Blankets, canned tuna and faith in God — how fleeing Venezuelans survive
By ANDREA CASTILLO | Los Angeles Times | Published: January 25, 2020
ON THE ROAD TO BUCARAMANGA, Colombia (Tribune News Service) — The rich were the first to leave. They wired their savings abroad and hopped on international flights.
The middle class departed next. They went on buses, sometimes riding for days across several countries.
The poor remained.
They stayed as the economy collapsed, food got scarcer, medicine shortages turned deadly and the electricity cut out for days at a time. But finally they too began to exit Venezuela.
They simply walked out.
The departure of the caminantes, or walkers, began slowly in 2017 with young men hoping to find jobs and send money home.
Now women and children, the sick and the elderly also are taking their chances, expanding an exodus that already is one of the biggest mass migrations in modern history.
Each day an estimated 5,000 people flee.
The most popular way out is through the Colombian border city of Cucuta. Then comes one of the most difficult parts of the trip: a 125-mile passage that climbs more than 9,000 feet to a long and frigid plateau – El Paramo de Berlin – before descending into the balmy, green city of Bucaramanga.
The Los Angeles Times set out to document the journey, immersing a reporter and photographer in the river of humanity for five days. No single story would capture the magnitude of the crisis. And so the plan was to observe from the shelters set up by good Samaritans, from the tiny towns along the highway, from the backs of trucks.
The trip started on a Monday morning last May just outside Cucuta at a Red Cross station, where a worker stood before a group of migrants and told them about a 21-year-old man who had died of hypothermia while trying to cross the plateau.
"I tell you this not to make you scared," he said. "I tell you so you'll be careful and understand that these kinds of tragedies have happened."
When he asked where people were headed, they shouted destinations in Colombia – "Bogota!" "Medellin!" "Cali!" – and beyond – "Ecuador!" "Peru!"
They carried blankets and quilts and homemade backpacks. They carried handouts from the Red Cross: boiled sausages, crackers, bottled water and canned tuna. They carried faith in God.
Valentina Duran carried her month-old son.
Samuel had been born April 2 in Cucuta as 22-year-old Duran was fleeing to Colombia for the second time.
The first time was in 2016. For the next two years, she worked at a clothing factory in the industrial city of Cali, sending whatever earnings she could to her parents and the two young children she had left in their care.
When her daughter caught pneumonia last year, Duran returned to her hometown of Maracay and barely recognized it. Cash was nearly unattainable and bodega shelves were empty.
Six months later, she returned to Colombia and immediately gave birth.
A woman at the hospital overheard her telling doctors that she and Samuel were homeless and offered to take them in.
They stayed a few weeks before Duran decided it was time to get moving again in search of a job. The bus would cost about $60. She didn't have it.
So now she was lugging her son down Route 55, staring at a ribbon of blacktop that disappeared into the mountains.
The midday sun beat down. Cargo trucks whizzed past, spraying dust that stuck to her skin. The boy let out a whimper.
"I know, love, I know," she cooed. "Don't cry."
She sat down on the side of the highway under the shade of a large tree with Samuel wrapped in fleece on her lap.
Duran reached into her small backpack for a bottle of water, carefully filled the cap and put it to his lips.
Bucaramanga was 116 miles away.
There were the things that people carried. There were also the things they left behind – he neighborhoods they grew up in, the grandparents who helped raise them, the graves of those who never had a chance to leave.
Leidy Paredes and Maria Colmenares each left behind four children.
The two women, both single mothers in their early 30s, lived in the same neighborhood in Maracay. Paredes left her children with her mother. Colmenares left each of hers with a different neighbor.
Their original plan was to get to Bogota, where Paredes had a cousin who had promised to send bus fare. When it never arrived, they decided to look for jobs in Bucaramanga.
The caminantes do everything they can to catch lifts. They wave their hands or Venezuelan flags. They hold up fingers showing how many seats they need. They plead with drivers to take extra passengers.
Traveling Monday with seven people they met on the road, Paredes and Colmenares would pose on the berm, jumping and giggling.
Trucks careened past them.
Finally around 1 p.m., a commuter bus pulled over and the driver waved their group up the steps. The two women cheered.
When the bus passed one of the trucks that had ignored them, Paredes raised her middle finger and cackled.
"We have to laugh, sister," Colmenares told her. "Because if you don't laugh, you cry."
Fifteen minutes later, the bus route ended. The ride had saved them 45 minutes of walking.
The view from the highway explodes in a collage of rolling mountains, lush valleys and glimmering rivers.
Edgar Blanco and his 13-year-old son, Leonardo, rarely looked up to admire it. They focused on the single white line marking the outer right edge of the road.
Their thoughts might drift, taking them to Venezuela, to the rumble in their stomachs, or to Marvy – Blanco's wife and Leonardo's mother – who had gone ahead that Monday afternoon in a flatbed truck.
But the white line was always there. It was their way out.
All they had to do was follow it.
Blanco knew the route well. He had traveled to Ecuador alone in 2018, walking and hitching lifts to cover 1,000 miles in 11 days.
In Quito, the capital, he made $120 a week working construction and sent home what he could. Away from his family, loneliness gnawed at his soul.
Seven months later, when Venezuela had deteriorated to the point that his remittances no longer covered the food bill, he walked back home to fetch his wife and son.
The sky grew black as he and Leonardo walked on under the stars. The chirping of crickets and Blanco's occasional whistling broke the silence. Trucks whooshed by, narrowly missing them.
They kept a quick pace, hoping their momentum would carry them over the dreaded Paramo de Berlin.
"That plateau is the fiercest there is," Blanco said.
When the pair arrived at a campground in Bochalema just before 8 p.m., Marvy was waiting. Blanco folded himself over his wife's petite frame as they embraced.
All around them, other travelers arranged thin blankets on the uneven dirt amid chatter of backaches and blisters and the cold. The next morning, people bathed in the river.
Bucaramanga was still 95 miles away. But Blanco and his family were together again.
The heaviest things the travelers carried were stories of heartache.
Ana Maria Fonseca Perez was only 40, but she was already acquainted with the sort of loss that some people never experience in a lifetime.
Her husband, Jose Tomas Hernandez Duran, suffered from diabetes and depended on daily shots of insulin. One day in 2017, the medicine ran out. His family searched all over, but every pharmacy was out of stock.
He died just over a month later at age 44.
Then this April, their son Sergio Manuel Fonseca Perez was training with the national guard when he suffered appendicitis and was rushed to the hospital.
Widespread blackouts made it impossible to operate. Before power was restored, he was dead.
Now it was Tuesday morning and his mother was walking with her 15-year-old daughter, a nephew, two nieces and three friends.
One niece, 4-year-old Francesca Huerta Perez, waved to cows in a pasture nearby and barked back at a chained-up dog.
She peeked through a fence surrounding a primary school, where children in clean blue-and-white uniforms stared back at the little girl in a dirty, too-big pink sweater.
"Give us a ride," she said to no one in particular. "I don't want to walk too much."
Another son had already arrived in Peru and sent Fonseca a message warning her the trip was difficult.
"You won't make it," he told her.
But Fonseca had come to believe that she had no choice but to try.
"I came here so I could forget," she said.
Martha Duque would watch the migrants from her window.
By late 2017, the flow of people through Pamplona – her city of 60,000, situated 48 miles from the Venezuelan border – had become so great that Duque found it impossible to ignore their plight, especially when it rained.
"It hurt me a lot to see the people getting wet," she said. "No one would open their doors."
So she started allowing a few men to sleep in her car port each night. Soon she began welcoming women and children inside.
Some arrived with hypothermia, so Duque would wrap them in blankets and warm them with hair dryers. Some confided that they had been sexually assaulted by truck drivers.
The operation grew from there, becoming a mainstay in an ever-shifting infrastructure of overnight shelters, rest stops and Red Cross stations.
At 6 p.m. Tuesday, dark rain clouds were settling in the sky. Dozens of weary travelers sat atop their belongings, waiting to get into the six-bedroom, two-story stucco house.
Dozens of people sit atop their belongings waiting to get inside a shelter.
Duque, 65, walked outside to greet them. She asked that anyone who was hungry line up so she could hand out bowls of chicken and rice. The meals quickly ran out before many could eat.
Just then, workers from an aid group arrived with bread from a local bakery. They helped Duque mix milk, cornstarch and sugar into a hot, thick beverage known as colada de maizena.
Infants wailed in an office-turned-bedroom. Couches were pushed aside and plastic mats laid out in the living room, its white walls speckled with the fingerprints of children.
Duque retired upstairs, where she, her husband and son live with nine volunteers – all Venezuelans who decided to stay and help others.
Downstairs, more than five dozen people slept shoulder to shoulder.
One gray hoodie.
It was thin and made of cotton, but it happened to be the warmest piece of clothing that Josue Moreno and Angel Verde still possessed after being robbed back at the border.
For days, the two teenagers, friends from the city of Valencia, had been trading off wearing it every few hours.
They slept in the rain Tuesday night on a sidewalk in Pamplona.
It was still drizzling the next morning an hour's walk up the road as they huddled outside a Red Cross trailer, shivering under a black tarp in a long line of people waiting for someone to open a gate and let them in.
When Josue got to the front, he haggled with the workers over his lack of identification – which had been taken in the robbery – before they relented and told him to wait for his name to be called.
He and Angel hadn't eaten in more than a day when they were handed bowls of shredded beef and rice and wolfed them down. Their bounty also included canned food, water bottles and a fleece blanket.
By the time they were ready to leave, the valley was filled with fog, and the word among the migrants was that it would be safer to wait until morning to push on.
The two boys walked back to Pamplona and settled in for another night on the sidewalk. Josue pulled the hoodie over his pink polo shirt and unfolded the blanket to share.
The notorious high plateau was 22 miles away.
"I've walked too much to go back," Josue said.
When Hugo Chavez became president of Venezuela in 1999, Eva Alfaro Aldana celebrated along with much of the country.
In the beginning, the socialist leader delivered on his promises to raise living standards, expanding government control over Venezuela's massive petroleum reserves during an unprecedented boom in oil prices to funnel money into social programs.
Alfaro owned a home and earned enough at a local supermarket to live comfortably with her son, Luis Mario Fuenmayor Alfaro.
But then oil prices dropped and the experiment began to unravel. After Chavez died in 2013 and his handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro, took over, the country plunged into a deep recession.
Alfaro clung to the dream until 2015, when armed men broke into her house and shot her son in the hand and leg.
Soon her job at the supermarket disappeared. At 61, she was sweeping storefronts for spare change, while 30-year-old Fuenmayor, who had once sold electronics, peddled loose cigarettes. They dug through trash bins for food.
Now Venezuela was 68 miles behind them. It was Thursday afternoon, and they had been walking for four days.
Alfaro had just traded her worn-out sneakers for a pair that belonged to her son. They were two sizes too big, so she stuffed the tips with toilet paper.
The two were resting on a patch of grass near the highway shoulder when a black SUV pulled over and four men got out.
One introduced himself as Wilmer Azuaje. He said that he had been an opposition lawmaker in Venezuela and that the Maduro government had jailed and tortured him before he managed to flee to Colombia in early 2019.
Now he worked with a charity for Venezuelans, he explained as his companions handed Alfaro and her son bread and bottles of water, which they promptly guzzled.
One of the men held up a phone to shoot video, saying they were going to show the footage to politicians in Washington.
Azuaje asked Alfaro to explain on camera why she fled.
"I don't have anything left in Venezuela," she said, bursting into tears. "I don't even have a home to return to."
"We either try to make it to another country or we die," her son said. "What we're doing in Venezuela is dying of hunger. How could we pay for a passport if we can't even afford food? We're not leaving – we're escaping."
Azuaje tried to console them.
"This is going to change – believe me," he said. "Trust in God. You'll return to Venezuela."
El paramo de berlin sits 10,500 feet above sea level and stretches 27 desolate miles, a landscape shaped by thin air, freezing rain and biting winds.
By the time the caminantes reach the plateau, they have heard rumors of migrant deaths and tales of the foolishness of trying to traverse it on foot.
"Find money so you can travel safely," reads the warning on a map handed out by aid groups.
Nelly Briseno didn't have money – while others slept under porches, she had spent her final pesos to share a room with four friends at a hostel in La Laguna, mile-marker 70 of the journey and the final town before the plateau.
But she did have tuna.
Cans of fish, handed out by the Red Cross, have become a leading currency out here.
Not long after Briseno and her friends started walking again Friday morning, an empty truck with black tarps covering a slatted wooden frame halted in front of them.
The driver charged each of them three cans of tuna. He explained that he was breaking traffic laws by transporting them and would later sell the cans for a profit.
The driver stopped to pick up more migrants. He dropped them a few miles up the road at another Red Cross station and told them to wait for him while he doubled back for any stragglers.
When he returned with another couple dozen people, he explained that the trip across the plateau would cost each of them 1,000 pesos, or 30 cents. This time, he wouldn't accept tuna.
"Everything is a business," he said.
People circled around him, pleading. They offered up all of their cans. But he wouldn't budge.
Those with any money pooled it and paid the driver. But a wide-eyed woman traveling with her 13-year-old son and niece begged him to let them on. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she expressed her fear of getting stuck overnight again in the cold.
"Please," she said.
Finally, the driver relented. He told his 40 passengers to keep quiet in case police pulled him over.
As the truck rumbled ahead, the cold sliced through the cracks between the tarps. The passengers caught glimpses of cow pastures and empty highway.
Nobody spoke. The only sounds were the lurch of the motor, the occasional honk, the clanging of metal clasps securing a tarp and a woman's steady cough.
At noon, hail began pounding on the tarp. Ten minutes later, the truck lurched to a stop. The most feared part of the journey – the crossing of the plateau – had taken an hour and a half.
Then the driver, who had seemed so indifferent to the plight of the travelers, bid them farewell as they climbed out of the truck.
"God bless you and protect you," he said.
They were still 28 miles from Bucaramanga, but it was all downhill.
Over the last five years of Venezuela's decline, more than 4 million people have fled the country. With 29 million still there, the exodus could easily continue for years.
And untold numbers will pass through Cucuta, where Valentina Duran, Edgar Blanco, Ana Maria Fonseca Perez and the others began their journeys.
Each day more nurses, teachers, mechanics, construction workers, hairstylists and merchants arrive at the Tachira River and cross bridges constructed of boulders, sandbags and tree branches through the shallows and up the banks into the city.
They stop for a meal at a soup kitchen. They make their way to the Red Cross and log onto Facebook or WhatsApp to let relatives know they've made it this far.
They wait their turns for health checkups and a supply of tuna, crackers and water. They sit through the lectures about the dangers ahead.
Then they stand up from their bench seats and head toward the road.
Some pause outside the building to examine the messages that other caminantes have left in ink on one of the stucco walls, transforming it into a memorial to Venezuela.
"I know we are all going through a super difficult time, but with the help of our Father God we will forge ahead."
"Leaving behind our family wife, kids, siblings – with a broken heart."
"Someday we will return to you, my beloved country, with God's will."
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Venezuelan migrants traveling by foot take a bath in the river at the campgrounds in Bochalema, Colombia, on May 7, 2019.
MARCUS YAM/LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS
Nelly Briseño, from left, Yusenber Diaz Freite, Ramon Cohil, Luis Mario Fuenmayor Alfaro, Eva Alfaro Aldana and Liliana Mendoza, lay on a patch of grass near the highway shoulder as they tend to their exhaustion of walking uphill towards La Laguna, Colombia, on May 9, 2019.
MARCUS YAM/LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS
A baby is hoisted into the back of a truck as migrants rush to hitch a ride on a truck that will take them past the plateau known as El Páramo de Berlín, on their perilous journey from the Venezuela-Colombia border through the countryside in Cúcuta, Colombia, on May 9, 2019.
MARCUS YAM/LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS
Josue Moreno, left, and Angel Verde, right, friends from the city of Valencia, had been trading off wearing a grey hoodie the warmest piece of clothing they both still possessed after being robbed back at the Colombia- Venezuela border every few hours. They spent the past night sleeping on a sidewalk in the rain in Pamplona, Pamplona, Colombia, on May 9, 2019.
MARCUS YAM/LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS