For a chance at a better life, Venezuelans head toward the U.S. border
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
You may recall the other day when Florida's governor made a political point by arranging to deceive Venezuelan migrants and ship them to Martha's Vineyard from Texas. Turns out, there is a larger story of Venezuelan migrants. They're arriving in large numbers at the U.S. border with Mexico, trying to escape their country's troubles. Manuel Rueda caught up with some of the migrants who are just leaving Venezuela.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)
MANUEL RUEDA, BYLINE: Wilmar Carrero is walking on his own along a road that leads out of Venezuela and into the center of Colombia. He carries a large backpack that weighs about 40 pounds and is stuffed with canned foods, medicine and clothes for hot and cold weather.
WILMAR CARRERO: (Speaking Spanish).
RUEDA: Carrero, 32, says he was working in potato and onion farms in his home state of Merida, but it only paid about $5 a day and wasn't enough to support his twin daughters. Now he wants to go to New York and is trying to hitchhike there.
CARRERO: (Speaking Spanish.)
RUEDA: "I know that I'm human, and I'm running a lot of risks," he says. "But I believe in God and in destiny."
More than 6 million people have left Venezuela since 2014 to escape hyperinflation, food shortages and the lowest wages in South America.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOTOR VEHICLE)
RUEDA: In Pamplona, a Colombian town that's just 50 miles from the border with Venezuela, it's easy to spot Venezuelan migrants heading to different countries. Many stop at a shelter on the edge of town that provides free meals and blue gym mats for people to sleep on.
Genesis Gomez travelled on foot with her two baby daughters and five relatives. They had been on the road for two weeks and were headed to the Colombian city of Bucaramanga.
GENESIS GOMEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
RUEDA: "In Venezuela, there were many nights when we were going to bed without food," she says. "We made a living from fishing, but it was no longer possible to do that 'cause gasoline for our boat was getting too expensive." In these shelters, it's also becoming more common to find people who want to go to the United States.
Wilmar Carrero, who is headed to New York, says that he spent a year working at a shrimp factory in Ecuador. He gave up on it after realizing he was spending most of his salary on food and rent.
CARRERO: (Speaking Spanish).
RUEDA: "In South American countries, you can make enough to eat. But you don't prosper," he says. "I think that it's different in America. I can save more money there and help my family to buy a house."
To get to the United States, Carrero will have to cross the Darien Gap, a jungle with no roads that divides Colombia from Central America. Many migrants have been robbed there by drug gangs, and some have been killed. But Carrero is hoping to make it safely. On his cellphone, he gets voice messages from friends who've already crossed the Darien and provide advice.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).
RUEDA: "You need to take a boat to the port of Carreto so that you only have to walk through the jungle for 2 1/2 days," says one message.
Experts say that criminal groups have now established several smuggling routes for Venezuelan migrants, which has encouraged even more people to travel to the United States. Last month, the Border Patrol encountered Venezuelans 25,000 times along the border with Mexico, a monthly record. Back on the road, Wilmar Carrero still has weeks to go before he makes it to the U.S. border, but he's optimistic about his chances.
CARRERO: (Speaking Spanish).
RUEDA: "After making all of this effort, I don't think they'll turn me back," he says. "In any case, you have to take the risk. It's the only way to know for sure."
Manuel Rueda, NPR News, Cucuta, Colombia.
(SOUNDBITE OF OLDTWIG'S "DUNES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.