As Venezuelan migrants return from Colombia amid economic turmoil caused by the coronavirus pandemic, their own government has accused those seeking to cross illegally of "bio-terrorism" while illegal groups along the border prey on their misfortune.
In recent weeks, Venezuelan authorities have arrested some 200 people along the Colombia border for allegedly trying to enter the country illegally. And in mid-July, President Nicolás Maduro warned that anyone detained in this way could also be charged with "bioterrorism" for bringing the virus to Venezuela, despite the fact that COVID-19 is already raging in the country.
But migrants continue to cross the border along remote paths, known as "trochas," under the constant watch of criminal groups who charge fees to allow people and contraband through, a smuggler in the Venezuelan state of Táchira told InSight Crime. This is a complete reversal of the exodus of Venezuelans leaving their country in recent years, due to a worsening economic crisis.
The border state of Táchira hosts the only border point currently open between the two countries, the Simón Bolívar International Bridge. In the state the fight to stop migrants entering and to control the "trochas" has been led by Freddy Bernal, a rising political figure who was named the "Protector of Táchira" by Maduro in 2018. Bernal has also led campaigns to drive criminal gangs from the border, although there are allegations that he has made deals to allow other armed actors, such as the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), to operate there.
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Below, InSight Crime explores three dynamics affecting migrants at the Venezuela-Colombia border during the coronavirus:
1. Returnees Accused of "Bioterrorism"
More than 1,000 Venezuelan citizens are waiting near international border crossings to enter their own country legally. Their only alternative is paying the criminal groups who control remote border trails.
In early July, Colombian newspaper La Opinión reported that some Venezuelan officials had allied themselves with criminal groups to prevent the passage of migrants, forcing many to pay for illegal crossings, with the winnings then being split between the gangs and authorities. Local residents near the border interviewed by InSight Crime confirmed this.
But while some migrants may have the resources to pay off both the officials and criminal groups, most must wait to cross legally. This leaves them facing precarious, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in makeshift camps, increasing their risk of catching and spreading coronavirus.
Instead of trying to help more citizens enter the country legally, the Maduro government has decided to scapegoat the migrants for allegedly spreading the virus. In a televised address, Maduro stated that "an infected trochero (person using the trails) is a bioterrorist" and that "those who cross [back home] illegally...are killing your families. The Colombian virus has sneaked everywhere, and is killing good people.” He later apologized for these remarks but did not rule out closing the border completely.
2. Armed Groups Cash in on Migrant Misfortune
Despite Maduro's threats about the risks of illegal entry, contraband does not appear to have dipped. One smuggler who buys merchandise in Cúcuta, Colombia and resells it in Táchira explained to InSight Crime that Venezuelan migrants cross the trails at dawn. The fees per person can range from 10,000 to 50,000 Colombian pesos ($3-14), depending on the goods they bring with them, the place of passage and if they want to bring a vehicle.
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The money is divided between the criminal groups who patrol the trails and Venezuelan military personnel who stand guard at crossings, according to the smuggler. He added that he sometimes pays off Colombian police officers as well.
According to media reports and InSight crime interviews, the flow of contraband across the border has not really been affected by coronavirus controls, remaining at similar levels since March. However, the passage of migrants has dwindled with only those with enough money able to return home to Venezuela.
With the COVID-19 cases spiking across the region, including in Colombia which has the largest proportion of Venezuelans abroad, it is likely more will face threats for simply trying to go home.
3. Freddy Bernal, the "Protector"
Since being named "Protector of Táchira" in 2018 by Maduro, Bernal has been in charge of enforcing the government's agenda in the state. This has made him the point man for the persecution of migrants during the pandemic.
Bernal has frequently painted migrants crossing illegally as a threat to the country and threatened those smuggling them across with up to ten years in prison, according to El Impulso. Other officials have called migrants crossing the trails "fascists," "camouflaged coup-plotters," and "biological weapons," according to Human Rights Watch.
On July 22, he announced that 36 migrant smugglers and 209 migrants had been arrested and that all had been turned over to authorities, although he did not specify in which timeframe they had been caught.
The crackdown, however, appears to be selective. Venezuelan authorities have mostly targeted trails under the control of the Colombian paramilitary and drug gang Los Rastrojos, according to one expert who has studied the security situation along the border, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity.
Bernal has developed a seemingly personal vendetta against Los Rastrojos, who have controlled much of the contraband and migrant trafficking in Táchira. He has been filmed, alongside members of Venezuela's controversial Special Action Forces (Fuerza de Acciones Especiales – FAES), exploring the "trochas" in Táchira and allegedly destroying equipment used by the Rastrojos to transport people along the river dividing the two countries. He also frequently posted on Twitter about arrests and successful raids against the group.
Yet he has not showed the same enthusiasm in going after other groups. In the past, InSight Crime has reported on the ELN, trying to take over Táchira's trails from Los Rastrojos. And according to Miguel Morffe, the government has actively helped these groups in exchange for a cut of their illicit profits.
"I see this reconfiguration of power, the social control the Venezuelan government wants to project along the border...as having facilitated the protection and actions by the ELN and FARC dissidents," Morffe told Colombian newspaper, La Opinión
Bernal has been tied to both of these groups. In September 2019, Colombia's foreign minister, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, told a meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) that Bernal was responsible for helping the ELN build up its operations in Venezuela.
Bernal has categorically denied these claims.