Frankie Martinez is a Venezuelan merchant who has made his living selling shoes in his native country for more than a decade. But he’s not sure he can do it anymore. His hometown, San Cristobal, is starting to look like a ghost town.
"Really, right now the rate has increased at which my fellow Venezuelans are leaving the country,” he says, his mouth half full of spare ribs as he finishes his lunch at a cantina across the border in Cucuta, Colombia.
He points with his free hand and says, “The number staying in Colombia has gone down — they'd rather try for other destinations — more than anything in the United States. That's the primary topic of conversation among those who want to emigrate from Venezuela.”
Frankie’s home country continues to be a slow-motion train wreck, even with slight improvements in the South American country's economy over the past year due to infusions of cash and raw materials by China and Iran that have bolstered Venezuela's vital oil and gas industries.
According to the most recent estimates, over six million people have fled the country, and likely many more have simply walked across the border without paperwork and melted into the Colombian economy, preferring to sell candies or sex on the streets of Cartagena or Cucuta rather than continue to suffer the "workers’ paradise" where many children are reduced to eating garbage. That's understandable when you consider the socialist system they are fleeing promises a "living wage" of only about $3 a month, and almost nothing on which to spend it. The rampant hyperinflation that has plagued Venezuela since 2012 is down to "only" 695 percent in 2021.
Yet if things are improving in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, you wouldn't know it talking to the people who are walking across the Rio Tachira into Colombia.
Frankie has watched his country slowly emptying over the past seven years. Abandoned houses are everywhere. Those who are left can barely survive. Those who had the wherewithal to emigrate elsewhere did so years ago. Now it’s the poorest of the poor who simply start walking toward the border and don’t look back.
Where they go from there, however, depends on many factors. Cost of living, the potential for finding work, and the policies of the countries they must pass through all play a part. Migrants have several options, but in the end, like water, they will take the easiest route, all things considered.
Here are their primary options:
- Stay in Colombia.
- Head South to Chile.
- Head North to the United States.
In February 2021, Colombia extended temporary protected status to undocumented Venezuelans residing in their country. This allows them to work and eventually earn permanent residency. However, many Venezuelans CIS spoke to explained that despite these humanitarian gestures, Colombia is saturated with more than 1.8 million registered Venezuelans and likely orders of magnitude more who remain unregistered, so jobs are scarce. And with the rise of global inflation in the wake of the pandemic, prices have risen in Colombia to the point that some migrants have decided they were better off in Venezuela.
"Wendy" works a mobile kiosk selling nuts in Cucuta, Colombia. She complains things have gotten too expensive for her to survive there much longer. Photo by Chuck Holton.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Cucuta, the Colombian border town where thousands of Venezuelans cross every day looking for supplies that are not available at home. The town has the feel of many borders — dirty, chaotic, and loud. Makeshift kiosks line the dusty streets, piled with products from medicines to staple foods to hair extensions. Throngs of exhausted travelers jostle for space with their backpacks and rolling suitcases. Buses line up to carry their human cargo deeper into the country. Money changers compete with one another for the nearly worthless currency being carted out of Venezuela in garbage bags. Scrap dealers accept copper wire as payment, torn out of buildings on the other side and carried across on the backs of emaciated young men.
There are feeding centers here, funded by local and international charities, so many Venezuelans stick around Cucuta for a time, getting what little money they can by begging, washing windows at intersections, or selling their bodies. Indeed, there are more Venezuelans in Cucuta than there are Cucuteños. Eventually, though this very fact is what drives them to move on. There are just too many destitute, needy people in one place. Wendy, a Venezuelan woman selling nuts on the Colombian side of the bridge told CIS she'd been making a living that way for the past three years. But since the pandemic hit, the prices have risen so dramatically that she can no longer make ends meet. She's trying to decide whether to abandon her nut stand and go to Chile or the U.S.
"We are hearing there's a possibility that the U.S. is going to give out permits to work, go to school, and such. This is what we're hearing. That President Biden is going to give us permission to enter as they did here in Colombia.” She said.
The border has looked like this for many years. In 2019, it was the scene of violent protests as trucks full of aid from the American people were burned by Maduro loyalists on the bridge before it could reach hungry Venezuelans. Today the bridge over the river Tachira is peaceful, but packed with people leaving the country. On the opposite side, porters with impossibly huge loads trudge back into Venezuela with staples to sell in Caracas and Maracaibo.
On the Colombian side of the bridge stands a small tent city prominently displaying the logo of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees alongside signs advertising "safe space" and offering free vaccinations. Agents stand ready to help migrants register one's papers in order to obtain legal status in Colombia. Here is where the migrant trail begins.
The Migrant Trail
Venezuelans call it "La trocha." It's a catchall term for the journey to someplace better. From this starting point, they have a decision to make. The trail forks here, north and south. Both directions are fraught with risk, both hold the potential for a better life. And both require crossing borders illegally.
Some factors to bear in mind: Even from a country in as bad a condition as Venezuela, the driving factor for virtually all migrants is economic. They can simply make more money by going somewhere else. Poverty is not a sufficient reason to make an asylum claim. Neither is a high crime rate at home. But that doesn't stop them from trying. And as CIS has recently reported, UN-funded programs assist the migrants by educating them on how to "dredge up repressed memories of persecution" in order to describe their situation in such a way so as to be successful in gaining asylum. They also assist those who decide to walk to Bogota and beyond with feeding stations and rest areas, at a reported cost of $200-$300 per walker, per day.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has established this center on the Colombian side of the border to assist Venezuelan migrants in obtaining permission to work in Colombia and migrate elsewhere. The UNHCR provides medical care, vaccinations, and financial assistance. Photo by Chuck Holton.
U.S. taxpayers helped fund the UNHCR in 2021 to the tune of 1.82 billion dollars. This is where some of that money goes.
Heading South to Chile
When Title 42 was instituted by the Trump administration in March 2020, the equation changed for many migrants. Knowing they would be forced to languish in Mexico just short of their goal made the decision to head south more appealing. So hundreds of thousands of Haitians, Venezuelans, and extra-continental migrants made their way to Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile. All of these countries boast wages many times higher than the countries the migrants were fleeing, and so they were seen as acceptable substitutes for the United States.
The path to Chile, which boasts the highest standard of living in all of Latin America, is only about 300 kilometers shorter for Venezuelans than the trip to El Paso, Texas. The fact that the trip south does not include traversing the deadly Darien Gap is also a consideration. Migrants who make the 5000-kilometer journey can count on wages of between $400 and $1,000 a month in a Spanish-speaking country with relatively friendly immigration policies. Some migrants chose to stay in Peru or Ecuador, but as hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans crowded south, those countries have become increasingly hostile to the migrants. Ecuador, for example, has more than 430,000 Venezuelans, a number that has fostered growing xenophobia by locals.
For the four years of the Trump administration, these migrants worked jobs and made ends meet in Chile. They fed their families and bought iPhones and designer clothes. They saved their money and waited. For those who see the U.S. southern border as a bridge too far, Chile provides a passable alternative. While Chile’s per capita income is only about a third of that in the U.S., a living wage there is still easily 100x what a laborer could expect to earn in Venezuela or Haiti.
A Venezuelan migrant tries selling masks on the street in Oruro, Bolivia, while his wife and baby sit at his feet. He is trying to raise money for the bus to get to the Chilean border. Photo by Chuck Holton.
The journey south has its share of hardship and danger, to be sure. But given enough money for bus fares, a little food, and a few bribes along the way, a migrant family could be safely looking for work in Chile just over a week after leaving their home country. In contrast, the trip north could take months, cost thousands of dollars, and involve robbery, rape, and murder by cartels, gangs, and smugglers along the way.
The most dangerous part of the southern route comes right at the end. Migrants typically cross through Colombia, into Ecuador, then into Peru. After traveling the length of that country, they cross the border into Bolivia at a place called Desaguadero. They then make their way by bus, by thumbing a ride, or on foot to the capital of La Paz.
Bolivia is not a permanent stopping point for most migrants, simply because its economy is almost as poor as the country they left behind. It is a socialist country, after all. But they stay long enough to raise a little money for the next leg of their journey — the long slog across the Altiplano desert to the Chilean border. The Altiplano is one of the driest places on earth, and with most of it at an altitude over 12,000 feet, nighttime temperatures can drop to below zero even in the middle of summer. Llamas, the camels of South America, thrive here. People, not so much.
A bus ticket across the Altiplano costs about $80 and takes seven or eight hours, with a stop in the town of Oruro about halfway. For migrants without that kind of money, walking across 300 miles of desert isn’t really an option. So they beg for rides or beg for the money to pay for rides until somebody takes pity on them. If all goes well, a minibus will drop them off at the remote frontier outpost called Pisiga, only a hundred yards from the Chilean border.
The dust, the roadside hawkers, and the money changers are all there, just like in Cucuta. Only instead of being surrounded by lush tropical jungle, Pisiga sits at over 13,000 feet, dry and cold, with miles of flat desert scrub visible in all directions, and framed by snow-capped volcanoes in the distance.
Chilean soldiers stand guard in Colchane, on the Bolivian border. Migrants simply walk around them. Photo by Chuck Holton.
Knowing they won’t be allowed to cross at the border checkpoint, the migrants simply trudge out of Pisiga paralleling the six-foot-deep trench that demarcates the actual border until they find a suitable place to cross. When CIS visited, there were several dozen Chilean soldiers and policemen in battle dress arrayed at intervals along the border and supported by a few military vehicles. Approaching the border line, the Chilean equivalent of a 2nd lieutenant named Alejandro Torres told CIS, “People come this way basically looking for an easy way in, from here, they can walk just a kilometer or so and enter without trouble. Then they come back here and are put into a camp run by the police. They fill out a form seeking asylum, and then undergo a quarantine of about 14 days.”
Speaking further with the soldiers, it was clear they feel their mission is something of a fool’s errand. Indeed, Chile finds itself caught between denying the migrants entry, which has led to them freezing to death in the desert, or standing idly by while thousands trek illegally into their country. Anything Chile does to make the trip easier compounds the number of migrants who choose to come, and anything Chile does to make it more difficult leads to international outcry as desperate people go to more extreme lengths to get in. In 2021, local media reports say 30 people died crossing the Altiplano when the number of migrants was lower than it is now.
When this reporter visited the Darien Gap in Panama in 2021, thousands of migrants were exiting the jungle after six to 10 grueling days, overwhelming local indigenous villages where they first made contact with Panamanians. The village of Bajo Chiquito, a three-hour boat ride upriver from the Pan American highway, is a settlement of 400 Embera Indians, whose simple thatch huts enjoy neither running water nor electricity. In October, there were more than 3,000 exhausted and sick migrants in the village at any given time, which completely overwhelmed the community and turned the village into an open-pit sewer.
Migrants hiking across Bolivia's Altiplano in the shadow of a volcano on their way to Iquique, Chile. Photo by Chuck Holton.
The Chilean village of Colchane is the Bajo Chiquito of the Altiplano, or as it’s called in Chile, the Atacama Desert. Just like its Panamanian counterpart, this indigenous settlement of about 400 citizens was completely inundated by a flood of migrants in 2021. Chilean authorities, with help from American taxpayers via UNHCR and OIM erected a large tent city, which most days holds more migrants than the town has residents. Here, illegal crossers must wait out a 14-day quarantine to ensure they don’t carry Covid and are then released to head to Iquique, the nearest major city, where they start looking for work.
The numbers swelled so dramatically in 2021 that shocked Chilean citizens began protesting when large migrant camps started appearing in parks, on local beaches, and even in the medians of major roadways. One especially intense protest in September resulted in migrants’ belongings being collected up and burned by enraged citizens. This pushback continues to grow, a problem that is leading more and more migrants to abandon their plans to live in Chile long-term and make a break for the U.S., where they feel the government, at least, is friendlier toward their plight.
An Unending Search for “Better”
Jeudy B. and her two teenage children, Madeisy and Michael, decided to leave Haiti in 2016. At first, only Jeudy made the trip and the children stayed with family in the Dominican Republic. Jeudy rode buses for more than a week through Suriname, Guyana, Brazil, and Bolivia before crossing into Chile at the same remote border crossing at Pisiga. Before long she scored a job as maitre’d at an upscale restaurant making the equivalent of 600 US dollars per month. After three years of working and saving, she sent for her kids. Accompanied by their uncle, they followed the same route as their mother and eventually joined her in 2019.
Life was good. Their father joined them and also found work. They had not one vehicle, but two. The kids had iPhones, and were doing well in school.
But Jeudy knew her kids wanted to go to America. Chile was orders of magnitude better than Haiti. But the United States — that was an even better “better.” They followed closely the hotly contested U.S. presidential election, making note of the fact that Joe Biden promised over and over to undo the policies of the Trump administration, which had made the United States seem so out of reach for Jeudy and millions of her fellow travelers.
Once Biden took office, their decision was made. In late 2020 they cashed in their savings and boarded a bus back to Bolivia, leaving the safe and prosperous life they had in Chile behind. From there they crossed a total of 10 national borders illegally over the span of nearly six months. Jeudy suspected they’d be robbed at various points along the way, so she left her savings with a trusted friend and sent for it in small amounts at various points along the way.
The hardest part of the journey was the Darien Gap. They were accosted by a gang of thugs in the jungle who threatened them with guns while others dragged some of the women in their group into the bush to rape them. Jeudy’s daughter Madeisy was 16, and one of the thugs took hold of her arm, intending to have his way with her. Madeisy told him she was a virgin and he should not touch her so. He just laughed and said he’d do with her as he wished. The only thing that saved her was when Jeudy produced a set of expensive gold earrings and offered them to the man if he’d let her daughter go.
When they arrived in Tapachula after crossing from Guatemala into Mexico, they registered with the UNHCR and began receiving monthly payments in the amount of about $200 U.S. dollars. This money helped them rent a tiny apartment with some other Haitians as they waited for the notoriously inefficient and maddening Mexican bureaucracy to produce a transit visa giving them the right to continue on their journey. They survived on that money until the visa came through in June 2021.
A few more bus rides and they arrived at the U.S. southern border, and the sight of 30-foot unfinished steel barrier demarcating the border was, for them, something of a finish line instead of a deterrent. They walked through the gap in the fence and were greeted by American Border Patrol officers.
After two weeks in a detention facility on the military base at Fort Bliss, Texas, Jeudy wired for the last of her savings and bought four plane tickets to their ultimate destination, Newark, New Jersey.
Now living near Newark International Airport, she makes as much in a week of work as she did in a month in Chile, though she is undocumented and cannot legally hold a job in the U.S. She pays no taxes and her children are enrolled in a bilingual school for free.
But things haven’t quite been as easy as they expected. Work has been sporadic, as Jeudy waits for a Social Security card, which will allow her to work above the table. That won’t happen until her asylum claim is adjudicated, which could take years. Their tiny apartment sits in a run-down neighborhood plagued with gang violence, yet costs $1,700 a month. They have no car, no bank account, and no way to participate in the society they so long dreamed about.
It could be said the migrants brought those challenges with them. Since Inauguration Day in January 2021, floods of migrants who would otherwise have been content with staying put in safe, relatively prosperous South American nations have instead opted to head for the United States. The number of Venezuelans captured at the U.S. southern border has jumped from 2,787 in FY 2020 to 48,678 in FY 2021. With over two million illegal crossings last year, U.S. immigration is nearly as overwhelmed as the twin villages of Bajo Chiquito and Colchane. That most migrants will wait in legal limbo for years is a forgone conclusion, a function of the fact that no nation on earth could easily absorb two million people in the space of a year. Not even the United States.
As for Jeudy, she admits that if they had known the suffering they’d face on this journey, and especially the challenges they face trying to find work now that they’ve accomplished what they so long dreamed of, they might have decided to stay in Chile. But the good, free education her children are now getting, as well as the prospect of future university scholarships make it all worthwhile.
It hasn’t crossed Jeudy’s mind that she may not be granted asylum. As a matter of fact, she and her family have no valid asylum claim, having left a secure life in Chile to get to America. But the prospect of deportation is far in the future, and so for now they choose not to dwell on it.