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World

Facing Hardships, Venezuelans Are Leaving The Country In Exodus

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Venezuela, an economic crisis has led to food shortages, hyperinflation and now mass migration. Many Venezuelans are opting for the easiest escape route - by crossing the land border into Colombia. And as John Otis reports, many of these migrants are finding that starting over can be agonizing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLLER LUGGAGE RATTLING)

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Pushing baby strollers and dragging roller luggage, Venezuelans walk across a bridge spanning the Tachira River that marks the border with Colombia. For some, their first move is to unload their jewelry.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: At this shop that buys precious metals, the newcomers pull off their rings and unpin their brooches. They'll need the cash as they travel deeper into Colombia or move on to Ecuador, Peru and Chile.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL FILING)

OTIS: Workers use files to check the quality of the gold and silver. Shop owner Jose Alvarado says his job can be heartbreaking.

JOSE ALVARADO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: The worst, he says, was buying the wedding rings off a sobbing Venezuelan couple who had been married for 40 years. Some desperate Venezuelans are selling their hair.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In the border city of Cucuta, this hair broker tries to drum up business. He attracts the attention of Karelis Nieves, who arrived here last month. She's trying to scrounge up money to support her parents and 2-year-old daughter back in the Venezuelan city of Maracay.

KARELIS NIEVES: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Hair brokers purchase locks that are at least a foot and a half long which can be used to make hair extensions. After pulling out his measuring tape, the broker tells Nieves that her flowing brown hair is a few inches too short.

NIEVES: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Disappointed, Nieves says she'd be willing to do anything to earn money except for prostitution.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But with impoverished Venezuelans streaming into Colombia, prostitution, street crime and homelessness are rising, so says Carlos Luna, head of the Cucuta Chamber of Commerce.

CARLOS LUNA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "Our city has never before had a crisis like this," Luna says. "The impact of so many people arriving so fast is huge." More than 1 million have fled Venezuela over the past two years, with about half arriving in Colombia according to immigration officials. This from a country of just 32 million people. Last week, the Colombian government pledged to tighten border controls, but the immediate result has been a spike in new arrivals as Venezuelans rush across before the new rules take hold.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: To care for this influx, churches are opening shelters and soup kitchens. This one serves 1,000 lunches per day, including today's meal of chicken and spaghetti. Among the diners is Danny Marquez, who crossed the border the day before. He used to run a thriving business selling cleaning supplies in Venezuela, but the economic crisis drove him bankrupt.

DANNY MARQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "This is the first time in my life that I've set foot in a soup kitchen," says Marquez, who has tears in his eyes. Marquez plans to resettle in Chile, but he's bitter about having to abandon his homeland.

MARQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "I resisted for two years," he says. "I vowed to myself; I'm not leaving. I'm not leaving. I'm not leaving. But then things became impossible." For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Cucuta, Colombia.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIZZLE BIRD'S "ESCAPE FROM REALITY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.