At a squat, concrete brothel on the muddy banks of the Arauca River, Gabriel Sánchez rattled off the previous jobs of the women who now sell their bodies at his establishment for $25 an hour.
“We’ve got lots of teachers, some doctors, many professional women and one petroleum engineer,” he yelled over the din of vallenato music. “All of them showed up with their degrees in hand.”
And all of them came from Venezuela.
As Venezuela’s economy continues to collapse amid food shortages, hyperinflation and U.S. sanctions, waves of economic refugees have fled the country. Those with the means have gone to places like Miami, Santiago and Panama.
Never miss a local story.
The less fortunate find themselves walking across the border into Colombia looking for a way, any way, to keep themselves and their families fed. A recent study suggested as many as 350,000 Venezuelans had entered Colombia in the last six years.
But with jobs scarce, many young — and not so young — women are turning to the world’s oldest profession to make ends meet.
Dayana, a 30-year-old mother of four, nursed a beer as she watched potential clients walk down the dirt road that runs in front of wooden shacks, bars and bordellos. Dressed for work in brightly colored spandex, Dayana said she used to be the manager of a food-processing plant on the outskirts of Caracas.
But that job disappeared after the government seized the factory and “looted it,” she said.
Seven months ago, struggling to put food on the table, she came to Colombia looking for work. Without an employment permit, she found herself working as a prostitute in the capital, Bogotá. While the money was better there, she eventually moved to Arauca, a cattle town of 260,000 people along the border with Venezuela, because it was easier to send food back to her children in Caracas.
The previous night, her sister had traveled by bus for 18 hours from Caracas to pick up a bundle of groceries that Dayana had purchased — pasta, tuna, rice, cooking oil — and then immediately jumped on a bus back home.
“If you had told me four years ago that I would be here, doing this, I wouldn’t have believed you,” said Dayana, who asked that her last name not be used. “But we’ve gone from crisis to crisis to crisis, and now look where we are.”
With inflation running in excess of 700 percent and the bolivar currency in free fall, finding food and medicine in Venezuela has become a frustrating, time-consuming task. Dayana said she often would spend four to six hours waiting in line hoping to buy a bag of flour. Other times she was forced to buy food on the black market at exorbitant rates. Hunger in Venezuela is rampant.
That has fueled a scramble to earn hard currency — Colombian pesos or, even better, the U.S. dollar, which is the legal tender of Ecuador and Panama.
Dayana said that on a good night she makes the equivalent of $50 to $100, selling her services 20 minutes at a time.
“Prostitution obviously isn’t a good job,” she said. “But I’m thankful for it, because it’s allowing me to buy food and support my family.”
Selling sex is legal in Colombia, and even small towns have red-light districts where authorities look the other way. So while immigration police were actively hunting down Venezuelans selling trinkets and panhandling in Arauca’s central square, the women along brothel row said they were rarely harassed.
Marta Muñoz runs the Casa de la Mujer, a municipal program that focuses on women’s health and rights. She said that prostitution is something of a blind spot for local authorities who are more focused on blatant crimes, like child trafficking, rape and the abuse of minors.
“I know that some of them are being paid unfairly and being treated very poorly,” Muñoz said of the Venezuelan prostitutes. “But how do we protect them without strong public policies?”
Sánchez and others in the sex industry say Venezuelans dominate the trade now because they’re willing to work for less pay.
“I would say 99 percent of the prostitutes in this town are Venezuelan,” he said. All 12 of the women who work for him are from the other side of the border.
It’s not just a border phenomenon. Fidelia Suarez, the president of Colombia’s Union of Sex Workers, said her organization has seen a dramatic influx of “Venezuelan women and men working in the sex trade” across the country.
While it’s impossible to quantify how many might be working in the trade, Suarez said her organization is trying to safeguard the vulnerable migrants.
“We want to make sure they’re not being harassed by authorities or taken advantage of,” she said. “Being sexually exploited is very different than being a sex worker.”
In a sense, Venezuela’s economic crisis has been so severe that it has even upended long-held social norms.
Marili, a 47-year-old grandmother and former teacher, said there was a time when she would have been ashamed to admit she’s a prostitute. Now she says she’s grateful to have a job that allows her to buy hypertension medication for her mother back in Caracas.
“We’re all just women who are working to support our families,” she said. “I refuse to criticize anyone, including myself. We all have to work.”
Both Marili and Dayana said they told their families how they make a living. “I don’t like to keep secrets,” Dayana said.
Even Sánchez, the 60-year-old brothel owner, says he was forced into the business by the Venezuelan crisis. Like many Colombians, Sánchez moved to the neighboring country 30 years ago, when the oil rich nation was booming economically and Colombia was mired in violence.
There, he had solid work in Caracas repainting cars. When the crisis killed that job several years ago, he began smuggling Venezuelan wood and its cheaper-than-water gasoline into Colombia.
Eventually, things got so bad he decided to return to Colombia permanently. He and his wife opened the brothel, called “Show Malilo Night Club.” Sánchez’s nickname is Malilo.
“This place is mine, thank God,” he said of the modest building, strung with Christmas lights to provide ambiance. “But it hurts me deeply what’s happening over there.”
Marili said the couple had been lifesavers — giving her a place to stay and a way to make a living.
“Not just anyone will lend you a hand,” she said. “These people are humanitarians.”
There seems to be no end in sight for Venezuela’s economic pain. Last month, the Trump administration restricted Caracas’ ability to borrow money from American creditors, which will undoubtedly deepen the crisis. And yet, President Nicolás Maduro has been digging in, avoiding the economic reforms that economists say are necessary.
Dayana dreams of a day when she’ll be able to go home and start a small clothing boutique. Asked when she thought that might happen, she shook her head.
“No one knows,” she said. “We just have to be patient.”
Follow me on Twitter @jimwyss