I. Lifeline for two countries
The Arauca River, about 100 meters wide, is a border and a lifeline between Colombia and Venezuela. Motorboats bring Venezuelan migrants to the Colombian side of the border river every day. In this ongoing photographic investigation, I portray the living conditions of Venezuelan immigrants who have chosen to stay in Arauca.
Since 2015, Venezuela has been the starting point of the largest migration movement in recent history. No other region in Colombia has taken in as many migrants – in a per capita comparison – as Arauca. From 2017 onwards, I have visited Brisas del Puente, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the capital of Arauca, several times. It is known to house a high number of migrants. Most of the men here, Venezuelans and Colombians, work as boatmen and fishermen.
II. A new underclass has emerged
The Colombian government has shown solidarity with the Venezuelans, granting work permits to hundreds of thousands of them and refraining from deportations. There is a dark side to this immigration phenomenon.
The arrivals are essentially on their own. There are no state-run reception centers or assistance programs for them. To survive, Venezuelans take any job, no matter how poorly paid or dangerous. A new underclass has emerged in Arauca and Colombia, that of Venezuelans.
Venezuelan migrant women are particularly exposed to physical and sexual violence. Migrants are also exposed to racism. Xenophobic actions against Venezuelans are on the rise, especially in big cities like Bogota and Cali. In this respect, Arauca is a positive exception. Compared to the national average, there have been fewer xenophobic attacks here.
A recession is looming in Colombia, and it seems unlikely that the recently elected government of President Gustavo Petro will have the resources to launch large-scale social and economic inclusion programs for migrants. It is likely that conflicts between Colombians and Venezuelans will increase, including in Arauca.
III. The hungry neighbours
The canoeros, who steer the boats called canoas in Spanish, are the spine of both the formal and the informal economy in this isolated frontier region. To survive, a canoero has different lines work. Fishing is one of them. Transport people from one country to the other a second one. Contraband is a third option.
Other Venezuelan migrants have joined the Colombians at the shore of the river, working as paleros. The work of the palero is unique and hard. He dives to the bottom of the river up to 70 times a day, digs the sand and sells it to builders.
IV. Cat and Mouse
It is six oclock in the morning. The sun reflects on the surface of the river. The canoeros have already been working for two hours. A boat disembarks on the beach. Three men and a woman jump out and run ten meters to hide in a line of trees. The reason for their hurry approaches in the middle of the river: a Venezuelan Navy vessel. The boat turns off its engines and rocks in the current.
The canoero cannot start the engine while the government forces are blocking his way. Even so, he looks carefree. He is used to these mandatory breaks. He takes the opportunity to drink a coffee. “We play cat and mouse,” said the canoero.
After half an hour the Navy ship finally leaves. The group that had fled to the trees returns to the boat to take out several black bags that they had left behind. Inside are chickens and fish wrapped in plastic sheets and old newspapers destined for the black market in the city of Arauca.
Contraband has existed since the Colombian and Venezuelan nations were born. However, when the socialist government took office in Caracas, the smugglers discovered that if they bought food subsidized by the Venezuelan state and sold it in Colombia, they obtained huge profit margins. According to an officer of the Colombian navy, the products most trafficked from Venezuela to Colombia on the Arauca River are fish and meat, after gasoline.
Although it sounds paradoxical, food moves in both directions. Due to the economic crisis in their home country, Venezuelans shop in the supermarkets of Arauca city everything they do not get at home, from sugar to diapers. Hundreds of them cross each day the bridge. Those who buy in greater quantities must resort to the services of canoeros.