Maria leans on a wooden plank outside her shelter -- a collection of corrugated metal, errant bricks, and plastic tarps salvaged from the ruins of an international airport in the middle of Colombia's Guajira desert.
"It is very hard here. There's robbery, there are problems with drugs and insecurity," Maria, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, told InSight Crime.
Hers is one of an estimated 3,000 families that have made their homes on its abandoned runway, forming La Pista -- one of the largest informal settlements in Latin America.
But this hot, dusty landscape is also a refuge.
Like many of La Pista's other residents, Maria arrived as she fled a mysterious and indiscriminately violent Venezuelan armed group known as La Zona. Stories like hers demonstrate how organized crime, as well as more visible political and economic factors, drive the region's biggest migration crisis.
But the phenomenon remains underexplored, and without further systematic research, migrants' anecdotal data is all there is to go off of, leaving the larger picture incomplete.
A Life Interrupted
Maria's story is one of repeated displacement, a life uprooted first by Venezuela's economic and political crisis, and then again by the armed groups that emerged amid the chaos.
She once lived in Venezuela's capital, Caracas, where she met her husband and gave birth to two of her daughters. But by 2017, years of corruption and state mismanagement collided with plummeting oil prices to bring Venezuela's economy to its knees.
Pregnant with her third daughter and struggling to obtain basic goods and food, Maria packed up her family and left Caracas in 2018. She had heard that things were better back in her hometown of Paraguaipoa, a small, primarily Indigenous desert community close to Venezuela's border with Colombia.
And at first, they were. "We were able to buy food. I got help from the community, and we set up a little shop," Maria said.
But this stability was short-lived, disrupted by a group of armed men calling themselves La Zona.
Paraguaipoa's residents and La Zona's victims told InSight Crime that the men appeared suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, hooded, heavily armed, and well-financed. They quickly took control of the town and surrounding areas, setting up checkpoints, and began extorting and terrorizing locals.
They also forcibly recruited youths as young as 16 years old, threatening their families and even killing those who refused to join.
In a border region accustomed to armed groups fighting for control over criminal economies, La Zona stood out for the sheer brutality and scope of its violence, according to the residents it displaced as well as those who stayed.
"It was terrifying. There were men with guns out all the time, they would stop you and ask you what you were doing, where you were going," Maria told InSight Crime.
This abuse and murder took place in plain view of security forces. Some of La Zona's checkpoints sat side-by-side with those of security officials, and local residents told InSight Crime that the armed group operated with impunity -- and even help -- from authorities.
As for Maria, she hesitated, clearly nervous, before saying, "I don't want to say where they came from. But people say the government sent them to 'clean up' the area, then lost control of them."
By late 2019, media reports suggest that La Zona had turned on its backers and begun attacking government and security officials. By then, Maria had finally had enough.
"You could see someone get killed in the town square. I didn't want my daughters growing up seeing that. So I left," she said.
Maria's husband refused to go. "He asked me, 'What will we live off? How? What will we eat?'" she said.
So, she left him to travel alone with her young daughters to Maicao, a city in the Colombian border state of La Guajira. She had family there and had heard there was a piece of land where people could settle and the government helped migrants.
The Making of La Pista
Maria was one of the earliest Venezuelan migrants to arrive at what would become known as La Pista. She fought to build her home there, unknowingly preparing the way for waves of other families who would follow in her footsteps, many of them also fleeing La Zona.
Upon arriving, Maria was able to leave her daughters with an aunt who had a house in Maicao, while she went about building a shelter on the runway of the city's abandoned airport.
"We made holes in the ground, gathered cardboard, sticks, and plastic … my sister and I did it alone. It was hard work," she said.
The new arrivals faced a hostile welcome, both from the few hundred largely Colombian families who were already squatting around the abandoned airport tower and from the local authorities.
"The police came and tried to kick us out. They kicked down our shelters, pulled us out, threatened us," she said.
But the fear of La Zona kept Maria fighting to retain her place in La Pista.
"I said to my sister: "Let them do what they want, but I'm going to fight because I'm not going back to Paraguaipoa." I'm staying here with my daughters so I can give them a different kind of life … without the armed groups, without my girl coming home from school and telling me she saw someone get shot," Maria recounted.
So, Maria rebuilt her shelter, slowly replacing plastic and cardboard, which fell apart every time it rained, with sturdier materials. And soon, other refugees like her began to arrive.
An Imperfect Refuge
Since Maria's arrival, La Pista has grown into a vast settlement of more than 13,000 people, many of whom have fled armed groups. Without protection from the state, they fear that violence could find them again.
While overall migration flows from Venezuela dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic, La Pista's population grew tenfold. A complete absence of official data makes it difficult to estimate the portion of those who were fleeing La Zona, but many of the stories heard by InSight Crime echo Maria's.
Maria said the newcomers came little by little. Many were despondent women who had walked all the way from Venezuela, sometimes pregnant or with small children.
La Pista slowly became a more welcoming place for the new arrivals. Still, as the community grew, so did its needs. Local authorities have neither the resources nor the will to address them.
La Pista's residents told InSight Crime that their communities are vulnerable: They lack basic opportunities and services, which drives low-level crimes of desperation like robberies and drug addiction, as well as prostitution. Yet, there is no protection.
"The police don't come to knock down our houses or threaten us anymore. But if we need their help -- if there is a fight or disorder -- and we call them, they tell us to go back to our country. They say that they are not here to take care of us migrants, that we should take care of ourselves over there in Venezuela, that we should leave quietly, that this is not ours," said Maria.
Women and children make up the vast majority of La Pista's population and its community leaders, and Maria says they worry about the day when violent or dangerous people infiltrate and overwhelm them.
For now, however, La Pista continues to be an imperfect and fragile refuge for those who have fled violent armed groups on the border.
Maria says she doesn't regret coming.
"There are no organized gangs here, no reign of terror like with La Zona," she said.