After Tillerson's visit, Colombia dispatches more military to Venezuelan border amid migrant crisis

Venezuelan migrants struggle as Colombia issues new border-security measures

By Cody Weddle, Andrea Torres - Digital Reporter/Producer

CUCUTA, Colombia - A group of Venezuelans run their small business out of a small apartment's kitchen in Colombia. A few empanadas were frying on the stove. On a small counter, a man was unrolling the crescent dough, cutting it, adding the chicken and using plastic to carefully fold the dough.

They said the economic crisis in Venezuela forced them to drop out of college. They start to work about 1:30 a.m.., and they earn more in one day in Bogotá than they earned in two weeks back home. They said they are home sick.

"What hits or hurts most is that you are here eating well, but you don't know if your mom ate," one of the Venezuelan migrants said. 

The medicine and food shortages continue to prompt young Venezuelans to cross the border with Colombia. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced a new plan Thursday to deal with border security and help refugees. 

Santos blamed Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and the failure of the socialist policies he supports for the immigration crisis.

"This is a tragedy," Santos said during his visit to Cucuta, a Colombian city close to the Venezuelan border where many Venezuelans seek medical attention.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also referred to the situation in Venezuela as a tragedy and mentioned the possibility of an oil embargo. He was in Jamaica Thursday after completing visits to Mexico, Argentina, Peru and Colombia. 

Tillerson's visit to Colombia was days after President Donald Trump said Colombia's inability to stop the flow of cocaine could result in aid cuts. According to the United Nation's Office on Drugs and Crime Colombia remains one of the top growers and producers in the world, and the U.S. is among the top consumers.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration considers Venezuela a transit country for cocaine traffickers working with corrupt members of the Venezuelan military. Santos also announced the Colombian military will be deploying 3,000 more officers to guard the border with Venezuela.

Without a work permit, most Venezuelans are involved in black markets and the most vulnerable in prostitution or domestic work. Others earn a living as  street food vendors, run small businesses or work as freelancers. That is about to change for the tens of thousands who arrived to Colombia legally before Feb. 2.  Authorities will be granting them a legal residential status after they fill a free online application. 

Santos promised that with the help of the UN there will be a new center to help about 2,000 refugees in need of transitional assistance. Some Colombian nonprofit organizations are also stepping up to help, but the need is great. 

Colombian immigration authorities recently estimated that in the last year, some 150,000 Venezuelans were in the country illegally, about 263,000 were on transit to another country and some 632,000 traveled back and forth to buy food, hygiene products and medications. 

In an effort to secure the border, Santos is making it more difficult for Venezuelans to travel back and forth. He ordered the stop of registrations for an identification permit issued for temporary crossings and officials will now require Venezuelans to use their passports. 

Meanwhile, the Venezuelan electoral commission announced Wednesday night that the presidential election will be held April 22. Maduro is seeking reelection and he is confident that he will remain in office until 2025. The leaders of the opposition -- Henrique Capriles and Leopoldo Lopez -- are ineligible to participate in the process.

Capriles was barred from office and Lopez remains under house arrest after he was found guilty of inciting protesters in 2014. During failed negotiations in the Dominican Republic, Maduro's regime refused to free political prisoners or accept humanitarian aid.


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