It’s about the distance of a drive from Berlin to Athens. The 2,219-kilometre long Colombian-Venezuelan border has long been porous and difficult to manage. There are seven official crossings, but nearly 300 clandestine trails, called trochas, are fought over for control by various illegal armed groups, used by smugglers and crossed daily by thousands of migrants, often at great risk.
Analysts and officials say traffic on those trails has increased in the weeks since Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced stricter enforcement at official border crossings, an effort to stem migration from Venezuela.
Colombia doesn’t recognise the Venezuelan migrants as refugees, but the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, stated on Monday that a significant number should be considered as such. It is also urging receiving states to allow the Venezuelans access to their territory and to adopt more pragmatic protective measures.
A game of numbers
“The problem of the Venezuelan migrants has been growing. It’s a complex problem; a problem that we are not used to,” Santos said during a visit to the border town of Cúcuta on 8 February, the day he announced the new border regulations.
Since then, only holders of valid visas or migratory cards (which only permit short-term visits and are no longer issued) may enter Colombia. Willington Muñoz, coordinator of a refugee centre run by the Catholic Church in Cúcuta, says the new measures can be interpreted as a “diplomatic closure of the border”, because many Venezuelans lack the documents needed to obtain passports and officials may request unaffordable bribes or lack the materials to process them.
Colombia’s migration office boasted that the influx at official Venezuelan crossings dropped by 30 percent in the two weeks following the new regulations. But such statistics can be a game of numbers. Venezuelans desperate to escape economic and political crisis are not easily stopped.
Officials in the Colombian border department Norte de Santander, of which Cúcuta is the capital, have logged 78 trochas. They say they have recently seen more smugglers and undocumented migrants using those trails. More than 550,000 documented Venezuelans currently reside in Colombia, but many more have entered without documentation, straining border cities like Cúcuta.
‘They will kill you’
Smugglers, too, rely on the trochas. “If you make a mistake and take the wrong trocha, they will kill you,” a 23-year-old from Caracas, who requested that his name not be used out of fear for his safety, says of the various groups that ply the trails.
He arrived in Colombia last November, and says he was recruited as a smuggler while sleeping in Cúcuta’s bus station. He says he stopped smuggling contraband goods a few weeks ago, fearing for his life. He earned well, relying on the trochas for his work, “but life is worth more”, he explains.
A four-kilometre walk across the border via a trocha is a costly venture, he says. Paramilitaries and guerrillas who have long fought in Colombia’s half-century civil conflict crowd the routes. ELN and EPL guerrillas are present, as are the Rastrojos and Urabeños – paramilitary groups that vie for control over the most lucrative trochas. All demand payment from people using the routes.
A single trocha sometimes includes seven or more checkpoints controlled by different groups, including the Venezuelan National Guard. An increasing number of Venezuelan migrants, as well as the maleteros, the smugglers who use the trochas, are falling prey to extortion at the many checkpoints. The total cost of one-way passage averages at least $80-$100, paid out to different groups at different checkpoints, according to analysts and people who have used the routes. Higher fees are demanded for transporting goods. “If you do not pay they will kill you,” the former smuggler says.
The Colombian government does not ignore the trocha wars. “There will be more control and more security at borders,” Santos said, pledging greater security across all border regions when he announced the clampdown at official border crossings. Since early February, Colombia has sent about 3,000 security personnel to border areas, and seven trochas have been closed. But as some shut down, new ones open.
Fuelling an underground economy
Trochas fuel the thriving underground economy in Cúcuta. The border city exists largely because of the difference in value between the Venezuelan and Colombian currencies. In the past, Venezuela was much more prosperous than Colombia, and Colombian products were sold across the border. Now, it’s the other way around. Everything from foodstuffs to Venezuela’s heavily subsidised fuel is transported via the trochas.
On a tour of downtown Cúcuta, the former smuggler and a street vendor of sweets and snacks point out unregulated market stalls. They offer shampoos, cigarettes, flour, milk powder, and many other products, largely food, that are made in Venezuela but hard to buy there. Because Venezuela is riddled by hyperinflation, basic goods are often trafficked via the trochas to Colombia, where they fetch a much better price in stronger Colombian pesos.
At one of the Cúcuta market stalls, a 49-year-old woman who is a dual Colombian-Venezuelan national sells contraband Venezuelan rum and household products. Once a week she walks over a trocha, she says, paying fees at seven or eight armed checkpoints. When she can, she prefers to buy from others smugglers and avoid the risk of the trochas.
Another good widely available in Venezuela and smuggled to Colombia is arms. “A revolver costs about 1.3 million Colombian pesos ($470) in Colombia, and you can buy it for 400,000 pesos ($140) in Venezuela,” the former smuggler explains.
The human toll
Women – many of them minors – are also trafficked across the informal crossing routes and then prostituted in Cúcuta. Human trafficking routes have existed along the border since the 1980s, Wilfredo Cañizares Arévalo, director of Foundation Progresar in Cúcuta, explains. Most often, Colombian women were trafficked to Venezuela, where they were then sent to Aruba and Curacao as sex workers.
The crisis in Venezuela has flipped things, Arévalo says: Venezuelan women and underage girls are now trafficked to Colombia. The recent tightening of border controls, he says, “resulted in old, informal routes to be opened again” for trafficking women and an increase in the trafficking of minors. Routes across the border, he notes, are in constant flux.
Venezuelans without money or legal identity papers are easy prey for illegal armed groups looking for workers. “Recruiting has increased,” says a representative of Colombia’s Departmental Ombudsman for Human Rights. “Many underage Colombo-Venezuelans and Venezuelans [are sought].”
Children 12 or 13 years old are often recruited to collect “intelligence” and transport fuel to Colombia, where it brings a much higher price than in Venezuela, the representative explains. “Venezuelan kids are given bicycles by the ELN. They cross the border with the bikes and the fuel. They know where the army, the ELN, the Rastrojos, Urabeños and the police are. They use the rural zones around Cúcuta.” Shootouts between groups occur in populated rural hamlets in broad daylight, and minors have been killed, the official adds.
From new solutions, new problems
The border and migration crises, including the trochas wars, have become one of the most politicised topics as Colombia and Venezuela prepare for presidential and parliamentary elections this spring. So far, though, no solution to either is in sight.
Ivan Briscoe, the Latin America and Caribbean programme director of the independent peacebuilding organisation International Crisis Group, explains that the migrant crisis will continue as long as the fundamental drivers of migration remain or increase.
Referring to the crackdown on documentation at official border points, he notes: “The perverse effect of increased controls when there is a huge demand of migration is that it increases the prices which can be charged to migrants because of their sheer desire to cross.” And, he adds, the measures may also boost activity in illicit markets. Rather than ease the crisis, he says, Colombia’s efforts to curb the influx of economic migrants have brought new problems.
(TOP PHOTO: A member of the Policía Nacional of Colombia stands guard in Cúcuta)