Just before 5 p.m. local time on Sept. 27, a 3.7 magnitude earthquake rocked the region around Norte de Santander, in northwestern Colombia. Fortunately, there was minimal property damage and no injuries were reported. The harmless tremor nevertheless must have sent shivers down the backs of the area’s residents. Its epicenter was just 50 miles from the border town of Cúcuta, which is itself the epicenter of a major demographic upheaval that threatens to devolve into a crisis.
A human river flows daily across the border between Venezuela and Colombia. Since July, about 33,000 thousand people, Venezuelans and Colombians who live in Venezuela, cross over into Colombia, as many as 26,000 of them into Cúcuta. A large majority of them go back the same day. They come to buy the basic goods that are so hard to find in Venezuela, where the political and economic situation grows more catastrophic by the day. They seek flour, oil, sugar, diapers and toilet paper, as well as medications of all kinds. Many of these are then sold in the black market at a huge markup.
Others mean to leave Venezuela until the crisis has abated and President Nicolás Maduro is out of office. According to Colombian authorities, around 340,000 Venezuelans now live in Colombia (about a third of them illegally), while many tens of thousands have emigrated to Peru, Chile, Ecuador, and elsewhere. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, the most recent winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has signaled his willingness to help the Venezuelan people during this terrible time, by urging the creation of special residency permits (called “permisos especiales de permanencia” or “PEPs”) to allow Venezuelans to reside in Colombia as needed. About 560,000 Venezuelans are reported to have requested a “border mobility card” (“tarjeta de movilizacián fronteriza”), which should ease the border crossing process for crossers and migration authorities.
But political will is not the only thing necessary to deal with this situation. Local authorities in Cúcuta and elsewhere have communicated to the Colombian government that they are not equipped to handle the multitudes that come and go every day. There is the bureaucratic aspect: the need to keep track of every individual who moves in one direction or the other. Hundreds of border crossers sleep on park benches and on the streets. Many have to be fed, a job that has fallen to local charities and churches with meager funds. Crime is on the rise, and contraband of goods for the black market is the least of it. Drug smugglers take advantage of the throngs to pass through the border unnoticed. Criminal gangs are reported to be recruiting for members from among the poor and desperate Venezuelans. At least ten shooting incidents have been reported in the area, mostly between security forces and criminal gangs. One recent incident caused a stampede of panicked border crossers.
Not surprisingly, there are growing calls from local officials and business organizations to tighten crossing restrictions, or even temporarily close the border altogether. The irony is that, since taking office, Maduro has closed the border numerous times, alleging that Colombia lets in criminal elements to Venezuela as a way to sabotage his regime. The diplomatic squabbles between the two countries had become almost routine, putting yet another obstacle before those who must insure the welfare of border crossers, be they Venezuelan or Colombian.
As long as the situation in Venezuela continues to deteriorate, the human flow will only become bigger and stronger, to the point where Colombia, as well as the international community, will have to make decisive choices if they wish to avoid future political and humanitarian crises.