Venezuelan soldiers who want to flee their country must carefully weigh their options. If they return, they face severe penalties, and abroad they have little chance of finding work. Ofelia Harms reports from Ipiales.
"If I go back to Venezuela, I'll have to go to prison for 10 years." Jackssel Mujica has good reasons for turning his back on his homeland. A former member of the Bolivarian National Guard, he has fled the country. As a deserter, he is facing a long prison term should he return.
"I couldn't bear the orders anymore," says the 28-year-old. As a soldier, he was told to help put down the protests in the country, often using violence and tear gas, "but there were family members and friends among the people ... and they were all protesting because they were starving."
Jackssel Mujica is sending remittances to his family and friends. He sends 10,000 pesos from Colombia almost every day. This amount of money, the equivalent of three dollars (€1.90), is hardly enough to pay for a meal in Colombia, but it meets the nutritional needs of a whole family in Venezuela.
However, the former soldier cannot find work. Mujica has been living in the city of Ipiales in southwestern Colombia, only 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) from the Ecuadorian border, for six months now. He spends his days here begging at the roadside with a sign explaining his difficult situation to passersby and drivers. He makes ends meet together with his cousin, Yiron, and other compatriots. Each of them must collect five to six dollars daily to pay for accommodation and food.
Up to 4,000 Venezuelans have crossed the border from Colombia to Ecuador in recent months. Most of them have left their home country because they were starving. Many are trying to help their families with money transfers from abroad.
Most had planned to go further south, to Peru or Chile. But since Ecuador restricted the passage, many have found themselves stuck in Colombia. Most do not have a passport and therefore cannot legally enter Ecuador. Colombia tolerates them, but they don't really feel welcome.
"Many treat us like dirt," says Alvaro Teran. The former lawyer sells coffee from a thermos and traditional Venezuelan pastries called "arepas" in the center of Ipiales. When he talks about his past, he can't stop the tears.
Alvaro Teran's brother has also deserted. He was a member of the Venezuelan military and fled a few years ago to Brazil.
Alvaro ended up in Ipiales with his wife and one daughter. The second daughter is still in Venezuela and has just had a baby. Alvaro's eyes become tearful again. "I'm going to go back in a month to meet my grandchild. Even if it's the last thing I do," he says, and then goes on to try and sell the remaining coffee before it gets cold.