CUCUTA, Colombia – One evening in early February, local police rounded up Ernesto Marquez along with hundreds of his fellow Venezuelans in the Colombian border city of Cucuta, drove them to the frontier and ushered them back into the crumbling country they had previously fled.
The pushbacks by Cucuta law enforcement are part of a new policy response to long-simmering tensions between local residents and the Venezuelan migrants, who sleep by their hundreds in public places, which have begun to boil over violently.
Marquez, a 38-year-old chef, said Venezuela was too dangerous to sleep outside, so he stayed awake all night. In the morning, he walked back into Cucuta, alongside many of those deported the day before.
“We were loaded like dogs, like any other load of freight,” said Marquez. Once a chef at the Princesa Plaza, an upscale hotel in the Venezuelan city of Maracay, he now sells individual cigarettes to save money for a bus ride to Colombia’s capital, Bogota.
Marquez’s quick return underscores the difficulties the Colombian government has had controlling the influx of Venezuelans, impoverished by hyperinflation and a sinking economy. Migración Colombia reported in February that more than 600,000 Venezuelans have entered the country through official crossings. Estimates of the number of irregular entries differ but may be as many of the legal entrants.
“The deportations don’t do anything,” said Father David Perez of the Catholic diocese of Cucuta, who runs a charity kitchen for Venezuelans at the border. “They send the migrants out and they return through the smuggling paths.”
The border between Colombia and Venezuela stretches over hundreds of miles through jungle territory controlled by a myriad of armed groups who oversee the hundreds of informal pathways for smuggling Colombian drugs and Venezuelan contraband as well as people. Experts doubt Colombia could impose effective immigration controls in such a lawless zone.
“The borders are unstable at the moment due to both the humanitarian situation and to the number of criminal and violent actors,” said Ivan Briscoe, Bogota-based Latin America director with the International Crisis Group. “I do not think that Colombia has either the resources or experience to be able to manage a large outflow of migrants on its own.”
Suggesting a heightened sense of urgency on the government’s part, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos visited Cucuta on February 9 to announce new actions addressing the refugee crisis. Santos suspended registry for Colombian border entry cards and deployed 3,000 military and police personnel to boost border security, noting that Colombia was spending millions of dollars to support the migrants.
“Colombia has never lived through a situation like what we have today,” Santos said in a televised address before reporters and local authorities gathered to receive him in Cucuta.
The same day, Brazil’s defense minister, visiting his own country’s Venezuelan border, echoed Santos’ remarks, deploying the military to the border and ordering the relocation of tens of thousands of migrants from the border zone. On February 12, Brazil’s president, Michel Temer, visited the border city of Boa Vista, where a growing number of Venezuelan refugees are straining local resources.
“Obviously it’s a reflection of the huge concern in these countries,” said Briscoe with the Crisis Group. “It’s a complex humanitarian emergency. International support is crucial.”
Beyond the immediate humanitarian concerns, Colombia faces long-term threats of destabilization as masses of Venezuelans move into the country without proper reception, healthcare or social services, Briscoe said.
Both Colombia and Brazil will hold presidential elections this year, and neither incumbent will contest them. Temer has said he will not stand, and Santos is limping to the end of a second term, so there is little incentive for a long-term thought-through response to the Venezuelan refugee surge.
Santos’ measures stopped short of extending more aid to the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans now stranded in Colombia, or the countless more who are still sure to arrive, according to Ana Teresa Ramos, founder of Asociacion Deredez, which helps displaced people at the border with support from the U.N. Refugee Agency.
“It’s good that he came, but he didn’t do anything to help the Venezuelans,” she said of Santos’ announcements.
She said Colombia should work to provide documentation for the Venezuelans so that they can travel onward in the country, find legal work and enroll their children in school. And she said Colombia will have to provide those services at no cost, as few Venezuelans are able to pay.
Despite the urgency conveyed by Santos and Temer’s visits, it is unclear that Venezuela’s neighbors will be able to stem the flow of people over the border. Colombia’s control of its border zone has weakened in recent years. Coca cultivation in the department surrounding Cucuta increased sharply between 2015 and 2016, from 28,482 acres (11,527 hectares) to 61,358 acres (24,831 hectares), according to U.N. figures, a sign of the growing presence of groups that run the drug trade.
Lawlessness in Venezuela has provided an opportune point of export for Colombian drugs, according to the International Crisis Group, and many illicit goods that would have left Colombia through Panama or the Caribbean coast now cross the border in the opposite direction of the migrants.
Armed groups now operate across the border with impunity – an important sign of weak state control. Such is the case with the ELN, an armed group that local magazine SEMANA reported in February were waging attacks in Colombia from bases in Venezuela.
People regularly turn up dead on the illicit roads and footpaths that traverse the area. Ramos of Asociacion Deredez said that any tightening of official border control will only push desperate Venezuelans onto illicit routes, by which they’ll continue to arrive en masse in Colombia.
“All we can hope for is help from the other countries,” she said.