daughters, I unwittingly exposed them to the harrowing conditions along the way.
The names of the mother and her children are withheld to protect their identity. It took the family nearly one month to return home to Venezuela from Colombia.
VALENCIA, Carabobo, Venezuela — The first thing I thought that night on the South Highway outside Bogotá is that I was a bad mother.
While trying to seek stability and a better quality of life for my three daughters, I unwittingly exposed them to the harrowing conditions trying to return to Venezuela.
The return begins
I went alone to Colombia from Valencia, capital of the state of Carabobo, Venezuela, in search of a better future for my family. Once I arrived in Bogotá, I got a job in a bakery and managed to raise money to bring my mother and daughters. The pandemic left me without a job and forced us to make the decision to return to our country and city of origin.
With the arrival of Covid-19, I was left without income and we were kicked out of our apartment in Bogotá. After months of hard work, I had to sell everything that I had worked so hard to get at bargain prices. I barely got 200,000 Colombian pesos, less than $300, to buy tickets to Venezuela. I also got non-perishable food for the voyage. Buying those tickets was a big risk because the Colombian government had prohibited the transit of migrants within its territory.
The tickets I obtained were for an urban bus service that offered to take Venezuelan migrants to the Colombian department of Arauca on the border with Venezuela. Normally, buses with immigrants used to reach the city of Cúcuta at the Santander department but the Venezuelan government did not allow people to enter through that border.
We started the journey from the Fontibón neighborhood in Bogotá, but soon the bus broke down and was stopped on the South Highway outside the city. They told us that they could not continue the trip and that they would leave us there. In desperation to get the money back, I made my way to a nearby police station. When police officers found out that they were transporting migrants they ordered them to leave the place and did nothing to get my money back.
I met three young Venezuelans among the group of 40 who had a place to return and spend the night. They offered to share space in the house with us and warned me that there were more people there. It was either that or my family was going to be sleeping on the street. I offered God a silent prayer and went with the boys.
When we got home, there were 28 people in two rooms. I couldn’t sleep at all that night as I was compelled to keep an eye on my daughters. The next day, the young men found another bus. I took the opportunity to ask my daughters’ father for help and he managed to send me some money to pay for the new bus tickets.
A new hope
Like the previous transport, this one offered to take me to the department of Arauca. As we left, the police stopped all of the buses leaving Bogotá to prevent illegal mobilization.
We stayed there for three days, sleeping on the bus and eating anything we could get. Some people had a little more money and bought food for the children.
Colombian Migration officials arrived accompanied by staff from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). They delivered food and grooming kits. They also offered to take us to a shelter, but I refused. They insisted, but I knew that in the middle of the quarantine the shelters were overflowing with people.
I joined a group demanding to let us pass. I also participated in prayer chains on the highway. We held hands and began to pray to God to help us. Of the dozens of buses that arrived at the toll booth, only five remained, including ours. In total, we were about 200 Venezuelans. On the third day, the Colombian government granted the migrants permission to continue their journey.
A destination we never get to
All the buses were heading towards Cúcuta except ours. We were heading to Arauca but we never made it. The driver tried to pass through two different towns — Sogamoso and Pajarillo – and in both, the police prevented the passage because guerrillas had taken the region.
They allowed us to get off the bus. Many police and military members gave us water, fruit, food, and clothing for the children. I am grateful for the Colombians who showed humanity for the situation we were going through. After 42 hours of travel, the driver decided to go to Cúcuta.
By this time I was frustrated and exhausted. My daughters were tired and cried continuously. The youngest, 3, asked me to go back to “her” house. My mom helped as much as she could. I really don’t know what would have happened to me on that trip without her. I even started thinking I should have accepted the refuge they offered us in Bogotá.
We arrived in Cúcuta at 9 p.m. and only there was I able to get off the bus. I was amazed when I saw there were about 2,000 people on the Simón Bolívar bridge. They had been waiting for five days for the authorization of the Venezuelan government to cross the border and enter the country. Buses kept arriving. Despite everything, I was able to feed my daughters thanks to the support of UNHCR.
I soon realized that we would never cross the border legally. The next day I got up early to look for the “trocheros.” They are men who guide migrants through the “trochas” or illegal borders. At 11 a.m., I had already agreed on a price of 5000 Colombian pesos, $ 1.37 US, for each of us.
The Simón Bolívar bridge is perpendicular to the border and the Táchira River that divides both countries. It is a wooded area and the river is particularly dangerous and treacherous. Many people have died trying to cross it through secret spots and artisan bridges. I knew the risk but we had to take that chance.
All the news of rapes, drownings, murders, and other misfortunes that the media have reported went through my mind. But we had no other options.
A dangerous entrance
The guides led us away from the bridge and into a vacant lot that adjoined the border. These men carried our luggage towards Venezuela through the river, which, fortunately, was not swollen. My mother went first, then my two biggest girls, and I passed with my baby in my arms. We reached the shore and started walking through the forest among narrow dirt roads. Officially we were in Venezuela.
We had been walking for about 15 minutes when someone shouted that the “Paracos” (paramilitaries) were arriving. My mom, my daughters, and I ran as fast as we could. The paramilitaries came on horseback, so they caught us easily. They demanded 20,000 Colombian pesos, $5.50 US, per person to let us pass. I didn’t have that, so I gave them almost everything I had and the food that we brought from Bogotá. They made us run and we continued the walk when we eventually lost sight of them.
After crossing a small bridge, the guerrillas received us. Although the “trocheros” warned me to lie and say that I did not come from Bogotá, I decided to take the risk of telling the truth. I was afraid of lying and losing my temper in front of these men. I told them that I came from Bogotá with my family and that the “Paracos” had already taken all our money and food. We had nothing more to give them.
In an hour that seemed like an eternity, they kept us in custody until the head of the guerrillas arrived to “welcome” us to Venezuela. My family and I were very scared, but they actually treated us well. They told us that they would take care of us and gave the children water. They also got us a pick-up truck and sent us all to the bus terminal in San Antonio del Táchira, the town closest to the border.
There were about 600 people in the terminal. My family and I had our temperatures taken and tested for Covid-19. We all turned out negative. There, we were able to take a very short bath and at 5 p.m., people from the government brought us lunch. The difference between the food that UNHCR gave us and that we received from the Venezuelan government was remarkable. The government gave us a cup of white rice and two tablespoons of cooked chicken pieces with no color or flavor, for the five of us.
Eleven days in the first shelter
At 2 a.m., we were woken up to get on a bus. At first, I was relieved and thought that I could finally go to Valencia, but it wasn’t like that. After an hour and a half of travel, they took us to the city of San Cristóbal, to the Universidad de Los Andes, where they improvised a shelter for returning migrants.
The mayor of the city received us there. He warned us that we were arriving at that time in the morning because the local community rejected the travelers as everyone was afraid of Covid-19.
I tried to rest with my daughters, but that didn’t last long. As soon as dawn broke, the neighbors came to the university gates to shout and throw stones, which produced a confrontation between migrants and locals. Trembling with fear, I locked myself with the girls and my mother in one of the classrooms. The Venezuelan national guards got scared and left us alone in the middle of the conflict.
Late in the morning, we managed to negotiate with the neighbors and they understood that the authorities left us there against our will. Their attitude changed radically. The problem is that my daughters still had not eaten. At 6 p.m., I could not bear my youngest daughter’s crying with hunger and I approached the fence of the university and begged a woman for food. She came back in 20 minutes with six cheese-filled buns. In addition to my children, there were about eight others in the classroom that we were occupying. How could I feed my little ones and leave others hungry? I distributed a piece of bread to all the children.
The acts of generosity continued: other neighbors brought us more food. As there was no running water at the university, the authorities brought cisterns and filled several tanks of water for us to drink and bathe with. The same woman who gave me the bread and cheese also gave me a bucket to carry the water to the bathroom.
We stayed in that shelter for 11 days and authorities never allowed us to leave. I could barely sleep. I felt like I was in a nightmare.
My sick daughter
My youngest baby got diarrhea. I saw her lose strength as the hours passed and none of the military members there did anything even though I begged them for help. The doctors who were going to do Covid tests would not treat my daughter. All I had was a Colombian cellphone and there was no Wi-Fi, so I begged the other travelers to lend me a cell phone with a Venezuelan line to call the girls’ father.
We managed to coordinate with travelers who had Colombian pesos in cash so he deposited the funds and they gave me the money. Venezuelan money is no longer used throughout the border area.
I was forced to turn to criminal gangs that were organized at the university. Unfortunately, they got together and capitalized on the food and supplies that the neighbors sent us. Everything passed through their hands and they controlled it, so I had to buy what we needed at exorbitant prices.
I gave the gang members the 50,000 thousand pesos that I managed to raise (or $14 US) for two compotes, a package of soda crackers, and a small juice. I don’t know if it is because they saw me so distressed with my daughter, but they also gave me a package of cornmeal and oil. I was able to cook something for my daughter on a stove that we installed in the outer area of the university. She was almost fully recovered from her illness after six days but she lost a lot of weight.
Every night I prayed it would be the last. When the last day finally arrived, the mayor brought the children hot dogs just for a photo op. They created a PR campaign at the expense of the migrants.
The night before leaving for our city, we were tested for Covid-19 and the results were negative. The government’s political police (Bolivarian National Intelligence Service or Sebin) also arrived. They took photos of me with my ID.
At 2 p.m. the next day, the government-designated buses arrived. The trip usually lasts 10 hours. It took us two days because the military forces detained us for at least two hours at each checkpoint. We were essentially not allowed to get off the bus until we got to our city. I was even forced to cover myself with sheets to “go to the bathroom” in containers that we then threw out the bus window.
A new dirty and waterless shelter
Two days later we arrived in Valencia. I was crying with tears of joy, but the cheer didn’t last. They took us to the Olympic Village, which had been converted into a refuge, and I then realized that we had to spend 15 more days of quarantine there. The authorities repeated the tests and the result was negative yet again.
They did not have anything to eat for the group as the staff was not prepared for our arrival. At 11 p.m. they arrived with a container of meat and rice for each of us. We were even able to get seconds. For the first time in days, my daughters went to bed with full stomachs.
Finally, they allowed us to go up to the rooms. I had never seen such a dirty room as everything was full of dust and stains. The bathrooms were useless. I couldn’t imagine living another 15 days in that deplorable state with my daughters. We couldn’t even bathe or clean because there was no water.
The next day, I asked my fellow travelers for another call and I contacted the girls’ father who was in town to ask him for something to eat and water to drink because it was almost noon and they still hadn’t brought us food. He tried to give me what I asked for, but the authorities did not allow him to speak to me. They did not even agree to allow the girls to receive food.
I have no words to explain the immense joy I felt when, at 5 p.m. that day, the authorities told us to collect our bags. They were waiting for a group of 600 people infected with Covid-19 who arrived from Peru and Ecuador and did not have space to receive them.
Home sweet home
I packed everything and got the girls ready to go as quickly as possible. Four hours later they organized us by municipalities and took us by buses to areas near our houses. I had to walk for 30 minutes to get to my sister’s house.
They asked me if I would leave the country again. The truth is I do not know. If I left, I would have to have the security of a stable job, because I don’t want my daughters to go through the same thing again.
The non-governmental organization, CEPAZ, denounced that returned migrants suffer from widespread violence and persecution. In fact, President Nicolás Maduro imposed a discriminatory government narrative by calling migrants “bioterrorists” due to the danger of contagion and transmission of Covid-19.
They were even blamed for the increase in the number of positive cases.
Cepaz also highlighted the inhuman conditions to which they are subjected: many sleep on the ground, overcrowded, have no access to water and food, and those who complain are humiliated and beaten.
In fact, the Attorney General of the Republic, Tarek William Saab, pointed out that migrants suffer because of “karma” for leaving Venezuela.
According to the UN Agency for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of Venezuelans who left their country has reached almost five million.
The Latin American countries that host more citizens of this nationality are Colombia 1.3 million, followed by Peru, with 768,000, Chile 288,000, Ecuador 263,000, Argentina 130,000, and Brazil 168,000.
The Platform for Coordination for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela indicates that almost 2.5 million Venezuelans obtained residency in another country of the world, while there are more than 800 thousand cases in process and 145 thousand requested asylum.
Luisa Panagua is a Venezuelan journalist. During her journalistic career, she has always covered the political, economic, and social sources in her country. Her interest is to reveal the deficiencies, difficulties, and struggles of ordinary people and how government policies impact on the daily lives of citizens.