As Venezuela's political crisis deepens, and the country closes its border with Colombia following violent clashes in late February, CPJ's emergencies director, María Salazar Ferro traveled to the Colombian border city Cúcuta, with Luisa Isaza, head of protection for the Colombian press freedom group FLIP, and CPJ's Andes correspondent, John Otis. There, they met with journalists stranded by the closure, and heard about the safety concerns and dangers faced by those covering the crisis.
I landed in Cúcuta, a border city in northern Colombia, early on March 6. It had been a little more than a week since Venezuela had closed the border following violent crashes between protesters and the military. Every few kilometers along the road from the airport, I saw clusters of people, some with bundles, others with nothing, coming out of makeshift paths known as "trochas" that have become a lifeline between Colombia and Venezuela.
More than a thousand journalists from Colombia and elsewhere in the world traveled to Cúcuta on the weekend of February 22 and 23, Teófilo Fernández, a stringer who works with international outlets in Cúcuta, told me. They were there to cover an humanitarian aid endeavor organized by the opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaidó, and a Venezuelan Aid Live concert. Many traveled from Venezuela--for them, a quick drive for a good story. But once the border closed, a little more than a dozen journalists were stuck in Colombia.
Over coffee and juice at the Casino International Hotel, the unofficial press club for Venezuelans in Cúcuta, some of the journalists stranded by the closure told us about conditions on the border. Among them were Carola Briceño, a journalist whom Hugo Chávez once kicked out of the Miraflores presidential palace, who now reports for the U.S.-based news website PanAmPost; freelancer Carlos Rivero, who was in Cúcuta covering the events for Venezuela's Asamblea Nacional; and Ernesto Che Mercado Jones, a photographer who covers the Andean region from Bogotá for international outlets, including RT and the video agency Ruptly. The rest of the group had crossed slowly back into Venezuela illegally, through trochas, in the days before we arrived.
The journalists said covering the clashes had been chaotic. Briceño said that most Venezuelan reporters had not been prepared and were not carrying any personal protective equipment, unlike the international reporters. "Photographers who cover protests are used to these type of events, and they knew what to do," Briceño said. "But for many of us, this was all new and we were not prepared."
Other reporters and photographers who had been on the border that weekend, told me via phone calls, that the Venezuelan army had fired pellets at the crowd and used a lot of tear gas. At the Casino International lobby, Mercado Jones showed us where he had been grazed on the back of the leg by a pellet. At least one other journalist had been trampled and hurt as crowds tried to run away from the bridges, where most of the clashes had occurred.
Several journalists who had since illegally returned to Venezuela told me via WhatsApp that the journey was arduous. To cross, they had paid "vacunas" (crossing fees) to armed groups whom they referred to as "colectivos" who guard the border.
Those who had arrived with equipment said they had been forced to leave it behind with trusted contacts when they had decided to cross back. "Colectivos will go through all your belongings when crossing the border," said Rivero. "They will look through everything you have, and if they find a microphone or a camera, they will stop you and take everything. And from that point on you don't know what can happen. So you just have to keep your head low."
Who these colectivos are is a mystery. As Mercado Jones said, "We just don't know." For decades the Venezuela-Colombia border has been plagued with contraband and drugs. In the past, key players have included Colombia's leftist guerrilla groups, far-right paramilitaries and armed forces from both countries. But the journalists said it is unclear who the border colectivos report to or work with: whether they have ties to Venezuelan armed forces, groups of armed civilians also known as colectivos that operate in other parts in Venezuela, or whether they are former ELN or FARC fighters or even prisoners. Several of the journalists spoke of rumors that convicts are being released, armed and paid by the Venezuelan government.
When CPJ attempted to reach the Ministry of Prisons via the "contact" section of its website, a pop-up message appeared asking people to save electricity by only opening the door of their fridge when necessary, and reducing their use of televisions and computers. No phone numbers or emails were listed for the ministry.
Even in this mix, the journalists with whom I spoke said colectivos are a concern.
Clad mostly in black, with hoods or balaclavas, they patrol the river and charge 5,000 Colombian pesos (roughly US$2.50) for passage, the journalists said. "Their orders are to shoot anyone who does not do what they want," said Orlando Carvajal, a Cúcuta-based journalist, whose team is covering the border for the Colombian daily, La Opinión. And that includes people who refuse to pay "vacunas".
"Trochas are completely controlled by them," said Cristian Herrera, an investigative reporter for La Opinión. "You cannot go into their territory as a journalist, it's too dangerous because they don't want you to know what they are smuggling, whether it's contraband or humans."
Over lunch, Herrera insisted that the border has always been dangerous, but what's changed, he said, is the uncertainty of what that danger is, and who is really in control. For Colombian outlets, this security shift has meant that they can't cover certain stories from Venezuela, for instance on medical needs and the spread of disease. "When the border is closed, you can't cross through trochas, it's just too dangerous" said Carvajal. Nor can you ask your Venezuelan stringers to carry the burden, he added.
For Venezuelans, it has deeper implications. Weeks-long blackouts mean that it is hard to access information inside the country and just as hard to post information for the outside world. For years, journalists have crossed into Cúcuta for better internet, Rosalinda Hernández, one of the Táchira-based reporters who was stranded in Cúcuta for days, told me over the phone. But now the risks are too high to even try it. At least, too often.
For the reporters who remain on the Venezuelan side, short detentions are common. Sometimes these happen at the hands of Venezuelan military, sometimes at the hands of colectivos, the journalists at the Casino International Hotel told me. Almost always, journalists' phones are confiscated.
Despite this, few of the journalists with whom I spoke, raised any concern over the information their confiscated phones contained, or mentioned any digital security protocols they use to protect that information. "What worries me most about this," Mercado Jones said, "is that journalists are not worried about their digital security."
And yet, every Venezuelan reporter and photographer I spoke with in Cúcuta said the same thing: the security situation is only going to get worse. Politically, they all agreed that there was no turning back and that something will have to change in Venezuela. "But whether we have the resolution happens in three weeks or three months," Mercado Jones said, "the humanitarian crisis will continue, and it will continue to unfold at the border."
[Reporting in Cúcuta and Bogotá]