They had stormed the bridge, broken though the Venezuelan barricades. No one thought they would, but the desperation to reach Colombia proved to be too much. Hours after heavy rain pelted the streets of Cúcuta, the Táchira River rose making the illegal crossings impassable. They could not wait. They had to cross. Lives depended on it. Overwhelmed, the Venezuelan guards stood aside. Officers from Colombian migration stopped checking IDs.
The next day was tense. Water levels had subsided and the colourful flow of migrants returned to the long grassy banks of the river. On the Simón Bolívar Bridge, the Venezuelan National Guards were fully armed. They were reluctant to speak to me as they had been in the days beforehand. At first they ignored my questions and stared into space. I kept going. “Do you sympathise with peoples need to cross this bridge?” I asked. “What have your orders been today?” Slowly they began to answer. “We are here to protect the Venezuelan people,” one officer said. “We have been told to use any means necessary to maintain order on the bridge,” another one added. “What do you mean by any means necessary?” “Just that,” he replied “any means necessary.”
The bridge was closed on the Venezuelan side in February after a U.S. backed attempt to deliver humanitarian aid. Red and blue containers, reportedly filled with sand, now block the path that linked Venezuelans and Colombians together for generations. Only humanitarian cases, the elderly, the sick and school children, are allowed to cross. Everyone else has to make their way through the river and the illegal ‘trochas’. Venezuelan colectivos and Colombian paramilitary groups run these paths making it a dangerous undertaking.
The flow of arrivals to Cúcuta never stops. Some cross to buy food and medicine because hyperinflation in Venezuela has wiped out salaries and made the necessities unaffordable. Others move to Colombia permanently, determined to find a job and send money home. The city is flooded with stories of sadness, anger and shame.
Cúcuta has always been on the frontline of the Venezuelan migrant crisis. It’s a dusty place packed full of traders selling everything from Cuban cigars to washing powder. At first Cucuteño welcomed the migrants, memories of the Colombian civil conflict still fresh in their minds. Now the tide is beginning to turn. “It’s too much” people told me, “We also need help, our country isn’t perfect.”
In the barrio of Manuela Beltrán, west of Cúcuta, Nancy Bautista Pérez lives with her father, mother and brother. Their community is a mix of internally displaced Colombians, Cucuteño and Venezuelans. “Look” she says, “Colombians need to be looked after. Where is our government? You know where it is? It has its nose in Venezuela.” Her family nod in agreement.
According to the United Nations, three million Venezuelans have left their home since 2015. It’s estimated that 1.1 million of them now live in Colombia. For a country struggling with poverty, drug trafficking and insurgent groups it’s a massive undertaking. Colombia’s initial response to the crisis has been celebrated. However, with no end in sight there is a real possibility that popular support will wane.