Attacked and powerless, Venezuela soldiers choose desertion

A Colombian soldier escorts a Venezuelan National Guard who deserted his post near the Simon Bolivar International Bridge, in La Parada, Colombia, Monday, Feb. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

CUCUTA, Colombia  — The simple house on a street ridden with potholes in this town on Colombia’s restive border with Venezuela has become a refuge for the newly homeless — 40 Venezuelan soldiers who abandoned their posts and ran for their lives.

The young National Guard troops sleep on thin mats on the floor. In one room, several flak jackets rest along a wall. On a balcony, boots that got wet crossing the muddy Tachira River are set out to dry.

“I was tired of people seeing me as just one more of them,” Sgt. Jorge Torres said, referring to President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government. “I’m not.”

A high-stakes plan by the Venezuelan opposition to bring humanitarian aid into the country floundered Saturday when troops loyal to Maduro refused to let the trucks carrying food and medical supplies cross, but it did set off a wave of military defections unlike any seen yet amid the country’s mounting crisis. Over 270 mostly low-ranking soldiers fled in a span of three days, Colombian immigration officials said Monday.

With no relatives in Colombia, several dozen have ended up in a shelter run by a priest. The home on a street with low-hanging electrical wires is where they are nervously keeping track of relatives left behind, figuring out how to apply for asylum and deciding what should come next.

“The only way for this government to leave, unfortunately, and all of Venezuela knows it, is for there to be a direct intervention,” said Sgt. Jose Gomez, a father of two. “The only one with that power is the international community.”

In interviews with The Associated Press, nine National Guard soldiers described the day that they were ordered by commanders to stop the humanitarian aid from entering Venezuela.

Fearful of being jailed, many complied with orders and admitted to launching tear gas at protesters. Two said they were part of a failed plot to get the aid in. All fled after making unplanned, split-second decisions with only the uniform on their backs.

“Son, if this decision is to save your life and so that there is change, do it,” Gomez said his father told him in a brief phone call before he sprinted across the border.

The defections come as the Venezuelan opposition puts pressure on the military to recognize congress leader Juan Guaido as the nation’s rightful president. Venezuela’s military has served as the traditional arbiter of political disputes, forcing out dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958. But the top military brass has stood fast with Maduro, who has shown no sign that he intends to relinquish power.

While Guaido has proposed amnesty to military officers who back him, the low-ranking soldiers who have defected say breaking ranks with Maduro is all but impossible.

Anyone who shows the slightest hint of disapproval risks arrest, they said, and jail has become increasingly synonymous with torture. Even those like Gomez, who wanted to see the aid brought in, followed orders to repress citizens. As Saturday grew increasingly tense, protesters threw rocks and gasoline bombs at him. He said he responded by throwing tear gas at them to protect himself.

Others at the home also had evidence of the resistance they faced that day: Torres still had blood caked beneath the skin on his nose from protesters kicking him on the ground after he surrendered to Colombian authorities. A young woman had a scratch across her cheek that she said came from a rock thrown by protesters.

During the clashes, armed pro-Maduro groups known as “colectivos” fired indiscriminately, and several of the soldiers said they feared being shot themselves. National Guard troops are equipped with crowd-control devices like rubber bullets and tear gas but do not carry any regular firearms.

Like the rest of the population struggling against hyperinflation expected to reach an eye-boggling 10 million percent this year, the soldiers also knew the indignities of life in Venezuela, where severe shortages of food and medicine have led to more than 3 million people leaving the country in recent years.

“You know that in your own home you don’t even have a kilo of rice,” said the female soldier, who requested anonymity, fearing for the safety of the children she left back home. “And I’m supposed to stay here fighting, why?”

Two months ago, Gomez watched as his newborn son died within 15 minutes because the hospital where his wife delivered did not have oxygen to pump into his failing lungs. Torres said an aunt died of cancer and an uncle succumbed to a curable stomach infection.

“That’s what pushed me to make this decision,” Torres said.

When Guaido first announced the aid push, Torres said that he and three soldiers in his barracks huddled and quietly discussed their options. As National Guard drivers, they had access to armored trucks. They hatched a plan to drive the vehicles across the Simon Bolivar International Bridge, breaking down the barricades that stood in the way and allowing opposition trucks to carry the aid in.

Saturday morning, Torres climb into one of the white-painted trucks and charged it across the bridge. Though he broke through several barricades, he also hit a woman trying to enter Colombia. She escaped serious injury, but he was forced to stop.

Getting out with his rifle in hand, Torres raised his arms in surrender and helped the woman toward an ambulance.

As one of the first deserters, he was quickly taken in and presented to Guaido, who had sneaked across the border into Colombia to oversee the aid launch.

Torres said he stood at attention and pledged his loyalty to the 35-year-old lawmaker recognized as Venezuela’s interim president by over 50 nations, including the United States and many Latin American countries.

“We’re still in time to change history,” he said Guaido told him.

For Gomez, the breaking point came when he saw another National Guardsman hit in the face by a fire bomb. Even though he was badly injured, commanders wouldn’t call an ambulance to take him to the hospital, Gomez said. Fearing what might happen if he himself was struck by protesters, he decided to flee.

“They wouldn’t have done anything for me,” Gomez said.

As he darted into one of the hundreds of illegal dirt paths snaking across Venezuela’s porous border with Colombia, Gomez said “colectivo” gunmen shot in his direction. He crossed the river and ran through the brush, about a 20-minute trek. When he reached Colombian territory and spotted the military, he put his hands up in a sign of peace.

“I’m coming to surrender!” he cried out.

Many said they worry their wives and children will face repercussions and they are concerned about how they will make ends meet. Many soldiers who have fled in the last year have had difficulty getting work, winding up making a meager living selling food on the streets.

Asked about who he left behind, Torres said, “My wife,” and burst into tears. Too choked up to speak about his daughter, he could only hold up fingers to show how old she is: Six.

Nearly all the defectors would support a foreign intervention in Venezuela and join in the fight.

Guaido called on the international community Saturday evening to consider “all options” to resolve Venezuela’s crisis after the clashes over the aid shipments resulted in four deaths and 300 people injured.

In a visit Monday to Colombia’s capital for a meeting of regional leaders, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence echoed Donald Trump’s warning that “all options are on the table,” but he gingerly avoided talking about the potential for military action.

Floating ideas among each other, several of the defectors said they believe the best way forward is for more troops to desert and help form a resistance from abroad. Some envisioned an intervention led solely by Venezuelans, while others are convinced it can only be done with the help of an international coalition.

All said they don’t see themselves as traitors, but rather as troops intent on restoring Venezuela’s democracy.

“We’re going to change history,” Torres said. “We are history.”  /muf

Recent Stories:

Complete stories on our Digital Edition newsstand for tablets, netbooks and mobile phones; 14-issue free trial. About to step out? Get breaking alerts on your mobile.phone. Text ON INQ BREAKING to 4467, for Globe, Smart and Sun subscribers in the Philippines.

Disclaimer: The comments uploaded on this site do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of management and owner of INQUIRER.net. We reserve the right to exclude comments that we deem to be inconsistent with our editorial standards.

Copyright © 2019,

To subscribe to the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper in the Philippines, call +63 2 896-6000 for Metro Manila and Metro Cebu or email your subscription request here.

Factual errors? Contact the Philippine Daily Inquirer's day desk. Believe this article violates journalistic ethics? Contact the Inquirer's Reader's Advocate. Or write The Readers' Advocate: c/o Philippine Daily Inquirer Chino Roces Avenue corner Yague and Mascardo Streets, Makati City, Metro Manila, Philippines Or fax nos. +63 2 8974793 to 94


  • Palace condemns Sri Lanka blasts
  • Priest: Vote for officials who will protect the environment
  • PNP: Holy Week 2019 ‘generally peaceful’
  • Dry run of Edsa provincial bus ban starts Monday
  • Philippine Children’s Medical Center celebrates 39th anniversary
  • Sports

  • PH bet Carlo Biado falls to Taiwan’s Kevin Cheng in WPA Players Championship
  • Rafael Nadal admits ‘hard to return to court’ after Monte Carlo shocker
  • ‘Champion for years to come’ Naomi Osaka out to conquer clay
  • Players boycotting social media over racism receive abuse
  • Johnriel Casimero stops Mexican foe to win WBO interim belt
  • Lifestyle

  • Is there an ideal time to work out?
  • Neon colors, tie-dye and fringes take center stage at Coachella 2019
  • Auction houses venture into the market of AI-generated art
  • Mascara goes vegan
  • ‘Britain’s Notre-Dame’ tells fiery tale of restored glory
  • Entertainment

  • John Singleton of ‘Boyz N the Hood’ hospitalized with stroke
  • LOOK: Marian Rivera reveals newborn son Sixto in close up
  • WATCH: Daniel Padilla surprises Kathryn Bernardo in Hong Kong
  • Coco Martin speaks out amid rumors Julia Montes giving birth
  • In awe of Gabby, Jennylyn tongue-tied on first shooting day
  • Business

  • Philippines-South Korea to finish free trade deal by November
  • Tech, green features, power mix to boost luxury car sales
  • DOF: P1.01B daily underspending in Q1 due to reenacted budget
  • Tesla wants to cut size of board from 11 directors to 7
  • Giving new life to native trees
  • Technology

  • Lenovo’s upcoming smartphone could take 100-megapixel photos, says report
  • Microsoft introduces tools to better VR experience for users with low vision
  • Soccer players boycotting social media over racism receive abuse
  • SpaceX capsule suffers ‘anomaly,’ smoke seen for miles
  • Ransomware ‘hero’ pleads guilty to US hacking charges
  • Opinion

  • Editorial cartoon, April 21, 2019
  • Resurrection in this wasteland
  • Beyond the tomb
  • Human rights, adoption and surrogacy
  • ‘Agile’ and Mabini’s ‘The True Decalogue’
  • Global Nation

  • No reports of Filipino casualties in Sri Lanka blasts — DFA
  • 22 Filipinos in Libya seek repatriation
  • China not a hero for restoring coral reefs it damaged – Locsin
  • Locsin: Gov’t should focus on pursuing Philippines’ claims on Sabah
  • 4 Filipino students in strife-torn Libya home-bound

    • McDonald’s PH Chairman & Founder, George T. Yang turns over three performing arts studios for DLSU Manila

      Read More

    • Cops arrest 6 ‘Basag Kotse’ suspects

      Read More

    • Honest naia cabbie cited for exemplary deed

      Read More

    • Mom of 5-year-old girl with leukemia looking for more good samaritans

      Read More

    • Compensation commission releases P2.3-M to aid Marawi soldiers

      Read More

    • PNP can’t always fool public with ‘nanlaban’ claims – solons

      Read More

    • Poll: Most dislike NFL protests and Trump comments

      Read More

    • Former Mexico governor wanted in US arrested

      Read More

    • US: Nobel Peace choice doesn’t change US stance

      Read More

    • California becomes first ‘sanctuary state’ for undocumented migrants

      Read More

    • Mexican photojournalist found dead after kidnapping

      Read More

    • Moscow gets 130 fake bomb calls, evacuates 100,000 people

      Read More

    • Frustrated police appeal for public’s help in Vegas case

      Read More

    • US states declare emergency ahead of Tropical Storm Nate

      Read More

    • Trump’s one-two punch hits birth control, LGBT rights

      Read More