“On the edges of the Arauca river”: an ethnographic story
April 28 2021
These were the words of Ramiro, a local who guided me across the border between Venezuela and Colombia in the state of Apure, near the Arauca River.
Our first meeting was in Guasdualito, a trade center and one of the most important towns in Apure. When he asked me about what brought me to the town, I felt his mistrust. I responded to that feeling, telling him not to talk about anything that may bother him.
– I guess that it is like this in the whole country, but here we are raised feeling vigilados (under surveillance). With no idea who people are, if this person could be a miliciano, paraco, compa, camarada (undercover armed group member, paramilitary, friend, or comrade)… we never knew who is who. Our lives consist of watching out and being careful. The Arauca is like that, it can give you everything and can take it all away.
After repeating the last phrase, he took me south on his motorcycle, to the Arauca River.
It was a warm day. The air lacked the refreshing quality it is supposed to have. We passed through a few alcabalas (checkpoints) by military or police officers that block the road. We were all drafted by the military. Most people have to pay to avoid service. On this side of the border every road leads to the Arauca, I thought.
“It seems like the military can smell people’s hurry.”
I could barely hear the comment, the wind in my ear from the speed of Ramiro’s motorcycle distracting me from the conversation. I began to pay attention to the faces of the people in the other alcabalas. As Ramiro said, the people seemed to be rushing, short on time in every interaction. Then I realized something: I could see people’s faces. No one was wearing a mask.
We arrived at El Amparo, an important village beside the river. In the late 80s this village was the site of a massacre, 14 fishermen killed by the military. The military presented the dead as members of local guerrillas. In some ways, it was the beginning of the country’s horror story. I asked Ramiro about this and he told me that he was not sure to which massacre I was referring. In his nearly 50 years, he had heard mucho plomo en el monte (a lot of bullets in the jungle). I did not inquire further.
We approached the local port where people cross the river on canoe. At that moment something changed: the people began to use masks.
“Now you can imagine who watches this place. They have demanded people use masks,” Ramiro told me as we stored the motorcycle in a garage. A young couple was filling bottles with gasoline.
“Look at that,” said Ramiro angrily.
“We used to take our gasoline to Colombia. Now, we have to bring it from there and sell it in these bottles.”
In the port some people started queuing in line. For some, this is a daily routine in which they bring basic products from Colombia to supply their bodegas, or go work in the town of Arauca. For others, like me, our appearance gives us away as people from the country’s interior. At least that was what Ramiro said: “all the migrants came from the interior”. These people carry big bags of clothes and personal stuff. They lay near the canoes and some young kids load their bags:
“This son of a bitch is heavy,” groaned one of the chamos (kids).
Ramiro let out a laugh: “Boy, they bring their life in that bag.”
Can you fit a life in one bag?
At that moment nobody was talking. Nobody asked questions. Everybody knew what to do: pay, get in line, and stay quiet.
We boarded the boat. “The river is dry,” said Ramiro. The boat pilot nodded his head. The boat’s motor was roaring and the water washed our faces. Two or maybe three minutes passed. On the Colombian side Ramiro asked me:
“And many people indeed bring all their life in a bag–how much can we remember in that moment?”
At that moment I felt that Ramiro was aware of my purpose there. I was trying to figure out what it was like to live on the Venezuelan-Colombian border, who lived there, and where they were from. This field-work is part of a long ethnographic project documenting changes in armed actors and illicit activities across the Venezuelan-Colombian borders. In the last four years, the Venezuelan diaspora has changed the border dynamics.
Venezuelan migration, like all migrations, has a very heterogeneous explanation. At least since 2010 Venezuela has experienced a significant decrease in the economy, which was mainly dependent on oil. In political terms, the government’s authoritarianism escalated. Society became polarized. The government increased political repression on dissidents. The most vulnerable people became highly dependent on any State handouts, such as food or money. Political tensions increased with the oil industry debacle, general mistrust of public institutions, government corruption, and the international sanctions imposed on the country. If politicians enjoyed a certain amount of immunity and protection in this context, the same was not true for the people.
The first wave of emigrants included the middle and professional class, but in the last years, the poorer class have also left the country in search of better opportunities and conditions for their families. The Venezuelan-Colombian border is the main access route to other countries, and also allow people to stock up on basic commodities not available in Venezuela.
On the Colombian side there was a little place to pay for the river-pass. We paid and I asked Ramiro about the people collecting the fee.
“This is the kind of thing that we know about, but nobody dares to say publicly.”
We walked for a while and then he broke the silence:
“Did you see any weapons? Did anyone tell you what to do?” I said no. To me the situation was unclear. It seemed that everyone knew what to do, but nobody was saying anything. “That is the control here” Ramiro affirmed, “nobody has doubts about that. That is why things work.” Violence is not always visible.
Colombia’s Arauca Department has a historic presence of armed groups. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC-EP) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) are two of the most powerful and long-standing authorities in the Department. Following the demobilization of the FARC-EP in the peace accords of 2016, the ELN assumed more control in the territory. Nevertheless, armed FARC-EP dissident groups who did not stick to the peace accords have continued operating. The silence corroborates the fact that everyone knows this.
The border functions as a space where armed groups move around from one side to another fluidly to establish armed orders and escape from Colombian or Venezuelan jurisdictions. Their power is often disputed. The imaginary built by the centers of power invites us to think about the borders through western movies, where gunmen shoot all day long. Instead, this order is lived in an everyday silence.
In exceptional times, silence is interrupted by circumstances that bring more rumors than explanations: shootings on bridges over the border, bombings, and military operations in search of the “rebels”. For the people, all that remains is to seek shelter or go to the other side of the river. The mistrust in the military or any other security forces only aggravates the situation.
I spent several days crossing the border between El Amparoand Arauca. In Arauca, people make their living from commerce. A significant number of Venezuelan migrants live on the outskirts hoping to earn some money helping people with their packages. When I was in a shop, a Venezuelan boy asked me,
“Patrón, can I take your bags to the river?”
“No, man. No thanks, I am not buying anything.”
“Give me some money and I’ll take your bags for you… help me with something, things are fucked up.”
I agreed and walked to the river with the young boy. He was with his girlfriend, a very young girl. We talked for a while:
“Here we have to revolucionarla (switch it up) all the time, you cannot stop for one second.”
They came from Valencia, one of the most important cities in Venezuela. They decided to stay in Arauca because it was easier to send some money to their families and if necessary, return home. After the first Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, many Venezuelan migrants returned to their cities due to the lack of employment.
“This is like a prison. Everything is under control. You do something wrong and you are going to find yourself dead in the river.”
He stood up when a truck full of goods going to Venezuela started parking near the river, offering his help unloading. She followed his steps. He lifted a sack of onions probably heavier than himself and walked to the river. These are the kinds of goods that people smuggle into Venezuela: food, hygiene products, toilet paper, and soda.
“They must be from the center, from Caracas or Valencia. They come here and make a mess in Colombia and on the other side as well. They come with the attitude of a thief. That is why they are murdered. But they still keep doing wrong. Those are the people from the interior of the country.”
With this comment, Ramiro illustrated the stigma around Venezuelan migration. A stigma by their own people on this side of the border.
Hearing Ramiro talk about the migrants I remembered the term used in Táchira, a state with one of the most important borders with Colombia, to describe the migrants: “Los caraqueño-valencianos” (The people from Caracas and Valencia). Young people arrived from the poorest slums and neighborhoods. These people find in migration an alternative to make something more of their lives. In talking with the young couple, I felt the weight of this stigma, heavier than the vegetables. Most of these chamos work odd jobs pushing carts, or picking trash from the streets. In many cases, the women sell their bodies and the case of men are recruited by local armed groups to pick coca or serve as muscle.
The Colombian media has reported that several Venezuelan boys have died handling explosives. For some people that I interviewed, these chamos are the “first line of combat” for the armed groups, because their lives are disposable. On the border, who cares about the life of a veneco (disparaging term for a Venezuelan)?
Ramiro let me see the symbolic boundaries for the young Venezuelan migrant. First, the stigma generated by the lack of opportunities in their own country, making migration the only alternative. And second, by their entry to Colombia, where they live outside the fantasy of citizenship, an exclusion that is expressed to them in terms of exploitation or the complete lack of human rights.
Taking a moto-taxi I noticed how the driver eluded the police control points
“If they see me are going to fuck me over.”
I understood that he was a Venezuelan migrant. We kept talking for a while and he asked me about Caracas and the situation in the shantytowns
“I always keep watching the news of Caracas. I prefer to be here. If I see a police officer I may turn back and take another way, but in Caracas you can’t get away from the FAES (Special Forces of the Police)”
He showed me that how one migrates does not always depend on personal will.
Together Ramiro and I were going to travel back to the Venezuelan side of the river. I asked Ramiro if we could stay by the river for a bit.
“Do you want to see the people of the river? They live lying right there… at least the river gives them food. They learn to fish and live lying right there on the shore.”
That image was so clear to me: “They live lying right there”. A painful metaphor to describe this little piece of the Venezuelan migrant reality. They live in a gray zone with no state presence but with armed groups who control day-to-day regulations.
Ramiro showed me not only the physical but the symbolic borders for these people. How do you cope with a country that expels you to a society that rejects and discriminates against you?
While I was doing fieldwork, a bomb exploded on the Colombian side of the river. A Colombian police officer died in the event and a few more were severely injured. A Venezuelan man also died from the explosion, but there is no information about him. Just silence.
The river, the dirt paths, the long road, the extreme heat, the mosquitoes, all the closed bridges, and the violence are all common in the narratives of people who make a living on the borders. Every object has a meaning and functions to regulate mobility. Each part of this ecosystem has agency. The Venezuelan and Colombian states know it. The border is more than a line on the map.
“15 years ago, this was all very different. Colombians came here to Venezuela. They were the workers, the people who did the heavy and unattractive jobs. Now Venezuelans go there to do the heavy work. Here is the path for many of the travelers, all these people walking to get out of Venezuela. The life here is the passage”.
To Ramiro´s comment I respond:“Do you think that one of these boys can get away when they want?”Ramiro remains quiet. His silence makes me think that borders are not just mobility; for so many boys and girls making a living here the border can also be confinement. The river can easily drown any chance for progress and stability.
 Smuggling gasoline from Venezuela to Colombia was previously a traditional activity for people along the border, due to its low cost in Venezuela. Recently, Venezuelan gasoline shortages due to the failure of the oil industry (Petróleos de Venezuela-PDVSA) based on corruption and international sanctions have upended these dynamics.
 See: Idler, Anette (2019) Borderland Battles: Violence, Crime and Governance at the Edges of Colombia’s War. Oxford University Press.
 Because of its social and political impact, the Venezuelan diaspora has been victimized in the region. The spread of xenophobia in Colombia, Perú, Ecuador and Chile, among other countries, reveals the lack of political will to incorporate these migrants into the formal economy. According to the International Migrant Organization, more than 4 million Venezuelans have left the country.
 See: Lamont, Michelle & Molnár, Virág (2002) The Study of boundaries in social sciences. Annual Review of Sociology. 28. 167-195.
 See: Auyero Javier (2007) Routine Politics and Violence in Argentina: The Gray Zone of State Power. Cambridge Studies in Contentious Politics.
Francisco Sánchez is a clinical and communitarian psychologist. He is professor at Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas, and member of Reacin, a network for activism and research for coexistence in Venezuela.