Venezuelans Trapped in Brazilian Backwater Face Riots and Violence
A dog rests on the ground in a makeshift camp for Venezuelan migrants at Simon Bolivar square in Boa Vista, Rondonia state, Brazil. (Photographer: Andre Coelho/Bloomberg)

Venezuelans Trapped in Brazilian Backwater Face Riots and Violence

(Bloomberg) -- A few weeks ago, Edilson Barros was woken by his 14-year-old son. There were people, the kid said, inhabiting the backyard. A family of a dozen Venezuelans had set up camp behind the house in Pacaraima, a small Brazilian border town.

Belquis Torres and her family had a tent, a clothesline, a collection of luggage and a few plastic chairs. She now presides over an open-air living room in an incongruously neat skirt and top. Barros brings her water from time to time. The 50-year-old cooling technician, who shares two bedrooms with his wife and seven sons, says he’s not charging the Venezuelans rent because they have nowhere else to go. But he fears they will stay long and bring trouble.

Venezuelans Trapped in Brazilian Backwater Face Riots and Violence

Across South America, a deluge of Venezuela’s desperate is straining public services, local hospitality and the political will to accommodate them. The improvised co-existence of the Barros and Torres clans exemplifies the deteriorating situation in Brazil’s north, where the poor are being inundated by the even poorer. With hunger and hyperinflation behind, miles of lawless roads ahead and an increasingly hostile welcome, a community has sprung up in Pacaraima.

Compared with Venezuelans who escape to Colombia, Peru or Ecuador, many here have even fewer connections and resources. They often hail from impoverished indigenous and rural communities, speak little Portuguese and live in tents or on the streets. The lucky rent squalid rooms, but any shelter is tenuous. On Aug. 18, a riot was sparked by the beating and robbery of a local merchant for which Venezuelans were blamed. Brazilians chased refugees and burned their scant belongings in the streets, prompting hundreds to flee, including the Torres family. Many crept back after days of protests.

“We came back because in Venezuela there’s no job, no food and money doesn’t buy anything,” said Torres, 40, who has worked as a cook, nanny and maid. “I came to Brazil with the idea of finding a job. And it’s still my plan to find a job, any job. We didn’t come as invaders.”

Overtaxed Outpost

Pacaraima has about 12,000 official Brazilian residents. But since 2015, more than 70,000 refugees have arrived in surrounding Roraima state, representing almost 15 percent of the population. There are only 10 shelters accommodating around 4,800 people, according to Ana Seabra, spokeswoman for Operation Welcome, which Brazil’s federal government created in March to respond to the influx.

Pressure is building everywhere. The number of Venezuelan children in Roraima public schools increased 400 percent between 2015 and 2017, according to the governor’s press office, and the number of Venezuelans who received treatment in public hospitals rose to 50,286 in 2017, up from 766 in 2014.

Venezuelans Trapped in Brazilian Backwater Face Riots and Violence

In Pacaraima, there is one official crossing point where an average of 700 Venezuelans pass through each day, but the border is a simple line of stones marching across open grassland. Refugees used to head south toward Boa Vista, Roraima’s capital, or larger cities. Now, many stay.

“If violence erupts again against us, I can run a couple of hundred meters and cross the border back to Venezuela. But now I’d feel too vulnerable in Boa Vista or anywhere else,” said Alfredo Rodriguez, a 59-year-old former security guard.

Hurting Words

Pacaraima has hundreds of small stores catering to Venezuelans lining its partially paved streets. Many signs are in Spanish and many locals use Venezuelan words such as “efectivo” for cash and “atracado” -- robbed.

Those without a place in shelters or a job live in the streets or insalubrious and overcrowded rooms. Norelis Gonzalez, who sleeps in the Pacaraima bus station with her sister, said both hid in the bushes for a whole night after the riots. "Since my ID was burned, I can’t even apply for legal residency,” she said.

Venezuelans Trapped in Brazilian Backwater Face Riots and Violence

Carlos Noguera, a 35-year-old Venezuelan who found work in a market, said he lives in constant fear. "If I knew the situation in Pacaraima was so tense, I wouldn’t have come,” he said. “But now my family in Venezuela relies on the money I send."

Even as locals have built a small economy around the new residents, they complain that drug trafficking and prostitution are increasing. Crimes involving Venezuelans in Roraima rose 173 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to the governor’s press office.

Pacaraima’s Martyr

The victim of the attack that triggered Pacaraima’s riot is 55-year-old supermarket owner Raimundo Nonato de Oliveira. He said four Venezuelans beat him and stole the equivalent of $6,000 as he arrived home after work. Sitting outside his shop last week with 13 ragged stitches in his head and a black eye, Oliveira was repeatedly approached by people who wanted to hear the story. Many Venezuelans shook his hand and apologized.

Venezuelans Trapped in Brazilian Backwater Face Riots and Violence

To ease the friction, Brazil’s federal government pledged to send 120 troops to control the border. Half had arrived last week, but soldiers told Bloomberg they were given time off while awaiting orders. They hung out in restaurants, glued to their mobile phones.

South American borders have been traditionally porous, but across the region, governments are trying to regulate the flow. The border at Pacaraima was briefly closed before a court intervened. This month, Peru began requiring that Venezuelans hold a valid passport, halting scores of travelers. Ecuador tried the same thing, but established a “humanitarian corridor” after hundreds crossed the country by foot anyway.

The U.S. is spending more than $56 million on development and humanitarian assistance for Venezuelans in the region, and is deploying a Navy hospital ship to Colombian waters in September. The UN High Commissioner is halfway to funding its $46.1 million mission.

Luring the Needy

Though Brazil’s shelters hold relatively few refugees, some politicians oppose them. Pacaraima Mayor Juliano Torquato said that Operation Welcome simply is encouraging Venezuelans to come. “The situation is getting worse by the day and no one is really helping us,” he said.

But Torquato and local businessmen said shutting the border would devastate the economy. Almost 70 percent of Pacaraima consumers are Venezuelans, said Joao Kleber Soares Borges, the head of the local business association. “What we request is simply more control on who is allowed in, and more support from the federal government,” he said.

Venezuelans Trapped in Brazilian Backwater Face Riots and Violence

As politicians struggle to find a solution, Venezuelans like Belquis Torres are left to wonder how long they will have to survive in places like Edilson Barros’s backyard.

“I have no idea what’s next for us,” she said. “For the time being, all I’m asking is for him to allow us to stay.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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