miércoles, junio 19

IN SEARCH OF A TROCHERO

chapter iV

At least this time, it was easy for the team of Todos Ahora to get ahold of a young man that did this activity for a living. We located him because we saw him with another young man who works on the same route; they were carrying suitcases through a natural path next to the structure of the bridge.

The conversation was brief, and he never denied what he was doing:
  • We need to move to Colombia.
  • Well, it’s 30,000 pesos
  • We only have 20,000
  • Deal! But they must see you first, let’s go this way!
The trocha is located at the edges of the Táchira River, less than 500 meters from the Francisco de Paula Santander Bridge. The bridge is visible at all times, both from the dirt road, surrounded by vegetation, and when reaching the river. You can also always see the flow of people on the bridge, and of course, maintain eye contact with security officials.
During the walk, our chief press officer told the trochero that we were journalists, that we were interested in documenting this route and why it was being used by hundreds of people every day. The young man was receptive and ready to collaborate, but he warned us beforehand: on the Colombian side, other types of people are in charge; they are more violent, and we should not record their faces. The warning worried our team, but the opportunity could not be missed.
The tour started at 2:00 pm, and in eight minutes we were at the edge of the river, through which the crossing would be. The river was high enough to allow for the movement of adults, regardless of their build or height.
The trochero tells us that the greatest flow of people is evident in the early hours of the day, either to make the most of their time shopping in Colombia; to travel as far as possible during the day, in case of migrants; or because in these hours, informal business is at ease as there is less presence of security officers. During our own tour, no one else circulated the area.
When we arrived, we saw six suitcases, all of them of great size and two women who were guarding them; they were not their owners, they were workers of this illegal transit network. Our trochero tells us to wait because the improvised boat that would take us from one side to the other would be back soon. At the same time, we saw the boat on the water, held by two young men, a corpulent one and another one quite skinny, none of them taller than 1.75 meters high. It seemed that they dominated with their arms the fate of those who crossed.
When they were approaching us with what they called «boat», we could see that it was something quite improvised, even with a stopper that prevented the water from penetrating and sinking.
But it was not so easy to convince those who looked like the owners of the ship to cross «dry», because they had told the trochero that they did not provide that service; that it was only for women and children and men had to cross the river on foot. At that time, they were crossing luggage only and were already late. «Many people cross the bridges on foot, but they pass their luggage along the road to avoid searches of the GNB (Venezuelan National Guard for its acronym in Spanish)», the women who safeguarded the suitcases told us.
Nevertheless, convincing the young men with the boat who were in the waters was not difficult for our «hired» trochero. As when friends ask for favors, he asked them to allow us in the boat, and the condition was that the process of crossing bags over were not stopped and sending as cargo two of our own pieces of “luggage”, in addition to the chief press officer of the organization. The suitcases were quite large, could the three youngsters and the boat hold at least 40 kilos in luggage and 50 more from the member of our team?
The answer was no. In the middle of the river, the ship flipped, both suitcases fell into the water together with the chief press officer of Todos Ahora. That same river Táchira, in the week before the date of our visit had dragged and killed at least five people according to marauders in the area and regional press. It was frequent that the Venezuelan scientific police (CICPC for its Spanish acronym) looked for bodies by the edges of it. Luckily, that day the flow was not strong, and help came quickly from the trocheros who were blaming one another for what had just happened.
Three men tried to keep the improvised boat afloat and one who waited on the other side, already in Colombian territory. Our correspondent sank next to the suitcases, and two other men left in a hurry chasing after the luggage that was being dragged by the river, and the other two decided to help our reporter, who made it to dry land completely soaked.
The first thing we all thought about was his cell phone, which contained the work of the whole team, but also his identity documents such as his Venezuelan passport. We had to stay alert, we were already in Colombian territory and we remembered the words of those who had interfered with us there, «the ones on that side can be violent.»
Our chief press officer could spot at first glance a firearm in the shorts of whom stretched out his hand to get him out of the river, and he quickly asked our reporter: «why did you have your cell phone in your pocket?»; «because the deal was not getting wet”, was his response. We continued with the trochero to whom we paid from the Venezuelan side, who was continuously apologizing when he saw his wet client and was worried about his belongings. However, the cell phone was still on; «I was lucky», thought the member of our team.
After we walked only a few meters with our compatriot, we tried to take some shots, encouraged by the border worker, who was attentive to tell the story, «for Colombians it may be another business, but for Venezuelans it is the tragedy of our brothers and sisters».
Amid recordings, he reminded us of another rule of illegal crossings: we must always keep moving, we cannot stop. After it seemed that the worst had already happened, and we were a few meters away from completing the journey that had already taken us about 30 minutes, we received one last warning: «now there will be a search from the paracos (paramilitary men in Colombia), tell the truth and nothing bad will happen, I am with you».
Our last steps to leave the area surrounded by vegetation were accompanied by nervousness, “how would these paracos react to some workers of the press, with all their equipment on them?”. Basically, that was the question that hovered in our heads. The trochero, on the other hand, insisted that everything would be fine.
Just as in the Venezuelan side, the walk is short until we leave the area surrounding the river, and we could distinguish dwellings or commercial premises made with bricks, even without frieze, that served as a sort of «camp» for the groups that control these illicit activities. There were also the two young Colombian men, who were talking to each other, one had a gun in his hand, and the other one was unarmed, or so it seemed.
There is no greeting to the Venezuelan trochero, they only address us, and a sort of migratory interrogation begins:
  • If you have currency, euros, dollars, that stays with us.
  • We only have bolívares (Bs.).
  • How much?
  • Like 250 (less than 10 dollars at the parallel exchange rate of that day).
  • Well, we’ll see about that.
And thus, a review of our pockets and bags begins, where we kept the microphone of the organization and our uniforms. We were still worried about how he would react to knowing that we were part of a media outlet. And they soon discovered it from our press cards, which was one of the first things he took out of our pockets:
  • Ah, so you are journalists? What are you doing crossing here?
  • Yes, we do not have the border mobility card and we are trying to get to Cúcuta, that’s the reason.
  • Why are you going there?
  • We will do research work about the Venezuelans who travel to the rest of the continent from there.
  • Ahm. (While reviewing our belongings, he put his gun to his waist, in addition to explicitly requesting our cell phones and hiding them in the pockets of his shirt).
But he found something else that caught his attention, one of us had his student card with him (from the Central University of Venezuela), and in an attempt to intimidate our team member, the conversation continued like this:
  • Isn’t this the police academy? (while holding the student card).
  • No, of course not, it says Political Studies
  • Ahm, politics… But, I think that this is the university of the PTJ (former name of the Venezuelan scientific police for its Spanish acronym) and do you know what we do to the police or to the national guards? Well, we kill them! And you look a policeman
Trying not to be scared, our correspondent, who had intervened, insisted on his version:
  • We are not police, in my case I am a student and I work as a journalist, we have nothing more to tell you.
  • Well, we believe you, but when people like you want to cross, I must tell the bosses, I will be back.
After turning around, the young man with a Colombian accent, a gold necklace around his neck, and a gun on his waist, says:
  • You know what? everyone to work as they please; you do that work, I do this one, and as long as we do not get involved with anyone, we should be able to continue with our own things, don’t you think?
  • Yes, it seems like that to us (our correspondent answered timidly)
And so, he begins to give us our documents back, including cards and passports, everything except our cell phones. He tries to say goodbye, or authorize our entry, with a handshake. At that moment we asked him about our most valuable belonging at that moment:
  • What about our cell phones?
  • Well, everything has a price as we said, I did not tell my boss that you were from the press.
  • But we need them, it’s how we do our work – we insist.
In addition, the trochero, who had not yet complied with his complete work, intervened requesting that he returned our cellphones, or his name would be stained after allowing them to steal from their clients:
  • You know you cannot do that.
But the paraco was still not convinced and he asked us:
  • Did their phones get wet? Because they are wet up to the neck
We answered yes, and it was enough for him to decide to return them to us
  • That’s it? We asked.
  • Yes, but listen to me, you did not see anything here. Yo don’t have photos or anything like that, right?
  • We do not have anything
  • Better that way, as I said about policemen and sapos (word for snitch in Colombia and Venezuela); we do them the wrong thing around here, do you understand?
  • We understand
  • You can go then
  • You finish accompanying them – he says to the Venezuelan who brought us from our territory.
Ashamed with us, the young man who had charged us for our crossing told us that this was not routine, that it was the first time it happened to him and that he did not understand the reason for the intimidation; even less the attempt to steal. And as the end of the road was approaching, he said:
  • They wanted to take advantage because they saw you were young, and they fear the press. But thank God the situation didn’t escalate, I would not have left you alone. See that road there? At the end, it already connects with the bridge and you will meet your people.
We shook his hand and despite the risks we faced, we decided to thank him, and he asked us:
  • Are your phones still on? (pointing to one of our correspondents) could you record anything? This work must be shown.
Our reporter answered affirmatively to both of them and we gave him our word that we would show this, without knowing that in just a few hours, the cell phone that had the entire record would be turned off and never be on again.
  • Excellent, from this point I cannot be seen, try to leave discreetly, although with all your clothes that wet it is impossible; we are at your service.
Those were his last words to us.
Meanwhile, we finished advancing and we were able to meet a human rights activist who was waiting for us on the side of Colombia who had crossed the bridge earlier. He waited for us for a long time and he confessed to us that he was very nervous.
Without a doubt, the story of that crossing had to be told.

The content of this investigation was obtained thanks to this border-crossing method, which despite the risks, allowed us to observe the Venezuelan migratory crisis, firsthand.

chapter V