An Open Venezuelan-Colombian border is bad news for armed groups, but don't schedule the victory celebrations yet
The decision is a first step in the right direction, and with luck, the beginning of the end of a dark chapter in Colombian history
The Simon Bolivar Bridge that connects Colombia and Venezuela was shrouded in a vile mix of teargas and the black, acrid gasoline smoke of exploded Molotov cocktails. The surrounding foliage was in flames and rubber bullets were being fired into the crowd. The burning carcass of a truck that Venezuelan forces had parked in the middle of the bridge was surrounded by protesters, who were hurling rocks and fire-bombs at the Venezuelan Police and National Guard.
My eyes stung. Every few minutes another injured Venezuelan was carried back from the front lines.
"The fucking bridge is on fire here," pinged the messages from my colleagues. "The trucks are burning!"
It was February 23, 2019, and I was working with two Venezuelan journalists to cover a weekend that had started with a massive charity concert by some of the biggest artists in Latin America but ended in riots and bloodshed.
Because I spoke Spanish, lived a quarter mile from the Venezuelan border, and was covering migration, I was swamped with emails from editors. Looking at the heavily armored correspondents around me, I also felt utterly unprepared.
By nightfall, the fighting had escalated, moving away from the bridge and into the smuggling paths known as trochas that dot the border between Cúcuta, Colombia and San Cristobal, Venezuela—and switching from rubber bullets to live rounds.
That was the day Donald Trump and his National Security Advisor John Bolton, working with then-presidents of Colombia, Iván Duque, and Chile, Sebastián Piñera, as well as Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, tried to drive trucks full of food into Venezuela in a circus-style PR stunt they believed would precipitate mass defections among Venezuelan security forces.
Instead, it got a lot of people killed. Venezuela responded by closing the border, which had been closed since 2015 to vehicles and cargo, to foot traffic as well. Two people died on the Colombian side of the border during riots on the bridge, and over 300 were wounded, but to this day no one knows what casualties were like on the Venezuelan side of that pitched battle.
Nor is it known exactly how many died that night, and in the days that followed, in the trochas, but reports of deaths in local media were so common they became background noise.
I personally saw someone from the Venezuelan side shoot a teenager near the border two days after the incident.
For one precipitous moment, it looked like a US-led military intervention in Venezuela could truly be on the horizon. But Trump lost interest in Venezuela shortly after the midterms, apparently having vastly underestimated the loyalty Venezuelan security forces have for the Maduro government.
But the border remained closed. Colombia cut off all diplomatic relationships with Venezuela and those who lived in the borderlands, as well as the millions of migrants fleeing economic collapse and severe human human rights violations in Venezuela, found themselves in the midst of an escalating shadow war between myriad armed criminal groups.
A closed border is excellent for business, if you are a gangster.