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Lenis Suárez-04.JPG

Lenis Suárez picks up her children, Candy and Hidalgo, from school in La Parada, a Colombian town on the Venezuelan border.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The perils of crossing into Colombia from Venezuela

Meet a young mother who survived a harrowing journey across the border with her two young children to start a new life.

The border between Colombia and Venezuela stretches nearly 1,400 miles. Roughly a decade ago, after the start of an economic collapse, Venezuelans began pouring into neighboring Colombia. In response, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro largely closed the official crossings, including bridges near Cúcuta, a border city in Colombia.

In 2022, Colombians elected their first leftist president, Gustavo Petro. He and Maduro have reopened the border. But criminal groups continue to fight for control of the paths that migrants have long used to pass illegally, and nearby communities are grappling with how to handle the influx of migrants.

[Read the full story — “What Colombia can teach Chicago about managing a migrant wave” — at]

🎧 In this audio story, WBEZ reporter Chip Mitchell talks to:

  • Lenis Suárez, a young Venezuelan woman who crossed into Colombia with her two young children in 2018. They traversed one of the many illegal foot trails, called trochas, patrolled by armed criminal groups on both sides of the border;
  • Bram Ebus, a Dutch researcher in Colombia, who describes how gangs extort migrants for sex and drug trafficking in exchange for safe passage;
  • Cúcuta municipal council president Edison Contreras, who is pushing for a border wall, an idea borrowed from former President Donald Trump;
  • Former Cúcuta Mayor Jairo Yáñez, who argues that the solution to reducing crime along the border is economic investment.

What drove migrants from Venezuela: Since 2014, about 7.7 million Venezuelans have left their country to escape an economic collapse. Colombia has received more of these migrants than any other country.
How Venezuelan migrants cross into Colombia: Venezuelan migrants often lack passports to enter Colombia legally. So they cross on illegal foot trails controlled by criminal groups. As in the United States, border communities in Colombia are grappling with how to handle migrants.
The xenophobia Venezuelan migrants face: Colombia’s Venezuelan influx has led to accusations the migrants are fueling crime and drawing resources needed by low-income Colombians. This resembles some responses to Venezuelan arrivals in Chicago.
Integration in the face of marginalization: In Chicago, migrants are desperate for easier access to work authorization. Colombia shows how it can be done.

The Democracy Solutions Project is a collaboration among WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times and the University of Chicago’s Center for Effective Government, with funding support from the Pulitzer Center. Our goal is to help our community of listeners and readers engage with the democratic functions in their lives and cast an informed ballot in the November 2024 election.

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