Over 10,000 mostly Haitian migrants sleeping under Texas bridge, more expected

By Alexandra Ulmer

CIUDAD ACUÑA, Mexico (Reuters) – Haitians fleeing a country hammered by political turmoil and two natural disasters made up most of over 10,000 migrants sleeping on the ground and desperate for food in a squalid camp under a bridge in southern Texas on Friday, in a growing humanitarian and political challenge for U.S. President Joe Biden.

The Haitians were joined by Cubans, Venezuelans and Nicaraguans under the Del Rio International Bridge connecting Mexico to south Texas. They slept under light blankets. A few pitched small tents.

More migrants were expected after long and harrowing journeys through Mexico and Central and South America. Officials on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border said most of the migrants were Haitians.

Several Haitians told Reuters they followed instructions shared on WhatsApp by other Haitians looking for a safe route to avoid being caught by Mexican authorities.

James Pierre, a 28-year-old Haitian interviewed in Del Rio, Texas, shared a WhatsApp list of 15 stops through Mexico – culminating in Ciudad Acuña, just across from Del Rio – that he said was circulating among migrants.

“Those ahead sent directions by phone. I helped people coming behind me,” Pierre said. Still, he said he got lost for days in the mountains and survived on little but water and fruit.

Haiti’s president was assassinated in July and that was in August battered by both a 7.2 magnitude earthquake and a powerful storm.

Del Rio Mayor Bruno Lozano said the number of migrants under the bridge that crosses into Mexico had jumped by around 2,000 during the day on Thursday, from 8,200 in the morning to 10,503 by the evening.

Most of the migrants at the camp appeared to be men, but women nursing or carrying kids also could be seen.


Reuters witnessed hundreds of migrants wading through the shallow Rio Grande River, which divides the two countries, back into Mexico to stock up on essentials they say they are not receiving on the American side.

Two Haitian migrants said a hot meal was provided by U.S. officials on Thursday night but Haitian migrant Paul Marie-Samise, 32, said he missed it.

Temperatures were forecast to stay above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) in coming days.

The U.S. Border Patrol said in a statement on Thursday it was increasing staffing in Del Rio and providing drinking water, towels and portable toilets as migrants wait to be transported to U.S. facilities.

Biden, a Democrat who took office in January, pledged a more humane approach to immigration than that of former President Donald Trump, whose fellow Republicans seized on the camp as evidence Biden’s policies were drawing more migrants.

“When you have open borders, this is what happens. This is not humane, this is not compassionate,” said Republican Senator Ted Cruz from Texas in a video on Twitter recorded under the bridge on Thursday.

Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott, whose administration has arrested migrants for trespassing and is planning to build its own wall on the border after Biden halted Trump’s signature project, said in a tweet on Thursday he would sign a law to increase border security funding in the state to $3 billion.

“We’re trying to fix Biden’s failure,” Abbott tweeted.

U.S. authorities arrested more than 195,000 migrants at the southwest border in August, according to government data released on Wednesday, a slight dip from the previous month but still around 20-year-highs.

While Biden rolled back many of Trump’s immigration actions early in his presidency, he left in place a sweeping pandemic-era expulsion policy that has allowed his administration to quickly turn around most migrants caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

The policy issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been criticized by pro-migrant groups and some Democrats as cutting off legal access to asylum. On Thursday, a U.S. federal judge the policy could no longer be applied to families.

The judge’s order takes effect in 14 days and the Biden administration may appeal.

(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in Del Rio, Texas and Ciudad Acuña, Mexico; Writing by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Donna Bryson and Howard Goller)

Venezuela exodus set to top 5 million as long-term needs grow, officials say

Venezuela exodus set to top 5 million as long-term needs grow, officials say
By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The exodus of Venezuelans is on track to reach 5 million people, as pressure grows on neighboring countries to provide them with long-term support, United Nations and European Union officials said on Wednesday.

Some 4.5 million refugees and migrants have fled Venezuela since 2015, according to official figures, but more are using illegal crossing points because they lack identity papers, said Eduardo Stein, joint special representative of the U.N. refugee and migration agencies.

The crisis has worsened since the United States imposed sanctions, including on the pivotal oil industry, in an effort to oust leftist President Nicolas Maduro in favor of opposition leader Juan Guaido. Dozens of nations recognize Guaido as interim president, saying Maduro rigged a 2018 election.

Roughly 5,000 people leave Venezuela daily, although the number fluctuates as more states require visas, Stein said.

“The experience of other crises in the world shows us that those who would want to go back to Venezuela if the crisis in political terms were to be solved today, it will take a good two years or maybe even more,” Stein told a news conference.

A U.N. regional humanitarian response plan of $739 million for this year is expected to nearly double for 2020, he added.

The initially welcoming attitude to Venezuelans around South America has soured amid accusations they bring crime, crowd the job market, and strain social services.

The United Nations and European Union are hosting a meeting on Oct. 28-29 in Brussels to raise awareness of needs. Donors and officials from the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank are due to attend, but no Venezuelan representatives.

“This is the most severe and fastest-growing refugee migrant crisis in Latin American history, at least recent history,” said Walter Stevens, EU ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva. “There are estimates also that it could further increase if the situation does not change, quickly reaching 5 million.”

Colombia is the top destination for Venezuelan migrants fleeing the long-running crisis, which has caused widespread shortages of food and medicine. Some 1.4 million Venezuelans live in Colombia.

The flow is overwhelming the financial and administrative capacities of host countries to provide education and health services, Stein said.

“Nine receiving countries have agreed to accept expired (Venezuelan) passports as valid documents. And so with an expired passport you can get a temporary permit sometimes for two years,” he stated.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, editing by Larry King)

Venezuela opposition rallies to tell Maduro: Let aid in

Opposition supporters take part in a rally to commemorate the Day of the Youth and to protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

Venezuela’s opposition supporters returned to the streets nationwide on Tuesday to keep the heat on embattled President Nicolas Maduro and demand he allow humanitarian aid into the country where food and medicine shortages are rife.

The rallies occurred nearly three weeks to the day that opposition leader Juan Guaido invoked a constitutional provision to assume the presidency, arguing that Maduro’s re-election last year was a sham.

Most Western counties including the United States have recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s president, but Maduro retains the backing of Russia and China as well as control of state institutions including the military.

The sides are at loggerheads over the humanitarian aid. The opposition says the U.S.-backed aid including food and medicine is needed due to Maduro’s mishandling of the once-buoyant OPEC nation’s economy, and they are working to get it delivered.

Maduro has blocked the aid and denounced it as a U.S.-orchestrated show to overthrow his government. He has demanded instead that Washington lift economic sanctions.

“They have to let the aid in because people are dying from lack of medicine,” said 72-year-old Armida Quintana, who stood on a plastic stool to see above crowds of thousands, many wearing Venezuelan flags as capes.

“Little by little we have convinced everyone that Maduro is an impostor and a tyrant.”

U.S. supplies were among the first delivered to a collection point established in the Colombian border town of Cucuta.

“The Ku Klux Klan governing the White House today wants to take possession of Venezuela,” Maduro said in an interview with the BBC. “Venezuela is not a country of famine. In the west, Venezuela’s situation is distorted to justify any sort of intervention.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will discuss Venezuela by phone on Tuesday.


On Venezuela’s border with Colombia, smaller opposition protests formed. In the town of Urena, across from Cucuta, several hundred people dressed in white danced in the streets, waving flags and chanting profanities against top government officials.

“We want a prosperous Venezuela, as it was before,” said Mery Marin, a 25-year-old electrician. She said most young people from Urena had emigrated to escape the crisis.

Guaido, who galvanized the opposition after several years of in-fighting, has vowed it will keep protesting to pressure Maduro to step down so new presidential elections can be held. There will be an all-night vigil on Tuesday in a Caracas square to demand that Maduro let aid in.

Maduro’s critics had staged two major rounds of protests, the last in 2017, against what they call his dictatorship, but they subsided in the wake of a government crackdown. The current wave kicked off on Jan. 23, with a massive protest in Caracas during which Guaido was sworn in as president in front of thousands of supporters.

The ruling Socialists, who have been in power for two decades, rallied in Caracas on Tuesday to “demand respect of the fatherland’s sovereignty.” A few thousand people gathered, including many state employees, holding “Defend the Country” banners.

“We are here supporting the revolution. We’re against the invasion the gringos want to launch here,” said Marcos Velasquez, a 32-year-old Food Ministry employee.

Guaido on Monday announced the first delivery of humanitarian aid, including vitamin and nutritional supplements for children and pregnant women, to a network of health centers. He did not explain how it had gotten into the country.

He said it was a small-scale donation, given that the government has so far blocked deliveries from Cucuta.

Guaido has appealed to the military to disobey orders and let aid in, though there were not yet any clear signs of that happening. He has also promised amnesty.

Maduro’s adversaries say he has run roughshod over democratic institutions and ravaged the nation’s economy through nationalizations and a corruption-riddled exchange control system. Maduro counters that he is victim of an “economic war.”

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh and Deisy Duitrago; Additional reporting by Anggy Polanco in Urena; Editing by Angus Berwick, Leslie Adler, Jeffrey Benkoe and David Gregorio)

Maduro: Venezuelans not ‘beggars,’ give humanitarian aid to Colombians

A woman holds a drawing of a soldier during a gathering in support of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Sarah Marsh

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said on Friday the U.S.-backed humanitarian aid being stockpiled in the Colombian border city of Cucuta for his country should be distributed to poor Colombians as Venezuelans are not “beggars.”

The day after trucks carrying medicine and food arrived in Cucuta, Maduro, who has become increasingly isolated internationally, told a news conference that Venezuela did not need the aid that includes supplies provided by the United States.

“Venezuela will not allow the show of … humanitarian aid because we do not beg from anyone,” Maduro told reporters. “Venezuela is not suffering the humanitarian crisis fabricated by Washington over the last four years to justify intervening in our country.”

Maduro has overseen an economic collapse in the oil-rich OPEC country that has left many Venezuelans malnourished and struggling to find medicine, sparking the exodus of an estimated 3 million Venezuelans.

The dire situation has fueled a political crisis that has peaked over the last month with opposition leader Juan Guaido invoking a constitutional provision to declare himself the legitimate president. He argues Maduro was re-elected last year in a sham election.

More than forty nations including the United States, major European powers and most Latin American countries have recognized Guaido as the country’s rightful head of state.

Representatives of the European Union and a group of Latin American governments met in Montevideo, Uruguay, on Thursday to discuss the crisis.

Their organization, the International Contact Group on Venezuela, issued a statement saying they would send a technical mission to the country to help provide humanitarian aid and support new elections as soon as possible.

“We reject the partisan and ideological nature of the document,” Maduro said on Friday, adding that he would always welcome dialogue with anyone.

Critics say three previous dialogues have allowed the ruling Socialist Party to stall for time without making major concessions on key issues including imprisoned opposition politicians and electoral transparency.

Guaido has said the time for dialogue has passed.

(Reporting by Caracas bureau; Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Venezuelan migrant exodus hits 3 million: U.N.

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/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – Three million Venezuelans have fled economic and political crisis in their homeland, most since 2015, the United Nations said on Thursday.

The exodus, driven by violence, hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicines, amounts to around one in 12 of the population.

It has accelerated in the past six months, said William Spindler of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which appealed for greater international efforts to ease the strain on the country’s neighbors.

U.N. data in September showed 2.6 million had fled.

“The main increases continue to be reported in Colombia and Peru,” Spindler said.

Colombia is sheltering 1 million Venezuelans. Some 3,000 more arrive each day, and the Bogota government says 4 million could be living there by 2021, costing it nearly $9 billion.

Oil-rich Venezuela has sunk into crisis under Socialist President Nicolas Maduro, who has damaged the economy through state interventions while clamping down on political opponents.

He has dismissed the migration figures as “fake news” meant to justify foreign intervention in Venezuela’s affairs.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR said the exodus was straining several neighboring countries, notably Colombia.

“Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have largely maintained a commendable open-door policy,” said Eduardo Stein, UNHCR-IOM Joint Special Representative for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela.

“…However, their reception capacity is severely strained, requiring a more robust and immediate response from the international community.”

Regional government officials are to meet in Quito, Ecuador from Nov 22-23 to coordinate humanitarian efforts.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by John Stonestreet)

Venezuelan immigrants survive on the streets in Brazil

Venezuelan people sit on their tent and sleep on cardboards during the night at the entrance of packages transport shop in front of the interstate Bus Station in Boa Vista, Roraima state, Brazil August 25, 2018. Picture taken August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

By Nacho Doce

BOA VISTA, Brazil (Reuters) – Many Venezuelans thought they were leaving a collapsing economy for a land of milk and honey just next door.

But most of those fleeing the turmoil in Venezuela by walking into Brazil at an Amazon border crossing have found themselves surviving on the streets and sleeping in tents, hammocks or on pieces of cardboard.

Their drama is part of a deepening regional humanitarian crisis set off by the exodus of tens of thousands of Venezuelans who are voting with their feet and abandoning their country, mainly into neighboring Colombia, and also Ecuador and Peru.

Venezuelan people rest on hammocks during the night in a spare parts shop for cars and motorbikes, near the interstate Bus Station in Boa Vista, Roraima state, Brazil August 24, 2018. Picture taken August 24, 2018. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Venezuelan people rest on hammocks during the night in a spare parts shop for cars and motorbikes, near the interstate Bus Station in Boa Vista, Roraima state, Brazil August 24, 2018. Picture taken August 24, 2018. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

The city of Boa Vista, capital of the Brazilian border state of Roraima, has received 35,000 Venezuelan immigrants in the past two years, swelling its population by more than 10 percent. Today, some 3,000 are homeless, according to the mayor’s office.

Near the city bus terminal, Venezuelans sleep on grassy highway medians and in shopping areas. Some are lucky enough to spend the night in tents handed out by refugee agencies.

Others hang hammocks outside car body shops and auto-parts distributors whose Brazilian owners allow them to spend the night under a covered area, as long as they are gone in the morning.

This generosity by local shop owners contrasts with an outbreak of xenophobic attacks on Aug. 18 against Venezuelan immigrants at the border town of Pacaraima, ignited after a Brazilian was allegedly robbed and stabbed by Venezuelans in his home.

“Some Brazilians treat us badly, but not all of them,” said Anyi Gomez, a pregnant 19-year-old who came to Brazil with her mother and survives by using a squeegee to clean car windshields for change at traffic lights.

The prenatal care she is getting at a public hospital in Brazil made it worth leaving Venezuela where her baby could have died for lack of food and medicine, she said.

Venezuelan people sleep on the grass in front of interstate Bus Station in Boa Vista, Roraima state, Brazil August 23, 2018. Picture taken Auguist 23, 2018. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Venezuelan people sleep on the grass in front of interstate Bus Station in Boa Vista, Roraima state, Brazil August 23, 2018. Picture taken Auguist 23, 2018. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

On Tuesday, Brazilian President Michel Temer said the Armed Forces were being sent to Roraima for at least two weeks to help keep order and ensure the safety of immigrants. Temer blamed Venezuela’s authoritarian government for causing a regional crisis that requires a collective response.

Local churches provide meals or hand out bread and juice to the homeless Venezuelans.

“We have food, but no roof. And there is no work,” said Luis Daniel, from Caracas. “I came to get a job to take back things for my children who are going hungry in Venezuela. But all I have now is exhaustion from sleeping outdoors.”

(Reporting by Nacho Doce; Writing by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Brad Brooks and Susan Thomas)

Exclusive: As Venezuelans suffer, Maduro buys foreign oil to subsidize Cuba

FILE PHOTO: A general view of the Amuay refinery complex which belongs to the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA in Punto Fijo, Venezuela November 17, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

By Marianna Parraga and Jeanne Liendo

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Venezuela’s state-run oil firm PDVSA has bought nearly $440 million worth of foreign crude and shipped it directly to Cuba on friendly credit terms – and often at a loss, according to internal company documents reviewed by Reuters.

The shipments are the first documented instances of the OPEC nation buying crude to supply regional allies instead of selling them oil from its own vast reserves.

Venezuela made the discounted deliveries, which have not been previously reported, despite its dire need for foreign currency to bolster its collapsing economy and to import food and medicine amid widespread shortages.

The open-market oil purchases to subsidize one of Venezuela’s few remaining allies underscores its increasing global isolation and the disintegration of its energy sector under socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

The purchases came as Venezuela’s crude production hit a 33-year low in the first quarter – down 28 percent in 12 months. Its refineries are operating at a third of capacity, and its workers are resigning by the thousands.

(For a graphic on Venezuela’s rising oil imports and falling exports, see: https://tmsnrt.rs/2wHCTUF )

PDVSA bought the crude for up to $12 per barrel more than it priced the same oil when it shipped to Cuba, according to prices on internal documents reviewed by Reuters. But Cuba may never pay cash for the cargoes because Venezuela has long accepted goods and services from Cuba in return for oil under a pact signed in 2000 by late presidents Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro.

PDVSA, the Venezuela government and the Cuba government did not respond to requests for comment.

Venezuela’s government has previously said it only imports oil to blend with its own tar-like crude to improve quality and create an exportable product, or to feed its refinery in Curacao. But hundreds of PDSVA documents examined by Reuters detailing imports and exports, dated from January 2017 to May of this year, show the company is now buying crude at market prices to deliver to allies – in shipments that never pass through Venezuela.

The subsidized deliveries are aimed at maintaining political support from Cuba, one of a dwindling group of Venezuela allies, according to diplomats, politicians and PDVSA executives.

“Maduro is giving away everything he can because these countries’ backing, especially from Cuba, is all the political support he has left,” said a former top Venezuelan government official who declined to be identified.

Caracas has come under increasing international pressure as the United States, the European Union and Canada have sanctioned Venezuela for what they see as Maduro’s attempts to cement a dictatorship.

As Venezuela spends on oil imports, it has imported less of everything else its citizens desperately need. Venezuela’s spending on non-oil imports plunged from nearly $46 billion in 2011 to $6 billion in 2017, according Venezuela Central Bank data and Ecoanalitica, a Caracas-based economic research organization.

The oil PDVSA procured for Cuba was Russian Urals crude, the documents show, a variety well-suited for Cuban refineries constructed from Soviet-era equipment.

PDVSA bought the crude from Chinese, Russian and Swiss firms – not for cash, but a pledge that PDVSA would deliver other oil shipments later, the documents show.

That adds to Venezuela’s already towering debts of oil to state-owned firms in Russia and China, which together have extended Venezuela’s government more than $60 billion in oil-for-loan deals that have propped up its budget amid declining exports and lower oil prices.

“It’s nonsense to import oil to keep subsidized exports flowing,” said Ecoanalitica President Asdrubal Oliveros.


Venezuela’s socialist government has long used oil for domestic and international political ends, subsidizing goods and services at home and currying favor across the region with oil deliveries on generous terms.

Venezuela’s oil supply arrangements have helped soften international political censure of Maduro’s government.

The Organization of American States (OAS), which includes most Western Hemisphere nations, last year took up a motion seeking to pressure Venezuela to hold free elections, liberate political prisoners and declare a humanitarian crisis.

The effort was defeated when 12 countries that have received regular oil shipments from Venezuela in recent years – about a third of the OAS membership – opposed it or refused to vote. Eventually, the OAS passed a watered-down motion urging free and fair elections.

Venezuela has avoided formal OAS condemnation “thanks to the support of the bloc of Caribbean nations that have benefited from its subsidized oil and development programs for years,” said Michael Fitzpatrick, deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said on April 30 during a talk at the Atlantic Council, a foreign policy think tank in Washington.

Most of those countries are members of Venezuela’s Petrocaribe trade pact, launched in 2005, which has granted up to 16 Caribbean and Central American states with oil supplies on favorable terms.

OAS President Luis Almagro declined to comment through press office representative Monica Reyes.

El Salvador’s Economy Minister, Luz Estrella Rodriguez, said Petrocaribe and other pacts promoted by Venezuela had played an important role in her country’s development.

“Our country is very grateful,” she said. “The government of El Salvador, of course, is a friend and an ally of the Venezuelan government.”

El Salvador refused to vote last year on the OAS motion to condemn Venezuela.

Venezuela also supplied fuel last year to Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Dominica, the documents show.

In total, members of oil trade pacts with Venezuela last year received at least 103,000 bpd of crude and refined products from PDVSA, the documents show, or about 6 percent of Venezuela’s exports.


The falling output of Venezuela’s refineries has also left the country increasingly dependent on fuel imports to meet domestic consumption.

The internal PDVSA data reviewed by Reuters shows Venezuela last year purchased some 180,000 barrels per day of foreign crude and refined products from PetroChina, Rosneft, Lukoil, Reliance Industries and other suppliers, 17 percent more than in 2016.

Those companies did not respond to requests for comment.

The purchases totaled more $4 billion, according to PDVSA records.

Last year, total oil-industry purchases, including equipment and services, consumed 45 percent of Venezuela’s total import spending, up from 13 percent in 2011, Ecoanalitica data shows. Energy imports totaled $5.4 billion out of $11.9 billion.

The resulting scarcity of food, medicine and employment has caused thousands of citizens to flee Venezuela. The pay of PDVSA workers now can’t cover the barest essentials because of the collapse of its currency, the bolivar.

“A worker’s salary is not even enough for a box of eggs,” said Hector Bertis, a PDVSA worker and union leader. “We go to the bank, and they give us 10,000 bolivars – less than what a transportation fare costs.”

(Reporting by Marianna Parraga in Houston and Jeanne Liendo in Calgary; additional reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in Washington, Paula Rosales in San Salvador and Gary McWilliams in Houston; Editing by Gary McWilliams, Simon Webb and Brian Thevenot)

Hungry Venezuelans now smuggle Columbian food home

The Wider Image: Venezuelans shop for food in Colombia

By Alexandra Ulmer and Anggy Polanco

PUERTO SANTANDER, Colombia (Reuters) – Thousands of Venezuelans living near the border discovered years ago that smuggling heavily subsidized food into Colombia made them far more money than the meager wages from regular jobs.

But with crisis-hit Venezuela suffering drastic food shortages this year and local resale prices spiraling, some have decided to flip the business model: zipping into Colombia to buy flour, rice and even diapers for desperate shoppers back in Venezuela.

“There’s nothing left in Venezuela, what’s left is hunger. Colombia is what’s saving us,” said one 30-year-old smuggler who now rides his motor bike to shop in Colombia’s buzzing border town of Puerto Santander.

“Colombia is what is saving people,” said the smuggler, a former construction worker who asked to remain anonymous to avoid arrest. He says he keeps some food for his wife and three children but sells most of it to markets in Venezuela’s Andean border state of Tachira or in the capital, Caracas.

Leftist President Nicolas Maduro last year closed crossings into Colombia to try to end the smuggling he said was bleeding Venezuela dry.

But the about-face in smuggling routes in the last few months was clear one morning late last week when Reuters journalists saw hundreds of people streaming into Colombia to buy food, medicines, and basic hygiene products.

Dozens lined up on a bridge to plead with the military to let them through. Others drifted over in wooden boats right under the nose of Venezuela’s National Guard and army. A half-dozen said they bribed officials to cross over dirt roads, and a few swam from one leafy shore to the other.

The business is driven by Venezuela’s worsening economic crisis. Poor and middle-class people brave food lines for hours but increasingly end up empty-handed. Many are forced to skip meals and survive on mangoes and plantains, or forage through garbage.

Unruly supermarket lines have become riskier and a woman was shot dead in Tachira this week after frustrated shoppers raided warehouses.


Venezuela’s opposition is pushing to have Maduro removed via a recall referendum, saying it is the only way to avert a full-blown humanitarian crisis in the oil-rich country.

“There’s nothing in my fridge,” said Gloria, 48, who got up at 4 a.m. on a recent morning to travel to Puerto Santander to buy rice, sugar and coffee for her family of eight.

“In the last month the situation has become more critical, we can’t find anything,” she said, taking a break from carrying heavy shopping bags.

Before shoppers like Gloria began showing up, Puerto Santander was suffering a downturn as Maduro’s border crackdown and Venezuela’s scarcities had dimmed the inflow of cheap goods smuggled in from Venezuela.

To be sure, children, gangs, and even middle-class Venezuelans continued to smuggle Venezuelan gasoline – the world’s cheapest – across the murky brown rivers that mark the 2,300-km (1,400-mile) border.

But it is the reverse flow of goods that has Puerto Santander’s once-shuttered stores humming again.

Venezuelans drag bulky bags or suitcases down busy streets, shoppers with fistfuls of Venezuelan bills elbow their way to counters, and Colombians on motor bikes offer their services.

“Thanks to the fact there’s nothing in Venezuela this town has shot back to life,” said store owner Jose Armando, 42, who now sells Colombian-made products to exclusively Venezuelan customers.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment. Colombia’s government declined to comment.


On the other side of the border, Venezuelan shoppers are scooping up Colombian goods.

Once out of reach, many goods have become a bit cheaper than the scarce and pricey Venezuelan products hawked locally by “bachaqueros” – resellers named for an industrious leaf-carrying ant.

Rice, for instance, can be bought in Colombia for the equivalent of about 1,300 bolivars and sold in Venezuela for around 1,800 bolivars.

Venezuela’s government fixes a kilo of rice at some 120 bolivars, but on the local black market the coveted product now fetches approximately 2,000 bolivars – just $2 at the unofficial foreign exchange rate but around one-fifth of a monthly minimum wage, factoring in monthly food tickets.

For two months now, Clarissa Garcia, 37, has bought Colombian soap, flour and sugar to sell in her small stall at the market of La Fria, a leafy town a half-hour drive from the border.

“People would be dying of hunger if there weren’t Colombian products,” she said, washing tomatoes as shoppers streamed by inquiring about prices. Some grimaced at her response.

Venezuela’s poor, and those who live far from the border, have no choice but risk ever longer and more dangerous lines in front of supermarkets patrolled by National Guards soldiers where scuffles are now common.

By 7 a.m. on a recent morning in San Cristobal, the capital Tachira, some 2,000 shoppers were waiting in front of a supermarket hoping to be among the lucky few able to buy soap and flour when its doors opened.

“We can’t stand this anymore,” said Talia Carrillo, 38, who arrived the night before, slept in the line, and woke up in the morning to find others in line being robbed.

“I earn minimum wage. That doesn’t give us the base to buy expensive products. But we can’t go on like this, we’re barely finding anything.”

(Additional reporting by Nelson Bocanegra in Bogota; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Kieran Murray and Jeffrey Benkoe)