By Geraldine Garcia
Cucuta, Colombia, Jul 9 (EFE).- It has been five years since Nelly Martinez disappeared on Colombia’s border with Venezuela, but her sister Doris is hopeful of finding answers now that the governments in Bogota and Caracas have mended ties.
Nelly was last seen in October 2018 on the Francisco de Paula Santander Bridge connecting the two neighboring countries, hours after she left the family’s residence in the Bocono neighborhood of Cucuta.
Since then, Doris has explored all of the clandestine crossings between the Colombian province of Norte de Santander and the Venezuelan state of Tachira.
“My sister sold contraband gasoline and since Oct. 8, 2018, we have heard nothing of her, whether she is alive or dead,” Doris told EFE, expressing anguish shared by hundreds of Colombian families.
On Saturday, Doris told her story at a public meeting in Cucuta with Venezuelan lawmakers Luis Eduardo Martinez and Juan Carlos Palencia, who are trying to organize a bilateral initiative to search for the missing and provide greater support to their families.
“There are no longer excuses. Diplomatic and consular relations are re-established. There should be coordination between the Venezuelan and Colombian attorney general offices, between the organs of intelligence and criminal investigation, to provide responses to these families in search of their sons, nephews, and brothers,” Luis Martinez told a press conference.
The segment of the border in Norte de Santander and Tachira was subject to sporadic closures starting in 2015 and was definitively shut down in 2019 when Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro broke diplomatic relations with Colombia over Bogota’s support for an opposition legislator who proclaimed himself Venezuela’s acting head of state.
Though border re-opened months ago, many people continue to use the clandestine crossings, most of them under the control of illegal armed groups.
Cucuta resident Yolanda Barreto has been searching for her nephew, Andres David Laguado, since the day of his disappearance in September 2018.
Laguado, like Nelly Martinez, eked out a living selling contraband gas.
The 23-year-old set out for a clandestine crossing known as El Aguila with a friend who was found dead days later, Yolanda tells EFE with tears in her eyes.
“We went up and down all of the crossings because we were told he was dead in a ditch, but there are many other accounts” of what happened to Laguado, she says.
Rosa Reyes, a Venezuelan woman, has lost count of how many times she has searched the crossings for any trace of son Jhaylander Raul Arevalo, also 23, who went missing after setting off by motorcycle from La Fria, Tachira, for Cucuta in April 2022 to buy spare parts.
In the absence of an official list of the missing in the border region, residents say the number exceeds 1,000.
After Salvatore Mancuso, former chief of Colombia’s now-defunct AUC rightist militia, revealed in May that many of the “disappeared” in the border zone were killed, the two governments began discussions on creating mechanisms to find, identify, and repatriate the bodies of victims.
And the topic was on the agenda when Colombian Foreign Minister Alvaro Leyva and Venezuelan counterpart Yvan Gil met in Bogota at the end of last month.