By Geraldine Garcia
Cucuta, Colombia, Feb 22 (EFE).- The trails that for years were the only means of communication between Colombia and Venezuela are still in existence along the mutual border after the resumption of relations between the two countries, although the movement of people and merchandise along them has been much reduced.
The open pathways through the undergrowth, which cross the Tachira River between the same-named Venezuelan state and Colombia’s Norte de Santander province, have existed as long as anyone can remember, but they became more heavily used starting in 2015 with the closure of the border on the orders of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and hundreds more of them were created over the next few years.
In recent years, tens of thousands of Venezuelans have fled their crisis-beset country along the pathways but Gustavo Petro’s victory in Colombia’s presidential vote and his rapprochement with Maduro and the resumption of diplomatic relations after a four-year hiatus on Feb. 23, 2019, has completely changed movement across the frontier.
In the area between Cucuta and Villa del Rosario, Colombia, and San Antonio and Ureña, Venezuela, the bulk movement of people and merchandise now takes place across the Simon Bolivar and Francisco de Paula Santander international bridges, over which for the past few months cargo transport and passengers have been moving subject to customs controls.
However, there are still people who continue to use the trails, most of which are controlled by illegal armed groups who collect tolls for their use and who have committed murders, robberies, kidnappings and rapes, along with other crimes.
There are assorted motives for continuing to use the trails, including losing one’s identity documents, which are required to cross the border legally via the border posts, being able to cross quickly and not having to wait in line at immigration control and even the desire to hide legal problems from the police and soldiers manning the border posts.
John Quintero, who traverses the arid and lonely “Los Mangos” trails between Ureña and Villa del Rosario, told EFE that he opts to use that route because he has charges pending against him in court.
“I must use the trails because in Colombia I have a case against me for being unable to feed my son. I don’t feed him, not because I don’t love him, but because I don’t have anything. I work as a shoeshiner and earn between 10,000 and 20,000 Colombian pesos ($2 to $4) per day and I have another family in Ureña who depends on that,” he said, clearly ashamed about his situation.
Quintero, who spoke on condition that EFE take no photos of him so as not to harm his children, crosses the border along the illegal 1.5-kilometer (mile-long) trail each day with its bad smells, trash and underbrush.
“Sometimes I want to cross using the bridge, but I can’t take the risk that they’ll arrest me. I prefer (to cross) early in the morning and go by the trail, which is no longer dangerous, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
A woman traveling along the same trail told EFE, without giving her name, that she does so because she lost her Venezuelan identity document and if she tries to cross at the bridges the authorities won’t let her do so.
The Los Mangos trail, which can be taken from one country to the other in less than half an hour, is almost deserted and practically no goods move along it during the day. The cargo wagons that used to be found upon it filled with food and other items bought in Colombia for resale in Venezuela now just carry a few bottles of water, and perhaps some eggs and other basic products.
“The work here is practically gone. Now, people want to – and can – cross over the border in cars because they’ve opened the bridges,” said a young Venezuelan man who, along with a friend, had a cart and was offering his hauling services to passersby.
The Cucuta Metropolitan Police commander, Col. Carlos Andres Garcia, told EFE that opening the international bridges to vehicle traffic makes people’s lives easier but, “due to a cultural issue,” there are still people who continue to use the illegal trails to smuggle products.
Running near the Simon Bolivar international bridge is the “La Platanera” trail, which passes through the canebrakes and sandy soil along the river and over which may travel only people “authorized” to live in a temporary settlement created by Venezuelans on the Colombian side and where passage is even restricted to the police.
A little ways away there’s another trail known as “La Marranera,” with the reputation of being the most dangerous route in the area and which, like La Platanera, comes to life at night when it’s used by smugglers moving in silence through the darkness.
Along the trails, nobody sees anything, nobody hears anything, but everyone knows that – day or night – there are ears that are listening and eyes that are watching.