Colombian border town becomes an economic lifeline for Venezuelans
MAICAO, Colombia – Ever since Venezuela temporarily reopened six border crossings with Colombia in August, more than 1,000 Venezuelans a day have been streaming into this northern border city as an economic lifeline.
As their country’s economy spirals into ever-worsening chaos, Venezuelans see this city 18 miles from the border as a place to earn extra money, buy food and medicine impossible to find back home and smuggle scarce goods back into Venezuela.
“Getting to Colombia from my hometown Maracaibo was the most awful and exhausting trip,” Bettabeth Vera, 29, said as she sat on a plastic chair next to a man getting a haircut on the sidewalk of a busy street. “The path was very dusty and rocky. Some men would harass and rape women,” she said.
Many Venezuelans still get in through unofficial crossings, or trochas, along the porous border to avoid the high entrance fee and long lines to enter Colombia.
Vera, a single mother, came here to work as a prostitute. In a week, she sent $100 to her daughter, Lizabeth, 13, and her sister in Venezuela.
“I don’t want (Lizabeth) to go through the trocha, and I am afraid of how much drugs there are around here, especially cocaine and marijuana, because she’s a teenager,” she said, showing her daughter’s name tattooed on her left arm.
Venezuelans hitch rides to make the remote crossings and pay smugglers as much as $2,000 to get into Colombia.
There are 247 illegal routes between Venezuela and Colombia, according to a report this month by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, a United Nations organization.
The Venezuelan government, which closed the border last year to crack down on smuggling, reported that thousands of people crossed into Colombia within the first hours of the border’s reopening. Colombia said it deported 33 Venezuelan women who had entered the country illegally.
It costs $1,000 to $1,200 for Venezuelans to enter Maicao legally from Maracaibo, about 80 miles southeast of here, according to Jaider Yepes, traffic and control director of Maicao’s transportation terminal.
Hundreds go back to Venezuela with smuggled food, medicine and other basic necessities to resell back home.
It’s a two-way street for smuggled goods here. From 6:30 a.m. on, Maicao becomes a thronged market of Colombians and Venezuelans selling medicine and basic products, such as shampoo and laundry detergent, brought in from Venezuela. Many of the items, which are cheap to purchase in Venezuela because of government subsidies, say, “Only for sale in Venezuela.”
Shoppers, smugglers and money-changers crowd into streets. People sell phone cards to call landlines and mobile phones in Venezuela.
Cars with Venezuelan license plates flock to the main market. Other Venezuelans return by taxi, loaded with bags filled with food and other products.
Isabel Sanpaiu is a Venezuelan illegal immigrant who sells water for $1. (Photo: Kamilia Lahrichi, Special for USA TODAY)
“We don’t have legal documents (to be in Colombia) so when someone in the family gets sick, it’s an awful situation,” said Isabel Sanpaiu, a Venezuelan illegal immigrant who buys bottles of water for 50 cents and sells them for $1. “We have no way to get help.”
“My house and all my belongings are in Venezuela. I am used to living there and I want to go back there. In the name of God, my husband and I will not retire here,” she said.
Selling Venezuelan gasoline in Colombia is a thriving business. Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves, and the government keeps the domestic price extraordinarily low through subsidies.
The smell of gasoline is overwhelming in the streets of central Maicao. “There is nothing else to do,” said Edwin Carilo, a Colombian illegal gasoline vendor, as he filled a car’s tank with gas with his stained hands. “Instead of stealing and killing, this is what I do.”
Carilo used to be a farmer, but drought destroyed his fields so he had to move to Maicao. He said he buys a gallon of gasoline for 70 cents and sells it for $1, less than half the $2.70 it costs at a gas station.
“Venezuelans are now pouring into the country and it’s getting worse,” Carilo said.
Although many Colombians feel empathy toward their struggling neighbors, some complain about the impact on their businesses.
Carlos Ramo said Colombians unload goods from a truck for $17, while Venezuelans do the same job for half as much.
“I lost 90% of my revenues because Venezuelans started selling products at a cheaper price,” said Ramo, a Colombian street seller. “I used to sell up to 15 hats a day. Today, I sell one and some days none.”
Lahrichi was a fellow at the International Women’s Media Foundation in Colombia in August 2016.
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