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They hoped to join Venezuela's liberation force. Now these soldiers have no mission

A former member of Venezuela's security forces cradles his baby in Cucuta, Colombia. More than 1,400 police and military officials and their families came to Colombia in February to support interim President Juan Guaido.

JIM WYSS/MIAMI HERALD/TNS

By JIM WYSS | Miami Herald | Published: May 11, 2019

CUCUTA, Colombia (Tribune News Service) — When Venezuelan Sgt. Rafael Jimenez rushed across the Colombian border in February – breaking ranks with the Nicolas Maduro regime and putting his life and family at risk – he believed it was worth it. He imagined that within days he'd be marching back the other direction as part of an army of exiles ready to defend the constitution and Venezuela's true president, Juan Guaido.

But almost three months later, Jimenez and about 800 other police and military officers are still stuck in Colombia waiting for their orders.

"I came to this side of the border thinking we would be a military organization that could take humanitarian aid back into Venezuela and liberate Venezuela," Jimenez said from the Colombian border town of Cucuta. "But none of those things that I dreamed about have happened."

Instead, there's a growing sense of desperation among the ranks of this army without a mission.

Many of the men and women who defected brought their families with them to save them from government retaliation and hunger. Colombia's immigration authorities say there are more than 1,480 members of this group – soldiers, spouses and children – mostly living in hotels scattered around Cucuta.

The families are considered asylum seekers and are given free lodging and three meals a day – but they are not allowed to work. And almost all of them are struggling to meet even their most basic needs.

As a member of an elite National Guard anti-narcotics squad, Jimenez, 28, used to raid jails in Venezuela and pursue some of the country's most dangerous criminals. But on a recent weekday he was scrambling to find diapers, powdered milk and wet-wipes for his comrades' children.

At Jimenez's hotel, in downtown Cucuta, there are 77 military officials and 91 family members, including 52 children – more than half of them infants and toddlers.

"We're grateful because we have a place to sleep and we eat three meals a day," he said. "But what about the people with families? How do they buy diapers and baby formula? What happens when their kids get sick?"

Jose Vargas, a 28-year-old Venezuelan marine sergeant – one of Venezuela's few submarine experts – couldn't afford a pair of $2 sandals for his 3-year-old son who'd lost his shoes at the hotel. As he watched his three children run around the small lobby, he said he was worried that they were falling behind because he wasn't allowed to enroll them in school

"The kids are trapped in here all day," he said. "It's bad for them psychologically."

But those who left their families behind are also tortured. One man, a 19-year veteran of the Venezuelan police force, said he was racked by guilt every time he had a meal because he wasn't sure if his son was eating back in Venezuela, where hyperinflation has made food and medicine inaccessible to many.

"Sometimes I lock myself in the bathroom and cry because I'm so frustrated," he said. "And then I get on with my day."

This wasn't how things were supposed to be.

Most of the men and women crossed the border in February, when Guaido, the 35-year-old head of congress, was one month into his campaign to oust Maduro and was asking the armed forces to break ranks and join him "on the right side of history."

By going to Cucuta they thought they would be part of Guaido's efforts to move tons of humanitarian aid into Venezuela and be the muscle behind his new government. Hundreds heeded his call, often at great personal risk.

Jimenez said that after he fled, his family's liquor store was raided and his cousin, also a National Guard member, was jailed in reprisal. He's been told he faces a 25-year prison sentence if he returns. Others said their families had to go into hiding after they defected. While most of the men were willing to give their names, they refused to be photographed for fear of being targeted.

The men spend their days anxiously watching TV and surfing the web looking for signs that the tide is turning back home. Last week some thought their wait was finally over when Guaido, on April 30, called for a military uprising.

Williams Cancino, a member of the feared FAES unit of the National Police who has been living in Cucuta since February, said he rushed to the international bridge that divides the two countries as soon as he heard the news. He thought a Guaido representative might be coming to fetch the men for the uprising.

Instead, Colombian police escorted them back to their hotels and barred them from leaving. The military revolt in Venezuela never materialized and four civilian protesters were killed in the following days by forces still loyal to Maduro.

"That was the entire reason that I came here along with more than 1,000 other people," Cancino, 27, said of the failed uprising. "We're trained, we know how to deal with tear gas, we know the country. ... The blood of innocent people shouldn't have to be spilled – our blood can be spilled."

Jorge Noriega, a 37-year-old policeman, said he was glued to the television all day watching in desperation as Guaido's putsch lost steam. "I wanted to jump through the screen and be there," he said. "I wanted to be helping in Venezuela."

The United States and more than 50 other nations recognize Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate president and say Maduro, 57, must step down. While Guaido can still rally large crowds he has been otherwise powerless. Maduro still controls almost all the branches of government and the armed forces.

This week that power was on display, as the country's Supreme Court charged seven lawmakers with treason for their role in the uprising. On Wednesday, security forces detained the vice president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly.

The Trump administration's repeated claims that "all options are on the table" when dealing with Maduro have given hope to many of the military exiles. They think it's still possible that Washington will give them guns and financing and allow them to retake their country.

Cancino said the vast majority of his colleagues back home despise Maduro and want change, but they're kept under the boot of their superiors, whom he called "true believers."

"There are a lot of brave soldiers there but they're powerless to do anything because the majority of the commanders, those in charge, are still loyal to Maduro and they aren't going to leave easily because they're involved in crimes and corruption," Cancino said. "They know they're going to jail (if Maduro falls) and they will fight to the end."

Instead, he says the international community should arm the exiles and let them do what they were trained to do: fight.

That's not likely to happen. While Colombia has been a vocal critic of Maduro, it has gone out of its way to avoid the impression that it's playing host to a foreign army. When the uniformed men and women crossed the border, they were stripped of their weapons and garb. On this side of the frontier they are strictly civilians, the government says.

The long wait has already depleted the force, as a few hundred of the soldiers and police are thought to have left Cucuta for Peru, Chile and elsewhere in hopes of getting work permits.

Others said they were considering leaving because they felt "forgotten" and were growing weary of their financial situation. Their room and board costs are being covered by the United Nations and Guaido's government, but his struggling administration has been having trouble keeping up with the bills. The soldiers said that at least four times in the last three months they've been threatened with eviction from the hotel due to unpaid tabs.

Guaido's ambassador to Colombia, Humberto Calderon Berti, sent a video to the troops this week saying he was looking for a "permanent solution" for the problems.

"I assure you we will fix this," he said, "but we ask you for patience."

Colombia's Migration Director Christian Kruger earlier this month hinted that the group might eventually be granted work permits – a sign they may not be going home anytime soon.

But many in Cucuta still have hope that they will be able to don a Venezuelan uniform again.

"We are on the right side of history and our moment will come," Jimenez said. "I have faith in God and our President Juan Guaido – Venezuela will be free."

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