Venezuela is terrorist sanctuary: Colombian president

FILE PHOTO: Colombia's President Ivan Duque gives a speech during the swearing-in ceremony of a new Congress in Bogota, Colombia, July 20, 2019. Courtesy of Colombian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has turned his country into a terrorist sanctuary and committed the grave error of protecting guerrilla groups and drug traffickers, Colombian President Ivan Duque said on Monday, as tensions between the neighboring countries escalated once again.

The comments came after Maduro said on Sunday that two missing former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) commanders sought by Colombian judicial authorities were “welcome in Venezuela.”

Tensions have worsened since Duque joined the United States and most Latin American countries in recognizing Juan Guaido, president of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly, as the country’s rightful leader, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

“What we are seeing is that not only has (Maduro) harbored Colombian terrorists for many years, but he ratifies more and more that Venezuela is a sanctuary for terrorists and drug traffickers,” Duque said in Shanghai, China, where he is on an official visit.

Maduro said over the weekend that Seuxis Paucias Hernandez and Luciano Marin, known respectively by their nom de guerres Jesus Santrich and Ivan Marquez, were “leaders of peace.”

Santrich and Marquez both joined the FARC’s political party after the leftist rebel group demobilized under a 2016 peace deal that ended decades of civil war. They were set to serve in congressional seats reserved for the group.

But Marquez went missing last year after his nephew was arrested and taken to the United States to cooperate with drug-trafficking investigators.

Earlier this month Colombia’s Supreme Court ordered Santrich’s arrest after he failed to appear for questioning about U.S. drug-trafficking charges.

“There is not one doubt that Santrich is protected by that dictatorial regime,” Duque said of Venezuela. “This is one more motivation to keep strengthening the diplomatic blockade.”

Duque has repeatedly said Santrich might have fled to Venezuela. Maduro said on Sunday he had learned of Santrich’s possible presence in Venezuela from Duque’s statement.

Colombian authorities believe dissident FARC rebels, who did not demobilize under the peace accord, and fighters for the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group hide in Venezuela and receive protection from Maduro. Maduro’s government has denied protecting rebels.

Maduro, who calls Guaido a U.S. puppet seeking to oust him in a coup, broke off diplomatic relations with Bogota in February after Guaido’s failed attempt to bring humanitarian aid into Venezuela via the Colombian border.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Strong quake in Peru kills one person, disrupts some oil operations

An aerial view shows a landslide caused by a quake in Yurimaguas, in the Amazon region, Peru May 26, 2019. REUTERS/Guadalupe Pardo

LIMA (Reuters) – A magnitude 8 earthquake killed one person, destroyed dozens of homes and disrupted some oil operations as it rocked Peru early on Sunday, authorities said.

The quake – the biggest to hit Peru since 2007 – was felt across the country and in neighboring Ecuador and Colombia after striking the sparsely-populated region of Loreto in Peru’s northern Amazon.

Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra said the hardest hit areas were the towns of Yurimaguas and Tarapoto.

“In reality, it’s affected all of the Peruvian jungle,” Vizcarra told journalists in broadcast comments as he surveyed the damage in Yurimaguas.

A 48-year-old man was killed in the region of Cajamarca after a boulder struck his home, emergency officials said. Peru’s National Emergency Center (COEN) said there were at least 11 people injured and more than 50 homes destroyed. Several schools, churches, hospitals and clinics were also damaged.

State-owned oil company Petroperu said the quake created a “minor” leak in a pipe at its Talara refinery on the Pacific coast that it said it has since controlled. It also suspended oil pumping at its Station 1 facility in Loreto in order to evaluate damage it detected there, it said in a statement.

Peru's President Martin Vizcarra accompanied by members of his cabinet speaks to the media before leaving for the area affected by earthquake, at the Jorge Chavez airport in Lima, Peru, May 26, 2019. Freddy Zarco/Courtesy of Bolivian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

Peru’s President Martin Vizcarra accompanied by members of his cabinet speaks to the media before leaving for the area affected by earthquake, at the Jorge Chavez airport in Lima, Peru, May 26, 2019. Freddy Zarco/Courtesy of Bolivian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

A spokeswoman for Canadian oil company Frontera Energy , which operates Peru’s largest oil block in of Loreto, said there were no damages to its installations.

TV images showed large fissures in a highway in Cajamarca and piles of mud and debris that had swept onto other roads.

Peru sits on the Pacific “Ring of Fire” where the majority of the world’s seismic activity occurs.

The quake on Sunday was rated as one of “intermediate depth” at around 110 kilometers (68 miles). Intermediate depth quakes typically cause less surface damage than shallower tremors.

The earthquake was around 75 km SSE of Lagunas and 180 km east of the town of Moyobamba, the USGS said.

There were local reports of electric power cuts in the cities of Iquitos and Tarapoto, Amazonian towns in the Loreto region of the country. Pictures and videos online also showed some cracked and damaged walls, homes shaking and a collapsed bridge.

In neighboring Ecuador, the quake was strongest near the Amazonian region of Yantzaza, causing momentary power outages.

Ecuadorian officials reported at least seven people injured, as well as mudslides and minor damage to homes. The country´s oil and mining infrastructure was operating normally, Ecuadorian Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner said on Twitter.

(Reporting by Marco Aquino and Mitra Taj in Lima; Writing by Adam Jourdan, Dave Sherwood and Mitra Taj; Editing by Keith Weir, Phil Berlowitz and Susan Thomas)

After Venezuelan troops block aid, Maduro faces ‘diplomatic siege’

Venezuelan national guard members stand near a fire barricade, at the border, seen from in Pacaraima, Brazil February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

By Angus Berwick, Sarah Marsh and Roberta Rampton

CARACAS/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro faced growing regional pressure on Sunday after his troops repelled foreign aid convoys, with the United States threatening new sanctions and Brazil urging allies to join a “liberation effort”.

Violent clashes with security forces over the opposition’s U.S.-backed attempt on Saturday to bring aid into the economically devastated country left almost 300 wounded and at least three protesters dead near the Brazilian border.

Juan Guaido, recognized by most Western nations as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, urged foreign powers to consider “all options” in ousting Maduro, ahead of a meeting of the regional Lima Group of nations in Bogota on Monday that will be attended by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.

Pence is set to announce “concrete steps” and “clear actions” at the meeting to address the crisis, a senior U.S. administration official said on Sunday, declining to provide details. The United States last month imposed crippling sanctions on the OPEC nation’s oil industry, squeezing its top source of foreign revenue.

“What happened yesterday is not going to deter us from getting humanitarian aid into Venezuela,” the official said, speaking with reporters on condition of anonymity.

Brazil, a diplomatic heavyweight in Latin America which has the region’s largest economy, was for years a vocal ally of Venezuela while it was ruled by the leftist Workers Party. It turned sharply against Venezuela’s socialist president this year when far-right President Jair Bolsonaro took office.

“Brazil calls on the international community, especially those countries that have not yet recognized Juan Guaido as interim president, to join in the liberation effort of Venezuela,” the Brazilian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Colombia, which has received around half the estimated 3.4 million migrants fleeing Venezuela’s hyperinflationary economic meltdown, has also stepped up its criticism of Maduro since swinging to the right last year.

President Ivan Duque in a tweet denounced Saturday’s “barbarity”, saying Monday’s summit would discuss “how to tighten the diplomatic siege of the dictatorship in Venezuela.”

Maduro, who retains the backing of China and Russia, which both have major energy sector investments in Venezuela, says the opposition’s aid efforts are part of a U.S.-orchestrated coup.

His information minister, Jorge Rodriguez, during a Sunday news conference gloated about the opposition’s failure to bring in aid and called Guaido “a puppet and a used condom.”

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said on Sunday that Venezuela, the Caribbean island’s top ally, was the victim of U.S. imperialist attempts to restore neoliberalism in Latin America.

Venezuelan National Guards block the road towards the Francisco de Paula Santander cross border bridge between Venezuela and Colombia, in Urena, Venezuela February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

Venezuelan National Guards block the road towards the Francisco de Paula Santander cross border bridge between Venezuela and Colombia, in Urena, Venezuela February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

SMOLDERING BORDER AREAS

Trucks laden with U.S. food and medicine on the Colombian border repeatedly attempted to push past lines of troops on Saturday, but were met with tear gas and rubber bullets. Two of the aid trucks went up in flames, which the opposition blamed on security forces and the government on “drugged-up protesters.”

The opposition had hoped troops would balk at turning back supplies so desperately needed by a population increasingly suffering malnutrition and diseases.

Winning over the military is key to their plans to topple Maduro, who they argue won re-election in a fraudulent vote, and hold new presidential elections.

Though some 60 members of security forces defected into Colombia on Saturday, according to that country’s authorities, the National Guard at the frontier crossings held firm. Two additional members of Venezuela’s National Guard defected to Brazil late on Saturday, a Brazilian army colonel said on Sunday.

The Brazilian border state of Roraima said the number of Venezuelans being treated for gunshot wounds rose to 18 from five in the past 24 hours; all 18 were in serious condition. That was the result of constant gunbattles, which included armed men without uniforms, throughout Saturday in the Venezuelan town of Santa Elena, near the border.

The Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, a local crime monitoring group, said it had confirmed three deaths on Saturday, all in Santa Elena, and at least 295 injured across the country.

In the Venezuelan of Urena on the border with Colombia, streets were still strewn with debris on Sunday, including the charred remains of a bus that had been set ablaze by protesters.

During a visit to a border bridge to survey the damage, Duque told reporters the aid would remain in storage.

“We need everything they were going to bring over,” said Auriner Blanco, 38, a street vendor who said he needed an operation for which supplies were lacking in Venezuela. “Today, there is still tension, I went onto the street and saw all the destruction.”

MILITARY INVASION?

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed on Sunday for “violence to be avoided at any cost” and said everyone should lower tensions and pursue efforts to avoid further escalation, according to his spokesman.

But U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, an influential voice on Venezuela policy in Washington, said the violence on Saturday had “opened the door to various potential multilateral actions not on the table just 24 hours ago”.

A car of the Brazilian Federal Police is seen at the border between Brazil and Venezuela in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

A car of the Brazilian Federal Police is seen at the border between Brazil and Venezuela in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

Hours later he tweeted a mug shot of former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, who was captured by U.S. forces in 1990 after an invasion.

President Donald Trump has in the past said military intervention in Venezuela was “an option,” though Guaido made no reference to it on Saturday.

The 35-year old, who defied a government travel ban to travel to Colombia to oversee the aid deployment, will attend the Lima Group summit on Monday and hold talks with various members of the European Union before returning to Venezuela, opposition lawmaker Miguel Pizarro said on Sunday.

“The plan is not a president in exile,” he said.

(Reporting by Angus Berwick, Sarah Marsh, Brian Ellsworth and Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Roberta Rampton in Washington; Additional reporting by Ricardo Moraes and Pablo Garcia in Pacaraima, Brazil; Ana Mano in Sao Paulo; Nelson Bocanegra in Cucuta, Colombia; Anggy Polanco in Urena and Mayela Armas in San Antonio, Venezuela; Ginger Gibson in Washington; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Jeffrey Benkoe, Lisa Shumaker and Jonathan Oatis)

Crowds see off Venezuela convoy headed to Colombia border for aid

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognized as the country's rightful interim ruler, attends a news conference to mark the 5th anniversary of the arrest of the opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez in Caracas, Venezuela February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

By Angus Berwick and Vivian Sequera

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido left Caracas with some 80 lawmakers on Thursday on a 800-km (500-mile) trip to the Colombian border where they hope to receive food and medicine to alleviate shortages in defiance of President Nicolas Maduro.

Crowds formed alongside a main highway out of the capital, waving Venezuelan flags and whooping in support, as the convoy of buses departed.

Guaido, recognized by dozens of countries as Venezuela’s legitimate head of state, has pledged to bring in the humanitarian aid by land and sea on Saturday. Guaido invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency on Jan. 23 and denounces Maduro as an usurper.

“Through this call for humanitarian aid, the population will benefit from the arrival of these goods to the Venezuelan border,” said opposition legislator Edgar Zambrano, as he waited to board a bus in a plaza of eastern Caracas.

Maduro’s beleaguered socialist government denies there is an economic crisis in Venezuela and has said soldiers would be stationed along the country’s borders to prevent potential incursions.

He accuses the Trump administration, which recognizes Guaido and is supporting the relief effort but has levied crippling sanctions against his government, of seeking to force his ouster.

Guaido still has not provided details on how they will bring in the aid. Opposition figures have suggested forming human chains across the Colombian border to pass aid packages from person to person and fleets of boats arriving from the Dutch Caribbean islands.

The United States has sent tons of aid to Colombia’s border with Venezuela, which Maduro has mocked as a “cheap show.” Maduro’s vice president, Delcy Rodriguez, has alleged the aid is poisonous and could lead to cancer.

On Wednesday, Maduro’s socialist administration said it had closed the country’s maritime border with the Dutch Caribbean islands of Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire after Curacao’s government said it would help store aid destined for Venezuela.

Colombia expelled five Venezuelans from Cucuta for “carrying forward activities which attack citizen security and social order,” its migration agency said in a statement late on Wednesday.

“We know there is interest by the Maduro dictatorship in affecting national security because of coming events,” agency director Christian Kruger added in the statement.

(Reporting by Angus Berwick and Vivian Sequera; Additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Bill Trott and Sonya Hepinstall)

Venezuelan troops to remain on border ahead of aid entry, minister says

Venezuela's Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez attends a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, February 19, 2018. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan troops will remain stationed along the country’s borders to prevent territorial violations, the defense minister said on Tuesday, ahead of the opposition’s plan to bring in humanitarian aid to alleviate an economic crisis.

President Nicolas Maduro has rejected offers of foreign food and medicine, denying there are widespread shortages and accusing opposition leader Juan Guaido of using aid to undermine his government in a U.S.-orchestrated bid to oust him.

Guaido has said that aid will enter Venezuela from neighboring countries by land and sea on Saturday. The United States has sent tons of aid to Colombia’s border with Venezuela, but Maduro has refused to let it in.

In comments broadcast on state TV, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino said the opposition would have to pass over “our dead bodies” to impose a new government. Guaido, who has invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency, denounces Maduro as illegitimate and has received backing from some 50 countries.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday warned members of Venezuela’s military who remain loyal to Maduro that they would “find no safe harbor, no easy exit and no way out.”

“You’ll lose everything,” Trump told a crowd of Venezuelan and Cuban immigrants in Miami.

Guaido has beseeched the armed forces to disavow Maduro, promising them future amnesty, though only a few high-ranking military officials have so far done so.

Padrino said it was unacceptable for the military to receive threats from Trump, and said officers and soldiers remained “obedient and subordinate” to Maduro.

“They will never accept orders from any foreign government … they will remain deployed and alert along the borders, as our commander in chief has ordered, to avoid any violations of our territory’s integrity,” Padrino said.

“Those that attempt to be president here in Venezuela … will have to pass over our dead bodies,” he said, referring to Guaido.

Maduro, who won a second term last year in an election that critics denounced as a sham, retains the backing of Russia and China and control of Venezuelan state institutions.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera and Brian Ellsworth; Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

U.S. to deliver over 200 tons of aid to Venezuelan border

Sacks containing humanitarian aid are pictured at a warehouse near the Tienditas cross-border bridge between Colombia and Venezuela in Cucuta, Colombia February 14, 2019. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

MUNICH (Reuters) – U.S. military aircraft are expected to deliver more than 200 tons of humanitarian aid to the Venezuelan border in Colombia, with the shipment likely to take place on Saturday, a U.S. official said on Friday.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. State Department planned to make an announcement about the shipment on Friday but provided no further details. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. special envoy on Venezuela last week said the aid effort was being coordinated with the opposition team but said the aid would not be forced into Venezuela.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has overseen an economic collapse in the oil-rich South American country that has left millions struggling to buy food and medicines and has fueled an unprecedented migration crisis in the region.

An aid convoy supplied by the United States and Colombia arrived in the Colombian border town of Cucuta last week, where it is being held in warehouses. Maduro has refused to let supplies in.

Self-declared president Juan Guaido, the opposition leader, told a huge rally of supporters on Tuesday that humanitarian aid would enter the country on Feb. 23.

Guaido invoked constitutional provisions to declare himself interim president last month, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was a sham. Most Western countries, including the United States and many of Venezuela’s neighbors, have recognized Guaido as the legitimate head of state.

Maduro retains the backing of Russia and China and control of Venezuelan state institutions including the military.

Seeking to strengthen support for Guaido, the United States has said it will try to channel aid to Venezuela via Colombia and possibly Brazil.

Maduro has called the aid a U.S.-orchestrated show and denies any crisis. However, opposition member Gustavo Tarre has said the sole aim is to ease “the suffering of Venezuelans” and has denied any political, economic or military motive. [nL1N2090UC]

(Reporting By Idrees Ali; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Venezuelan opposition envoy urges foreign help to get aid in

Venezuelans line up as they wait for a free lunch at the "Divina Providencia" migrant shelter outskirts of Cucuta, on the Colombian-Venezuelan border, Colombia February 13, 2019. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

By Luc Cohen and Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Venezuelan opposition’s envoy to the United States accused the government of President Nicolas Maduro on Thursday of blocking humanitarian aid to the country and urged the international community to help open “thousands of windows” to let assistance in.

Carlos Vecchio, opposition leader Juan Guaido’s representative in Washington, spoke to an international aid conference hosted at the Organization of American States (OAS) headquarters in Washington as a deadlock persisted in delivering aid to the crisis-stricken South American country.

Guaido invoked constitutional provisions last month to declare himself interim president, arguing that Maduro’s re-election last year was a sham.

Most Western countries, including the United States and many of Venezuela’s neighbors, have recognized Guaido as the country’s legitimate head of state, but Maduro retains the backing of Russia and China as well as control of Venezuelan state institutions including the military.

Guaido told a huge rally of supporters on Tuesday that humanitarian aid would enter the country on Feb. 23, setting the stage for a showdown with Maduro.

“They are blocking humanitarian aid that’s being sent,” Vecchio told the conference, which was attended by diplomats and representatives from dozens of countries. “We must open thousands of windows to bring humanitarian aid to Venezuela … Here we are creating an international coalition to bring in food and medicine.”

Lester Toledo, the opposition’s humanitarian aid coordinator, recounted an incident in 2016 when protesters marched to the border with Colombia where aid was being held up.

“That’s exactly what we’re going to do next Saturday,” he told the conference, suggesting how aid might make its way into Venezuela. “With people, people and more people working peacefully.”

Maduro has called the aid a U.S.-orchestrated show and denies there is an economic crisis, despite a widespread lack of food and medicine and hyperinflation.

But Gustavo Tarre, the opposition’s OAS representative, insisted the only objective is “to relieve the suffering of Venezuelans” and that there no political, economic or military motives.

Last week, the United Nations warned against politicizing aid in Venezuela after the United States accused Maduro of preventing the delivery of food and medicine.

An aid convoy supplied by the United States and Colombia arrived in the Colombian border town of Cucuta last week, where it is being held in warehouses.

The United States has said it will try to channel aid to Venezuela, via Colombia and possibly Brazil.

Elliott Abrams, Washington’s special envoy on Venezuela, said last week the aid effort was being coordinated with Guaido’s team but that the aid would not be forced into Venezuela.

Maduro has overseen an economic collapse that has left millions struggling for food and fueled an unprecedented migration crisis in the region.

An estimated 3 million Venezuelans have left the oil-rich OPEC country since 2015, some 800,000 of whom have ended up in Colombia.

(Reporting by Luc Cohen and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Alistair Bell and James Dalgleish)

International Red Cross steps up aid operations in Venezuela

People wait in line outside of a currency exchange house in Caracas, Venezuela, February 5, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

GENEVA (Reuters) – The International Committee of the Red Cross has doubled its budget in Venezuela to 18 million Swiss francs in recent weeks and is also helping Venezuelan migrants in neighboring Colombia and Brazil, ICRC President Peter Maurer said on Wednesday.

The ICRC, a neutral independent aid agency, is working with the national Venezuelan Red Cross, mainly on health projects, and not taking sides in the political conflict between President Nicolas Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaido, Maurer said.

“So that is a growing operation,” Maurer told a news briefing. “At the present moment, our concern and focus is really on the one side to increase our response to Venezuelans, and the other to keep away from the political controversy and political divisions which are characteristic to the crisis in Venezuela.”

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

Fleeing hardship at home, Venezuelan migrants struggle abroad, too

FILE PHOTO: Colombian migration officers check the identity documents of people trying to enter Colombia from Venezuela, at the Simon Bolivar International bridge in Villa del Rosario, Colombia August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Alexandra Ulmer

VILLA DEL ROSARIO, Colombia (Reuters) – Every few minutes, the reeds along the Tachira River rustle. Smugglers, in ever growing numbers, emerge with a ragtag group of Venezuelan migrants – men struggling under tattered suitcases, women hugging bundles in blankets and schoolchildren carrying backpacks. They step across rocks, wade into the muddy stream and cross illegally into Colombia.

This is the new migration from Venezuela.

Venezuelans carry their belongings along a pathway after illegally entering Colombia through the Tachira river close to the Simon Bolivar International bridge in Villa del Rosario, Colombia August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Venezuelans carry their belongings along a pathway after illegally entering Colombia through the Tachira river close to the Simon Bolivar International bridge in Villa del Rosario, Colombia August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

For years, as conditions worsened in the Andean nation’s ongoing economic meltdown, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans – those who could afford to – fled by airplane and bus to other countries far and near, remaking their lives as legal immigrants.

Now, hyperinflation, daily power cuts and worsening food shortages are prompting those with far fewer resources to flee, braving harsh geography, criminal handlers and increasingly restrictive immigration laws to try their luck just about anywhere.

In recent weeks, Reuters spoke with dozens of Venezuelan migrants traversing their country’s Western border to seek a better life in Colombia and beyond. Few had more than the equivalent of a handful of dollars with them.

“It was terrible, but I needed to cross,” said Dario Leal, 30, recounting his journey from the coastal state of Sucre, where he worked in a bakery that paid about $2 per month.

At the border, he paid smugglers nearly three times that to get across and then prepared, with about $3 left, to walk the 500 km (311 miles) to Bogota, Colombia’s capital. The smugglers, in turn, paid a fee to Colombian crime gangs who allow them to operate, according to police, locals and smugglers themselves.

As many as 1.9 million Venezuelans have emigrated since 2015, according to the United Nations. Combined with those who preceded them, a total of 2.6 million are believed to have left the oil-rich country. Ninety percent of recent departures, the U.N. says, remain in South America.

The exodus, one of the biggest mass migrations ever on the continent, is weighing on neighbors. Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, which once welcomed Venezuelan migrants, recently tightened entry requirements. Police now conduct raids to detain the undocumented.

FILE PHOTO: Undocumented Venezuelans migrants stand in line to wait for food to be handed out by a group of Colombians, who fund an informal soup kitchen, outside a makeshift shelter in Pamplona, Colombia August 26, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

FILE PHOTO: Undocumented Venezuelans migrants stand in line to wait for food to be handed out by a group of Colombians, who fund an informal soup kitchen, outside a makeshift shelter in Pamplona, Colombia August 26, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

In early October, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, Colombia’s foreign minister, said as many as four million Venezuelans could be in the country by 2021, costing national coffers as much as $9 billion. “The magnitude of this challenge,” he said, “our country has never seen.”

In Brazil, which also borders Venezuela, the government deployed troops and financing to manage the crush and treat sick, hungry and pregnant migrants. In Ecuador and Peru, workers say that Venezuelan labor lowers wages and that criminals are hiding among honest migrants.

“There are too many of them,” said Antonio Mamani, a clothing vendor in Peru, who recently watched police fill a bus with undocumented Venezuelans near Lima.

“WE NEED TO GO”

By migrating illegally, migrants expose themselves to criminal networks who control prostitution, drug trafficking and other rackets. In August, Colombian investigators discovered 23 undocumented Venezuelans forced into prostitution and living in basements in the colonial city of Cartagena.

While most migrants are avoiding such straits, no shortage of other hardship awaits – from homelessness, to unemployment, to the cold reception many get as they sleep in public squares, peddle sweets and throng already overburdened hospitals.

Still, most press on, many on foot.

Some join compatriots in Brazil and Colombia. Others, having spent what money they had, are walking vast regions, like Colombia’s cold Andean passes and sweltering tropical lowlands, in treks toward distant capitals, like Quito or Lima.

Johana Narvaez, a 36-year-old mother of four, told Reuters her family left after business stalled at their small car repair shop in the rural state of Trujillo. Extra income she made selling food on the street withered because cash is scarce in a country where annual inflation, according to the opposition-led Congress, recently reached nearly 500,000 percent.

“We can’t stay here,” she told her husband, Jairo Sulbaran, in August, after they ran out of food and survived on corn patties provided by friends. “Even on foot, we must go.” Sulbaran begged and sold old tires until they could afford bus tickets to the border.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has chided migrants, warning of the hazards of migration and that emigres will end up “cleaning toilets.” He has even offered free flights back to some in a program called “Return to the Homeland,” which state television covers daily.

Most migration, however, remains in the other direction.

Until recently, Venezuelans could enter many South American countries with just their national identity cards. But some are toughening rules, requiring a passport or additional documentation.

Even a passport is elusive in Venezuela.

Paper shortages and a dysfunctional bureaucracy make the document nearly impossible to obtain, many migrants argue. Several told Reuters they waited two years in vain after applying, while a half-dozen others said they were asked for as much as $2000 in bribes by corrupt clerks to secure one.

Maduro’s government in July said it would restructure Venezuela’s passport agency to root out “bureaucracy and corruption.” The Information Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“VENEZUELA WILL END UP EMPTY”

Many of those crossing into Colombia pay “arrastradores,” or “draggers,” to smuggle them along hundreds of trails. Five of the smugglers, all young men, told Reuters business is booming.

“Venezuela will end up empty,” said Maikel, a 17-year-old Venezuelan smuggler, scratches across his face from traversing the bushy trails. Maikel, who declined to give his surname, said he lost count of how many migrants he has helped cross.

Colombia, too, struggles to count illegal entries. Before the government tightened restrictions earlier this year, Colombia issued “border cards” that let holders crisscross at will. Now, Colombia says it detects about 3,000 false border cards at entry points daily.

Despite tougher patrols along the porous, 2,200-km border, officials say it is impossible to secure outright. “It’s like trying to empty the ocean with a bucket,” said Mauricio Franco, a municipal official in charge of security in Cucuta, a nearby city.

And it’s not just a matter of rounding up undocumented travelers.

Powerful criminal groups, long in control of contraband commerce across the border, are now getting their cut of human traffic. Javier Barrera, a colonel in charge of police in Cucuta, said the Gulf Clan and Los Rastrojos, notorious syndicates that operate nationwide, are both involved.

During a recent Reuters visit to several illegal crossings, Venezuelans carried cardboard, limes and car batteries as barter instead of using the bolivar, their near-worthless currency.

Migrants pay as much as about $16 for the passage. Maikel, the arrastrador, said smugglers then pay gang operatives about $3 per migrant.

For his crossing, Leal, the baker, carried a torn backpack and small duffel bag. His 2015 Venezuelan ID shows a healthier and happier man – before Leal began skimping on breakfast and dinner because he couldn’t afford them.

He rested under a tree, but fretted about Colombian police. “I’m scared because the “migra” comes around,” he said, using the same term Mexican and Central American migrants use for border police in the United States.

It doesn’t get easier as migrants move on.

Even if relatives wired money, transfer agencies require a legally stamped passport to collect it. Bus companies are rejecting undocumented passengers to avoid fines for carrying them. A few companies risk it, but charge a premium of as much as 20 percent, according to several bus clerks near the border.

The Sulbaran family walked and hitched some 1200 km to the Andean town of Santiago, where they have relatives. The father toured garages, but found no work.

“People said no, others were scared,” said Narvaez, the mother. “Some Venezuelans come to Colombia to do bad things. They think we’re all like that.”

(Additional reporting by Mitra Taj in Lima, Anggy Polanco in Cucuta, Helen Murphy in Bogota and Alexandra Valencia in Quito. Editing by Paulo Prada.)

Spain’s population grows for second straight year due to immigration

FILE PHOTO: The border fence separating Spain's northern enclave Ceuta and Morocco is seen from Ceuta, Spain, June 22, 2018. REUTERS/Juan Medina/File Photo

MADRID (Reuters) – Spain’s population rose for the second straight year in 2017, after having fallen between 2012 and 2015 in the midst of an economic downturn, as an increase in foreigners offset a fall in the number of Spaniards, official data showed on Monday.

The figures come as Europe grapples with a rising influx of migrants, mostly from north Africa and war-torn countries such as Syria, after Mediterranean arrivals spiked in 2015. Sixteen EU leaders met for emergency talks in Brussels on Sunday to find a “European solution” to the issue.

The population of Spain increased to 46.66 million to Jan. 1, 2018, a rise of 132,263 people than a year earlier, the highest since Jan. 1 2013, the National Statistics Institute reported.

Spain saw a net increase of migrants arriving in the country of 146,604 people, after the arrival of almost half a million people last year, the largest migrant influx in 10 years, the data showed.

The total number of deaths in Spain in 2017 outpaced the number of births at the fastest pace since records began in 1941, data showed last week as the number of births dropped 4.5 percent while the number of deaths rose 3.2 percent.

The largest increases in migrants came from Venezuela, Colombia, Italy and Morocco, while the largest decreases were from Romania, Britain and Ecuador, INE said.

(Reporting by Paul Day; Editing by Jesús Aguado, William Maclean)