Starving Venezuelans pour across the border to Colombia, as Caracas braces for more protests following deadly clashes

The border crossing between Venezuela and Colombia
The border crossing between Venezuela and Colombia Credit: Felipe Abondano

In his passport photo, Carlos Naranjo Moreno is chubby-faced, a healthy twenty-something from a middle class Venezuelan family in the Andean town of Merida. Now, he is gaunt, his clothes hanging off his almost 6 foot 5 frame, ribs painfully visible when he removes his shirt.

The son of a university professor and himself a former chef at a government hotel who cooked for prominent Chavistas, Mr Naranjo seems an unlikely candidate for the growing ranks of Venezuelans forced to flee their country due to hunger.

But he too has fallen victim to the humanitarian crisis which has engulfed Venezuela amid hyperinflation and critical shortages of food and medicine. His father died after open heart surgery when the hospital was unable to provide the medication needed for his blood to clot. 

Carlos Naranjo Moreno in his Camilo Daza room Credit: Felipe Abondano

Mr Naranjo finally decided to leave, he said, when he received his last paycheck, which would not stretch to much more than a little bread, rice and milk - if indeed he could find it. “It was killing me, physically and mentally. I knew I couldn’t stay any longer.”

So Mr Naranjo joined the largest human influx in Colombia's history: the first time since the beginning of its six-decade civil conflict that the flow of people between these two Andean neighbours has reversed. 

According to government figures, more than one million Venezuelans fled to the country between 2014 and 2016, and the rate is rapidly increasing: arrivals in January 2017 topped 47,000, more than double those in the same month last year. Refugee NGOs say the true number is likely much higher.

Carlos Naranjo Moreno's passport Credit: Felipe Abondano

As Venezuela reaches boiling point, the phenomenon is only expected to worsen. Three people, including a 23-year-old girl, were killed on Wednesday as hundreds of thousands took to the streets nationwide for the so-called “Mother of All Marches”, bringing the death toll for this month's demonstrations to eight

With more protests planned on Thursday, president Nicolas Maduro has ordered a security crackdown named Plan Zamora, to crush what he says is a “shameless coup attempt” directed by the United States.

The latest unrest was triggered by a move by the Supreme Court to seize legislative power from the opposition-led National Assembly - reversed after an international outcry - and a 15-year ban on running for office for two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski. But it is the deepening economic crisis which has pushed the country to the brink. 

Rescue workers tend to a demonstrator who fell into the Guaire River after he was hit by a tear gas canister fired by the Bolivarian National Guard against anti-government protesters in Caracas on Wednesday Credit:  Fernando Llano/AP

Inflation is forecast to hit 1,600 per cent this year, according to the IMF: a bag of rice now costs almost 4000 bolivars, while the minimum monthly salary is just 40,683. People queue for hours outside government supermarkets in the hope of being able to purchase a few basic goods, and zoo animals have been stolen for their meat. 

Despite sitting on the world’s largest oil supplies, Venezuela’s petrol pumps too are running dry as production collapses. Even basic medicines such as painkillers and antibiotics are almost impossible to come by.

“People are leaving babies on the doorsteps of churches,” said Jose Fernandez, a charity worker from the Venezuelan city of Barquisimeto. “For (the government) everything is fine, no one can say anything, but everyone knows that things are not fine.”

Mr Maduro insists that Venezuela’s problems have been manufactured by right wing “anti-christs” intent on his overthrow. But even in the tightly-controlled media environment, that narrative is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain: demonstrations have spread into several poor areas considered government strongholds, and last week, a live state broadcast showed Mr Maduro being pelted with eggs and other objects at a military parade, before abruptly being yanked from the air. 

At the Colombian border town of Cúcuta, thousands stream in every day, some heading back into Venezuela with heavy loads of goods such as flour, toilet paper and medicines, others slipping quietly into the town’s barrios and run-down hostels.

Speaking to The Telegraph in the poor neighborhood of Camilo Daza, Mr Naranjo, 29, tells how three months ago he walked across the border crossing with nothing but a small backpack. Now he lives in a tiny, grimy room with bare breeze block walls, sleeping on a mattress on the floor next to a childhood friend. 

Since his arrival he has at least put on a little weight from his low of just 70kg - which put him in the risk category for malnourishment - but he is still 15kg lighter than the 90 he weighed before the crisis. 

Anti-government protesters flee tear gas by wading across river Anti-government protesters flee tear gas by wading across river

Like the many Venezuelans who have flooded into Cúcuta in recent months, Mr Naranjo finds himself in a vulnerable position. He has no legal right to work, leaving him defenceless against exploitation by unscrupulous employers: working at a makeshift fried chicken shop next door, he earns just 10,000 pesos (£2.77)  a day - less than half what a Colombian would be paid. 

Refugee NGOs have urged the Colombian government to grant asylum or humanitarian visas, but so far it has been reluctant, in part due to resources and also due to political sensitivities involving its neighbour. 

"If Bogota recognizes Venezuelans as refugees, they see it as a criticism of the Maduro government," one NGO worker, who did not wish to be identified, said. "It's an uncomfortable silence." 

Many Venezuelans have also run into difficulties with armed groups in the area. Here, as in many isolated regions, Colombia's cocaine-fuelled conflict is still raging, the historic peace accord signed last year with the FARC having only created a vacuum in which other guerrilla and paramilitary groups are vying for control. 

Two separate NGOs working in the area reported that in Catatumbo, one of the country’s worst afflicted zones which lies to the south of Cúcuta in the Norte de Santander department, many Venezuelans had been pulled into the coca fields or become new victims of the armed conflict, suffering forced displacements, killings and disappearances. 

 'Coyote' Don Camilo stands at the entrance to one of more than 400 illegal border paths in the area Credit: Felipe Abondano

If crossing into Colombia by illegal routes - as many are forced to do during the now regular border closures, or because they do not have passports - the migrants must run the gauntlet of armed groups and corrupt authorities. 

Don Camilo, who operates smuggling routes around Cúcuta, told The Telegraph that migrants had to pass through four “toll points”, paying - on top of his own fee - bribes to the Venezuelan National Guard, the Venezuelan army, the Colombian paramilitary groups and finally the Colombian police - a sequence confirmed by local NGOs. 

Such obstacles make the flood across the border even more astonishing. But Jesus Perez, 29, who arrived from the Venezuelan state of Zulia last week, says many have simply no other choice. Sitting in a cramped, windowless hostel room which he shares with his aunt and a friend, he sobs uncontrollably as he speaks of the desperation he has run from. 

“People are dying of hunger," Mr Perez says, describing starving street children begging for food, people fainting, rifling through rubbish cans in search of a morsel to eat and waiting outside supermarkets for them to put out their skips. “My neighbour and her kid go every day, or they don’t eat,” he says. 

Scenes from the marketplace which has sprung up at the San Antonio International Bridge border crossing in Cucuta Credit: Felipe Abondano

He made the decision to leave, he tells The Telegraph through his tears, “when I realized my mother was starving to death”. He hopes that in Colombia he can make money to send back home. “I was struggling every day to get her just a small egg or something… I had to try to help her."

Mr Perez’s departure wasn’t easy. He doesn’t have a Venezuelan passport, having tried to get one but finding his application mired in endless delays and obstructions. He tried to sell his possessions to raise funds but couldn’t find any buyers. In the end, he and his two companions saved for three months, and crossed the border with a bag of bolivars that they exchanged in Cúcuta for just three Colombian bills totaling 180,000 pesos (£50). 

The government’s hardcore of red-capped supporters would dismiss Mr Perez as an opposition stooge or a paid mercenary. But this former hardware store worker says he voted for Hugo Chavez, and supported him until his death. 

“With Maduro everything has just got worse and worse," he explains, adding: “I already miss (Venezuela), it is a sacrifice. But how can you stay when there is nothing to eat?"

Mr Naranjo, too, already longs for his homeland. “I love my country, it is my country, I wouldn’t exchange it for another.” When things change, he will go back, he says. “When we meet again,” he tells The Telegraph as he dips chicken in a rickety deep fat fryer, “it will be at my restaurant, at home in Venezuela.”

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