MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
It has gotten harder recently for Venezuelans to flee to neighboring Colombia. That is because Venezuela's authoritarian leader, Nicolas Maduro, has closed official border crossings between the two countries. He did that after Venezuelan opposition leaders last month tried and failed to bring tons of humanitarian aid from Colombia into their country. Maduro denounced that move as a foreign intervention. As John Otis reports, even though the border is now closed, Venezuelans are still sneaking into Colombia.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Maduro claims that the U.S., in cahoots with the opposition, is planning a military invasion of Venezuela. That's why Venezuelan troops have placed shipping containers across all three bridges connecting Venezuela with the Colombian city of Cucuta. But for Venezuelans trying to survive the country's worst economic crisis in history, Colombia is a place to buy food and medicine, to find work and to send their kids to decent schools. So they continue to cross, but now use a network of clandestine footpaths. The paths are controlled by smugglers of drugs and other contraband who charge a toll of about $2 a head. The footpaths are interrupted by the Tachira River, which forms the border. That's where I meet seamstress Darlene Osorio, who's just waded into Colombia carrying Ethan, her 3-year-old son.
DARLENE OSORIO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: She's on her way to a day care center, which Osorio says is much better than those in Venezuela. After dropping off Ethan, she will go to work in Venezuela, then pick up her son in the afternoon and head home. That means paying off the gangs and crossing the river four times.
OSORIO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: "This is difficult," she says. But Osorio insists that nothing will stop her from getting her son an education. Smugglers have used the trails for years, but now they've become a lifeline for average Venezuelans trying to scrape by. Some carry on their shoulders furniture, potted plants and trinkets that they intend to sell in Colombia. Others, like Raul Gomez, carry cash. He aims to stock up on Colombian food for his bodega in the Venezuelan border town of Urena. I follow Gomez into a Cucuta store where he fills a shopping cart with cookies, candy and chips. Besides paying the footpath toll, he'll hire someone to help him carry his load back to Venezuela. All of this cuts into his tiny profits. However, Gomez feels lucky to still have access to Colombia and puts a positive spin on a dire situation.
RAUL GOMEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: "As they say, when people are crying, sell them tissues." Police and army troops patrol the Colombian side and make no effort to stop the flow of people. But the footpaths on the Venezuelan side are controlled by the gangs, which are sometimes violent. When I arrive at one of the trailheads on the Colombian side, police are recovering the body of a gang member killed in a shootout. That's created a bottleneck of commuters waiting for things to calm down. But they're impatient to get going, and soon, the footpath is once again filled with people. It's unclear how long the frontier will be closed. But this week, there was a small breakthrough. The Venezuelan government began allowing schoolchildren and sick people to walk across the border bridges into Colombia. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Cucuta, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.