Attacked and powerless, Venezuela soldiers choose desertionThursday, February 28, 2019
CUCUTA, Colombia (AP) — The simple house on a street ridded with potholes in this town on Colombia's restive border with Venezuela has become a refuge for the newly homeless: 40 Venezuelan soldiers who abandoned their posts and ran for their lives.
The young National Guard troops sleep on thin mats on the floor. In one room, several flak jackets rest along a wall. On a balcony, boots that got wet crossing the muddy Tachira River are set out to dry.
“I was tired of people seeing me as just one more of them,” Sgt Jorge Torres said, referring to President Nicolás Maduro's socialist government. “I'm not.”
A high-stakes plan by the Venezuelan opposition to bring humanitarian aid into the country floundered Saturday when troops loyal to Maduro refused to let the trucks carrying food and medical supplies cross, but it did set off a wave of military defections unlike any seen yet amid the country's mounting crisis. More than 320 mostly low-ranking soldiers fled in a span of four days, Colombian immigration officials said Tuesday.
With no relatives in Colombia, several dozen have ended up in a shelter run by a priest. The home on a street with low-hanging electrical wires is where they are nervously keeping track of relatives left behind, figuring out how to apply for asylum and deciding what should come next.
“The only way for this government to leave, unfortunately, and all of Venezuela knows it, is for there to be a direct intervention,” said Sgt Jose Gomez, a father of two. “The only one with that power is the international community.”
In interviews with The Associated Press, nine National Guard soldiers described the day that they were ordered by commanders to stop the humanitarian aid from entering Venezuela. Fearful of being jailed, many complied with orders and admitted to launching tear gas at protesters. Two said they were part of a failed plot to get the aid in. All fled after making unplanned, split-second decisions with only the uniform on their backs.
“Son, if this decision is to save your life and so that there is change, do it,” Gomez said his father told him in a brief phone call before he sprinted across the border.
The defections come as the Venezuelan opposition puts pressure on the military to recognise congress leader Juan Guaidó as the nation's rightful president. Venezuela's military has served as the traditional arbiter of political disputes, forcing out dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958. But the top military brass has stood fast with Maduro, who has shown no sign that he intends to relinquish power.
While Guaidó has proposed amnesty to military officers who back him, the low-ranking soldiers who have defected say breaking ranks with Maduro is all but impossible. Even as the number fleeing swells, they represent a small percentage of the at least 200,000 troops in Venezuela's army.
Anyone who shows the slightest hint of disapproval risks arrest, they said, and jail has become increasingly synonymous with torture. Even those like Gomez, who wanted to see the aid brought in, followed orders to repress citizens. As Saturday grew increasingly tense, protesters threw rocks and gasoline bombs at him. He said he responded by throwing tear gas at them to protect himself.
Others at the home also had evidence of the resistance they faced that day: Torres still had blood caked beneath the skin on his nose from protesters kicking him on the ground after he surrendered to Colombian authorities. A young woman had a scratch across her cheek that she said came from a rock thrown by protesters.
During the clashes, armed pro-Maduro groups known as “colectivos” fired indiscriminately, and several of the soldiers said they feared being shot themselves. National Guard troops are equipped with crowd-control devices like rubber bullets and tear gas but do not carry any regular firearms.
Like the rest of the population struggling against hyperinflation expected to reach an eye-boggling 10 million per cent this year, the soldiers also knew the indignities of life in Venezuela, where severe shortages of food and medicine have led to more than three million people leaving the country in recent years.
“You know that in your own home you don't even have a kilo of rice,” said the female soldier, who requested anonymity, fearing for the safety of the children she left back home. “And I'm supposed to stay here fighting, why?”
Two months ago, Gomez said he watched as his newborn son died within 15 minutes because the hospital where his wife delivered did not have oxygen to pump into his failing lungs. Torres said an aunt died of cancer and an uncle succumbed to a curable stomach infection.
“That's what pushed me to make this decision,” Torres said.
When Guaidó first announced the aid push, Torres said that he and three soldiers in his barracks huddled and quietly discussed their options. As National Guard drivers, they had access to armoured trucks. They hatched a plan to drive the vehicles across the Simón Bolívar International Bridge, breaking down the barricades that stood in the way and allowing opposition trucks to carry the aid in.
Saturday morning, Torres climbed into one of the white-painted trucks and charged it across the bridge. Though he broke through several barricades, he also hit a woman trying to enter Colombia. She escaped serious injury, but he was forced to stop.
Getting out with his rifle in hand, Torres raised his arms in surrender and helped the woman toward an ambulance.
As one of the first deserters, he was quickly taken in and presented to Guaidó, who had sneaked across the border into Colombia to oversee the aid launch.
Torres said he stood at attention and pledged his loyalty to the 35-year-old lawmaker recognised as Venezuela's interim president by over 50 nations, including the United States and many Latin American countries.
“We're still in time to change history,” he said Guaidó told him.