The Colombian-Venezuelan border is usually a riot of humanity, a 1,274-mile stretch of frontier where some 40,000 people flow back and forth each day going to work, looking for food or fleeing Venezuela’s economic and political collapse.
On Wednesday, however, the region remained eerily silent, as key bridges stayed closed, barricaded with burned-out trucks and rusting cargo containers — monuments to a growing political crisis.
The bridges have been shut since Saturday, when Venezuela’s opposition, led by interim President Juan Guaidó, tried to drive trucks of humanitarian aid across the border against the will of Nicolás Maduro, who has been labeled as an illegitimate leader by dozens of countries. The convoy was met with buckshot and tear gas and two of the trucks and their cargo were burned.
Colombia said it needed 72 hours to survey damage and clear debris, but when it tried to reopen the border on Wednesday Venezuela kept its side closed.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
Mireya Chiligo, 25, was standing on the Colombian side of the Francisco de Paula Santander bridge early Wednesday desperate to get to the Venezuelan town of Ureña, where she’d left her seven-month-old son with family.
“He’s my life and he’s on the other side of the bridge,” she said, staring across the 200-yard stretch that separated her from her newborn.
Venezuela and Colombia have been at odds for years, and it’s often the residents along the border who have paid the price. In 2015, Venezuela shut its border entirely for 11 months, saying it was necessary to fight Colombian smuggling rings. When the crossings were finally reopened in August 2016, it was only to foot traffic.
Miguel Pérez, the regional director of Colombia’s Civil Defense, spent Wednesday going back and forth across the littered bridges hoping to find someone in Venezuela he could negotiate with.
“The conditions don’t exist for us to have an interaction,” he said after one trip. “There are only military and police on that side of the border. I need to talk to my counterpart.”
Immigration and border officials also said they were struggling to open diplomatic channels.
The communication breakdown isn’t surprising. Last month Colombia became one of the first countries, along with the United States, to recognize Guaidó as the president of Venezuela — a move that angered Maduro.
Over the weekend, after the aid clash on the border, Maduro accused Colombian President Iván Duque of acts of hostility and broke off all diplomatic ties. Colombia’s consular officers, who have been key points of contact in the past, have all been recalled. On Wednesday, Venezuelan officials confirmed there were no longer any of its diplomats left in Colombia.
The border closure is more than just an inconvenience. Some 3,900 Venezuelan schoolchildren cross the bridges every day to study in Colombia. And there are hundreds of Venezuelan patients who receive dialysis and other treatment on this side of the frontier, amid the collapse of Venezuela’s medical system.
The Simón Bolívar international bridge is the largest border crossing, accounting for 70 percent of all migratory traffic. While the bridge has been closed in the past, Colombian officials said it was jarring to see it physically blocked with shipping containers, including one that had been placed there overnight by Venezuela. On Wednesday, Venezuelan authorities began filling some of those containers with sand, suggesting they would be there permanently.
Carrying a blue thermos and fighting back tears, José Duarte stood in the middle of the bridge wondering how such a commonplace trip had turned into a logistical nightmare. His 37-year-old son had died in a Colombian hospital on Monday night due to liver cancer. And now he didn’t know how he was going to get the casket back to Ureña for burial.
While the bridge closures do stop many people, they don’t stop the most determined. On Wednesday, hundreds of Venezuelans and Colombians were rolling up their pants to wade across the ankle-deep Tachira River that divides the countries. The illegal border trails, or “trochas,” are unreliable and dangerous, controlled by Colombian and Venezuelan gangs. But they’re the only option for some.
Franceli Viamonte, 23, emerged from one of the trails covered in sweat and holding one of her triplets. The boys were three months old and she said she was scared that if she stayed in Venezuela they might die due to lack of medicine and reliable food. One of the infants was already fighting a congenital stomach infection that doctors in Caracas said they didn’t have the antibiotics to treat.
Traveling with other family members, Viamonte said they had paid $3 per person for the right to use the illegal trail. Once in Colombia they planned on taking a five-day bus trip to Chile to start a new life — joining the estimated 3.4 million Venezuelans who have fled the country in recent years.
Viamonte said the sudden rise of Guaidó over the last month and his promises to turn the country around were inspiring but not enough to risk her children’s life.
“I have a lot of faith that things are going to get better,” she said. “But nothing has changed yet…There’s not a hospital or clinic that works. We can’t live there.”
Chiligo, who was trying to get back home to her son, said she couldn’t live in Venezuela or Colombia alone. Her home, family and support system is in Venezuela, but her job, baby formula and basic goods were in Colombia.
“My life is there but my work is here,” she said. “We all need this border open again.”