Carlos Hernández feared for his life in Nicolás Maduro's brutal dictatorship. Here, he tells the harrowing story of his escape.
It is easy to talk about the stakes in the fight between democracy and autocracy in abstract terms. Around the world, there is now a contest between freedom and tyranny, between the rule of law and the arbitrary exercise of naked power. But when dictators destroy democracy, this has a real and direct impact on millions of people. This harrowing account of fleeing Nicolás Maduro's brutal regime, by the brave Carlos Hernández, gives a vivid description of what that impact looks like in Venezuela. We are proud to publish it. - Yascha
By Carlos Hernández
If I turn my head, I can see a thick cloud of dust trailing the motorbike. We’re far off-road, riding fast along on a wildcat dirt track through the bone-dry shrublands that make up the northern end of Venezuela’s 2,000-kilometer (1,300-mile) border with Colombia. The Caribbean Sea isn’t far, but you can’t see it from here. I’m hanging onto the little grill behind me for dear life as my “driver” pushes the bike hard toward the border.
I have a small bottle of hand sanitizer in my pocket. Nothing else. No money, no passport, no cellphone, no debit cards, no food, no water. Home—the once-industrial city of Puerto Ordaz, in Venezuela’s southeast—is some 1,300 kilometers behind me. My destination is about 950 kilometers ahead: Medellín, in the middle of Colombia. The sun is blazing overhead. I’m thirsty, hungry, and I’ve barely slept for two nights. I’m completely alone and utterly defenseless.
This part of the border is controlled by Colombia’s ELN guerrillas. They’re technically Marxist, but they seem to spend more time smuggling cocaine and fuel than overthrowing the bourgeoisie. The Venezuelan government calls itself Marxist, too, but also seems to spend more time dreaming up ways to make a buck than on anything like a revolution. They’re made for each other.
I know it’s not a safe route. But it’s safer than the alternative: the hardtop road, which is controlled by Venezuela’s viciously predatory military.
The bike comes up to a tiny adobe hut in the middle of the scrubland and we stop. Two little kids, both rake-thin, have laid a fallen tree trunk across the only passable bit of dirt track. It’s a “tollbooth,” and the umpteenth shakedown on my trip. With their short black hair and round faces, you can see that they’re Wayuus, the indigenous group that’s been living in these parts since before there was any such thing as a Colombia or a Venezuela, much less a border between them. The kids are barefoot. One wears black shorts, the other green ones.
The sun has sucked every last bit of moisture from the ground. It’s unbearably hot. The double face mask and my acute dehydration make even brief stops excruciating. The kids seem unfazed.
They say something to the bike driver in Wayuu, a language I don’t understand. He hands them a few Colombian peso coins. One kid lets out a small “hehe” as he looks at the coins, while the other goes running to drag the tree trunk away to open up the dirt track for us.
When I set off from Puerto Ordaz, two days earlier, I was prepared. I had my old national ID card (expired, but new ones take years to get issued), my Venezuelan passport, three different types of currency totaling almost $200, debit cards, face masks, hand gel, and food and water for the trip. By Venezuelan migrant standards, I was royalty.
Bit by bit, all but the COVID-related supplies got stolen.
I knew this could happen. I assumed it would. But I couldn’t stay in Puerto Ordaz. In 2014, after oil prices peaked, my country’s economy started shrinking, and it hasn’t really stopped. The basics of modern urban life have collapsed there, one after the other. There are power or data blackouts constantly, often multiple times a day, making my online freelancing gigs almost impossible to keep. Even when the internet works, it’s excruciatingly slow. There’s no public transport, sometimes there’s no cooking gas, and even the most basic of foods, like bananas, keep getting more and more expensive.
Water problems came close to driving me over the edge. The taps usually run dry, and the water that does come through the pipes is so dirty you can’t possibly drink it. So every other day, my morning routine there included heading out to buy bottles of drinking water to carry home. Sometimes there’s no water in the city at all, and all I can do is wait, thirsty, sweaty, in a house that smells like the toilet we can’t flush.
Probably what did it for me, though, was the thought of what would happen if I ever needed medical help. I don’t even mean COVID-19 specifically, although that is of course a worry as well. Hospitals are absurdly understaffed and simply don’t stock basic supplies. Something as treatable as an allergic reaction to seafood or an infected flesh wound can and will kill you there. And it’s not like we have fuel to get to an emergency room, either: The line for a quarter tank outside a filling station can take days.
I can’t keep living like this. I need to get to Medellín, where my closest childhood friends have emigrated and I have a room waiting for me. I don’t care that the border has been closed for over a year due to COVID.
Watch: Carlos Hernández on the daily challenges of life in a dysfunctional Venezuela.
The journey started three days earlier. Puerto Ordaz is quarantined, so the bus terminal is closed. I take a very expensive ($180), 650-kilometer car ride to Caracas that I found on social networks, chatting with a missionary from Mother Teresa’s congregation in India who has been in Venezuela since 1999 and finally decided she couldn’t stay any longer.
In Caracas I join my friend Celys, who is going to Barranquilla, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Her plan is to meet up with her boyfriend there and look for work. She lost her job as a journalist in January, after the Venezuelan government confiscated the equipment of the news website where she worked. She barely has any savings left.
I spend the night at her place—we’re so nervous, we can’t sleep much—and the next afternoon we head to the bus station and hop on an aggressively air-conditioned overnight bus to Maracaibo, around 700 kilometers west, near the Colombian border.
We are tense the entire time.
First, because of the checkpoints. They come every half hour, on average. Not that it’s predictable. You can be stopped at any time. Some checks are literally one minute apart.
Each checkpoint is a lottery. Most commonly the soldiers just check the luggage in the bus’s storage bins. Sometimes they round up cédulas—national ID cards—from everyone, check them (for what? how? no one knows), and hand them back. One time they took me out of the bus for showing my passport instead of my ID. Everyone knows these soldiers survive by preying on travelers, though, so it’s never a surprise when a stop morphs into a shakedown.
Watch: Carlos Hernández describes being stopped and extorted by Venezuelan security forces.
We get jolted from an uneasy sleep at about 1 a.m. Two soldiers get on the bus and bark, “Cédulas!” before going up and down the aisle collecting cards.
We wait tensely for them to come back, hand back our cards, and send us on our way.
Nobody talks. Everyone is too sleepy to complain. A soldier finally steps inside but before handing over IDs, he asks loudly:
“Who is Carlos Hernández?”
I raise my hand.
“Come with me,” he says. “And bring your bags.”
I take my backpack, and the blue suitcase out of the storage bin, and come with him to what’s effectively a mobile prison cell/shakedown trailer. It’s small, like it’s meant for a pickup truck. It’s all metal inside and has metal benches along the walls.
The guy in combat fatigues who has my ID looks younger than me. I can tell from the gray camo pattern of his uniform that he’s not actually army but an officer for FAES, a police unit with a grisly reputation for extra-judicial killings. There’s a policewoman, too. She’s wearing a dark blue uniform and listens carefully, with her thumbs inside her bulletproof vest, as if she were scratching her armpits. She’s tall.
“Open up your bags,” the man says.
I start with the backpack. I open it up and he starts looking inside. He sees my laptop, my most valuable possession in the world: what I use to work and earn money and buy food and stay alive.
“What do you do for a living?”
He checks my wallet. There’s no money there. I’m not that obvious.
“Where did you get this cédula?” he asks as he pats me down, finding the 50,000 Colombian pesos—about $13—I’m carrying in my front pants pocket.
“I’ve had it since forever,” I say. “You mean because it’s expired, right? I have my passport, too—here, look.”
The woman takes the passport but doesn’t really look at it. They’re both focused entirely on my cédula.
“This is a forged document,” the man says.
It’s not. But that’s not the point.
“It’s not even a good one,” he continues. “Do you see this flag here? It has the new format, but the content has the old format, and look at the signature right here. This has so many mistakes.”
“What are you talking about?” I say. “That’s my old cédula. It’s just expired. I lost my new one and I’m...”
“So you forged a new one,” he interrupts me.
“No, I lost it, and I’m using an expired one I found in a drawer while I wait for the government to issue me a new one. With COVID, it’s taken more than a year. And I needed to travel.”
“This is clearly a forged document. It has elements of the old and new format”
The tall woman steps in.
“Here’s the deal, kid,” she says, motioning to the stranded bus. “I don’t like wasting time—my time or anyone else’s. Forgery is a felony punishable with five to 10 years in prison.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” I protest. “This is not a forged document. It’s just my old cédula. I just haven’t been able to replace my lost one because of COVID. Also, why do you care? I just showed you my passport.”
The guy searching the backpack reaches one of the pockets with money. As he finds the bills, he lines them up on the metal bench across from me.
“The felony has already been committed,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you have a valid document. Here’s what you have to do: Turn yourself in to the district attorney’s office. We’ll keep you here for the night, and tomorrow, with your lawyer, we can bring you in front of a judge.”
“I can’t spend the night here,” I say—though I’ve heard of people doing exactly that. “What can we do?” I ask, following the tried-and-true script.
“It’s very simple,” the policewoman says. “If you want to stay here, you stay. If you want to leave, you leave. It all depends on what you do.”
“So, how much are you asking?” I ask, running out of patience.
“No, no,” she says. “We are not asking for anything.”
That’s a lie.
“Since we are talking about a major felony,” the man says, “the range is between $500 and $1,000.”
He has finished checking my stuff and found most of the secret stashes of money I had cunningly (I’d thought) distributed around different nooks and crannies in the bags. But he missed two 20-euro banknotes I’d stashed behind the laptop.
It’s time to haggle. I’m disgusted with myself, but I have no choice.
“Five hundred? Not even close. I’ll give you $100. And I’m left with $20, which I don’t know what the fuck I’m going to do with.”
The policewoman laughs at my offer. “That’s nothing,” she says. “Besides, I don’t need any money. I already got everything I needed from this guy.” She takes out another ID from the front pocket of her vest from another one of their victims. At first glance, that ID doesn’t look forged, either.
“Listen,” I say, “I have $121, and I'm not haggling. This is literally all of the dollars I have. There’s no way on earth I have $500. Not even remotely close.”
“Ok,” she says, “I’m going to do you a favor. You have 50,000 pesos in your pocket, right?”
She grabs the money lined up on the bench. My money. She puts it all in a single stack and hands it back to me.
“You can convince me with this much, and you can keep what’s in your pocket. Is that OK?”
“It’s not OK,” I say. “But OK.”
“This is a favor I’m doing you.”
They seem to be waiting for me to thank them.
“OK, OK, let's do it,” I say.
I give them the cash, and that’s it. They let me put all of my stuff in my bags and leave. Altogether, they take $121 in dollar notes and 80,000 Colombian pesos, or about $22. And they keep my “fake” ID.
“Be careful not to mention this to anyone,” the policewoman says.
As I turn my back on them, on my way to the bus, the FAES officer says to me: “You were just born again!”
I get back on the bus. Celys gives me a hug even before asking me what happened.
When it’s the police itself robbing you, who are you supposed to turn to? We ride in silence another seven hours through the night. No one sleeps more than a few minutes straight.
We get to Maracaibo groggy, sleep-deprived, thirsty, into the early morning hubbub of the terminal. I don’t realize it at first, but the instant I climb down from the bus, as a wall of heat hits me, I get pickpocketed. A minute later, when I grasp that there’s nothing in my front pocket, I panic—doubly so when I realize that, after the police shakedown, I’d put everything of value that the cops hadn’t stolen into that one pocket.
I take stock of my situation: my passport, gone; my debit cards, gone; my phone, gone; my last 50,000 Colombian pesos, gone. I’m fucked.
It’s the passport that stings. In Venezuela, a passport is basically irreplaceable. If I haven’t been able to get a simple ID, imagine a passport. With over six million Venezuelans emigrating, the government offices that emit documents are completely overwhelmed. These days, the only way to get a passport is to pay a steep bribe for it. Even if somehow you don’t get scammed, you could still wait for months.
In the first world, losing your passport is an inconvenience. Here, it’s a life-altering calamity.
I paid for the trip through to Colombia in advance, so I decide to press on. It’s not a good plan, but your willingness to tolerate risk is directly proportional to your desperation. I’m too far from home to turn back, and the border is just two and a half hours away. Once I’m in Colombia, I can use Celys’s phone to call my friends, and maybe one of them can send me money to buy bus tickets for the 15-hour trip to Medellín.
This final leg of the trip to the technically “closed” border isn’t on a bus, but in a sedan: a venerable, gas-guzzling clunker. Maybe a Chevy Malibu? Or a Caprice? I’m not sure—it’s one of those wide, boxy, 80s-vintage GM cars that sold like hotcakes here in the good old days, when oil money was plentiful and normal people could afford cars. I’m guessing it was originally light blue; by now it’s mostly rust-colored.
It’s a marvel it even runs. The inside smells a little like gasoline.
On the road, the driver, Mr. Jose, who says that he’s been doing this same route for 20 years, tells me I have no chance of making it across in his car: too many checkpoints, no documents, not enough money for bribes.
He offers to put me in touch with a biker who can take me through a trocha, an illegal dirt track that runs parallel to the main road. Luckily, I still have those two 20-euro notes in one last corner of my bag that neither the soldiers nor the pickpockets got.
Celys and I decide that she will bring my bags in the car to Maicao, a city of about 100,000 people on the Colombian side. We make plans to meet up there in a few hours’ time.
I hand the very last of my money—40 euros—to the man on the bike and hop on behind him.
I’m now human cargo. The trochas he takes me on exist mostly for the purpose of bringing cocaine to airstrips where single-engine planes take off for points north.
The biker is a Wayuu. Everything he has is black. His bike, his helmet, his jacket, his gloves, his hair: black, black, black, black, and black.
We get going fast on some stretches, but on others we have to slow way down to pay tolls. The first one is the one with the two kids I told you about before. The second one is barely 10 meters after it. This time, it’s a woman. Must be the kids’ mom. She’s barefoot and wearing a loose, pink, threadbare dress down to her feet.
My biker exchanges a few words in Wayuu with her and hands over a few coins. She does the tiny “hehe,” too, as she looks down at the coins and lets us through.
“So, they spend the whole day there doing that?” I ask the driver. Might as well chit-chat while I get smuggled.
“That’s pretty much all they do! You aren’t from here, are you?”
“No, I’m from Puerto Ordaz.”
“Oh, I've been there. I worked in the police, but a long time ago. It’s a nice city”
“It was a nice city. Why do you think I’m having to flee the country on a trocha like this?”
“Yeah, things aren’t so good here, either. We’re all figuring out ways to survive. But don’t worry, I’ll get you across safely. My name is Tito, by the way.”
The homes around here betray a depth of poverty I rarely saw in Puerto Ordaz. Flimsy adobe, raw stick, and simple zinc-sheet huts dot the trochas. The Wayuus along this stretch of border seem abandoned by everyone. There are no schools, no roads, no power lines, nothing out here. These people have lived here since before Columbus showed up. They should have two countries looking out for them, but they have none.
It’s no wonder they’ve taken to smuggling fuel, or kids, or Carloses. The poorer ones, taking a page from the military's playbook, set up their makeshift tollbooths under the sun and shake down travelers for a pittance. They don’t have weapons, and they don’t cut much of a menacing figure. Their business model is, honestly, more about pity than coercion.
It seems to be the only economic activity open to a lot of people around here.
When we join the asphalt road again, we go through a village, Guarero. There are some concrete houses now, along with the adobe, stick, and zinc ones. On the side of the road, men are selling fuel in used water bottles. Each stall, probably half a kilometer apart, consists of a table made out of wooden sticks, and sometimes a roof made out of palm trees. You can see the yellow liquid through the transparent bottles. Back before the Venezuelan economy collapsed, fuel smuggling was the big business around here—buying hyper-subsidized fuel in Venezuela to sell it on at international prices in Colombia.
These days, the gas stations in Venezuela are mostly shuttered, and lines can stretch for days. When a rare gasoline shipment comes in from Iran, it solves the problem for a few cities for a few days, and that’s it.
We stop at one of these “gas stations.” This one is manned by an old Wayuu woman in a flowing dark blue dress and another woman in her mid-20s with a pink T-shirt with the word “BABE” bedazzled across the front.
The old woman uses a funnel made out of the top part of a soda bottle to top up the bike’s tank.
Tito talks with “BABE” in a kind of Wayuu-Spanish pidgin. All I can understand is when the woman says, “A ride is a ride,” and before I know it she is jumping on the motorcycle. Now I’m sandwiched between the two of them.
“Now you really are traveling under guard!” BABE jokes.
Tito pays the old woman for the fuel and off we go.
It doesn’t take long before we’re back riding on an illegal trocha. Tito tells me this route is longer but it bypasses five military checkpoints.
“I don’t like taking this one,” he says. “But for clients without money to pay off the soldiers, it’s the only way.”
The closer you get to the Colombian border, the denser the Wayuu tollbooths get. In some places, you find clusters of them: four or five tollbooths spaced one to two car lengths apart. They’re close enough that the guys manning one can easily chat with the ones immediately on either side. For shade, they try to set up underneath trees, but there aren’t many of those. One gatekeeper is lucky enough to have two trees close enough so he can string up a hammock. Each booth involves a little negotiation, some coins, some “hehes.” I don’t have a watch, so time is fuzzy, but I figure we must have negotiated this little ritual at least 15 times in the span of 30 minutes.
Sometimes the negotiations bog down. I don’t understand their language, but at one point I think some gatekeepers try to charge us more because there are two passengers now. Tito seems to haggle; the gatekeeper seems to agree reluctantly. Tito hands a few coins and we move to the next one to do it all over again.
In La Raya, a minuscule village right on the Colombia-Venezuela border, BABE stays, and I get handed off to a different biker. The new one is less chatty than Tito.
There are a couple more tollbooths, and then we join the asphalt road. We pass by a border station on the Colombian side; the guards ignore us completely.
Ten kilometers further on, we arrive in Maicao. There’s not much here. Celys, who has my bags and a phone, is nowhere to be found. I’m hungry, thirsty, sleep-deprived, phoneless, and penniless.
But I’m in Colombia; my promised land.
Then I wait. And wait. Hungrier and hungrier, thirstier and thirstier, I try to guess the time by following the sun on its track to the horizon.
What if Celys never shows up. Should I go to the police? Can I even do that? I’m here illegally. With no documents, I can’t even prove that I’m me.
I scope out the bums hanging around the bus station, begging and rooting through trash for a bite. I look at their clothes and wonder how long it will take before I start to look just like them.
I don’t know if there’s a word for that sense of complete helplessness, of total abandonment. It’s not just the money or the documents. It’s being cut off from all the normal institutions everyone should have access to when you’re in trouble: a crushing, all-encompassing on-your-ownness. I sit there waiting for Celys and that on-your-ownness just grows.
Celys never comes.
Later I’ll learn that they dropped her off at a different terminal and that she had to travel by motorcycle, too. She never found me and had to leave with my bags for Barranquilla.
With night about to fall, I persuade a bus company clerk to let me use his phone so my friends in Medellín can wire him the money to pay for my ticket. It takes another 15 hours on a bus severely overcrowded with other desperate Venezuelans, but I do get there safely, thanks in part to the charity of Colombians along the way. They’re used by now to the constant stream of starving Venezuelans, and some still help us out with meals, blankets and such. Thank God.
The buses in Colombia aren’t comfortable. But nobody stops them to shake you down.
The Venezuelans I meet along the way are traveling just like me, with no phone, documents or money. Unlike me, they left their homes like that. A mother traveling alone with one-year-old twins told me she was planning to hawk candy on the streets in Medellín to survive. I bond with the babies, playing peek-a-boo to pass the time.
But it’s the image of those Wayuu tollbooths that haunts me. With their homeland transformed into a smuggling route and no help from absolutely anyone, they’ve morphed into a kind of pauper version of the military that preys on them—preys on us all. A bit of rope, an old tree trunk: It’s all they have to work with. They’re doing what I’m doing, finding ways to not die as much.
I’ve been in Colombia a couple of months now. Celys managed to courier me my backpack from Barranquilla, which has my laptop, which I’m writing this on. With help from friends I managed to convert some crypto to Colombian pesos and get myself a new phone, so I’m back on WhatsApp now. I have access to basic utilities and the food is actually affordable here.
Even so, that on-your-ownness hasn’t fully faded. I’m still undocumented, still an administrative half-human. I can’t open a bank account or rent a house or get a plane ticket. But the Colombian state ignores me, instead of actively preying on me.
For now, that’s enough.
Carlos Hernández is a Venezuelan economist sharing on-the-ground experience of life in Venezuela. His work has appeared in Caracas Chronicles, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Americas Quarterly.