In the high-altitude desert shared by Chile and Bolivia lies a remote stretch of dirt road that marks their sparsely patrolled border.
Once military patrols are out of sight, illegal migrants dash across the road at all hours of the day, and continue their journey north from Pisiga, in Bolivia, or south from Colchane, in Chile.
This frontier is popular for both illegal migration and contraband smuggling and, because of the extreme climate-based survival challenges, is called the “corridor of death” by some immigration officials.
“We saw a huge number [of illegal migrants] passing through in June and July this year,” Benjamin Choque, a Bolivian immigration officer, told The Epoch Times.
Choque explained that those without documents have a hard time entering Bolivia legally because the nation requires a negative PCR test for COVID-19 that’s no older than 72 hours. He said the tests are impossible to obtain in most remote Chilean desert towns near the border.
Choque admitted he’s seen a fair number of Venezuelans and Haitians crossing into Bolivia from Chile, but clarified, “They all have passports, they just don’t have visas.”
When asked what Bolivian officials do upon catching illegal immigrants, Choque said, “We just send them back across the border.”
“The situation has benefits for the businesses in Pisiga, but it creates a lot of trouble for us.”
A Dangerous Crossroad
After sunset in Pisiga, a group of 10 Haitian illegal migrants waits outside in freezing temperatures for a bus. One told The Epoch Times they wanted to go to the city of Oruro, Bolivia.
From there, additional transportation could be arranged to convey them north to the border of Bolivia and Peru, near the town of Copacabana.
Haitians crossing into Bolivia from Chile largely follow the Oruro-El Alto route north in their journey toward the United States.
Meanwhile, on the outskirts of Pisiga, near an unmarked section of the Bolivia-Chile border, a group of three Venezuelans waits to cross into Chile illegally.
“We will cross in the night,” Jhoel Silva, one of them, told The Epoch Times.
Silva said the situation in Venezuela under socialist leader Nicolás Maduro had grown too dire to stay in their country.
“There is no food to buy in the markets or stores,” he explained.
Hyperinflation in Venezuela, coupled with the devaluation of the bolívar since 2017, makes even the basic elements of survival nearly impossible.
“If you work for one week, you only have enough money to eat for three days,” Silva said.
“The salary [in Venezula] is not enough to live. With one US dollar, you only get one kilo of flour,” Alberto Ochoa, another Venezuelan, told The Epoch Times.
Ochoa said the monthly salary for many Venezuelans is only $1.
“We are looking for honest work [in Chile]. We want to find a better life for our families,” Ochoa said.
Traveling in either direction, illegal migrants have to cross difficult terrain and face temperatures that swing as high as 100 degrees during the day and drop to freezing at night.
The shared border, and desert beyond, is located at an altitude of more than 12,000 feet and has no shelter from the elements. Nor does it offer drinking water to anyone who ends up stranded in a vehicle or dares to make the journey on foot.
On Oct. 9, Chilean officials discovered the body of a Haitian woman traveling north near the border town of Colchane. She was the 13th illegal migrant who died this year trying to cross the aptly named “corridor of death.”
Ochoa said he and his companions walked for six days from Oruro to reach the border and the altitude, coupled with the extremely dry air, had taken its toll on their health.
Alejandro Perez, an illegal migrant traveling with Ochoa and Silva, showed The Epoch Times the bottoms of his feet, which were cracked and bleeding from the 148-mile walk to Pisiga.
“I have friends in Chile [who can help] and I want to find a job,” Perez said.
With his mother and children depending on him for income back in Venezuela, Perez felt he had little choice other than to risk it all and cross the desert into Chile. He wrapped his injured feet in two layers of socks, which he wore with a pair of worn-out flip flops.
The Route of the ‘Chuteros’
The dividing line running north-south between Chile and Bolivia, where people cross illegally, is commonly known as the route of the “chuteros.” That means “illegals” in Bolivian slang.
Contraband smuggling through the desert between the two nations, especially cars, is a well-established practice.
Miguel Flores has driven the route of the chuteros for years and said finding bodies in the desert, especially in the Coipasa salt flat, can happen.
“The chuteros will kill people and leave them [as a warning]. They are territorial, even with each other.”
Flores said some chuteros have branched out into human trafficking and offer transportation for illegals near parts of the border that aren’t patrolled.
“The chuteros just drop them [near the border] and the migrants get out and walk across.”
In July, Bolivian police caught three chuteros transporting 25 illegal Haitian immigrants along the Oruro-El Alto highway.
Like Crossing the Street
Gonzalo Santander, a Chilean businessman from Santiago who buys and sells commercial minerals, told The Epoch Times he prefers to just “cross the street” into Pisiga, when there is nowhere to stay in Colchane.
“The military is occupying the entire town [Colchane] and there is nowhere to sleep. So I just crossed the road back into Bolivia to stay in Pisiga, it’s easy,” he said.
Santander usually crosses the border at Colchane and Pisiga in an official capacity for his work and says he always sees people crossing illegally.
“I think this problem started when people [migrants] wanted to go north.”
Attributing the ease of illegal crossing to a lack of government support, Santander said, “This border is vulnerable.”
By contrast, he said the frontier between Chile and Peru, near Arica, is very well controlled.
People looking to cross illegally, north or south, have no choice but to traverse the high desert.
Santander also said Chile has too many such immigrants, which is the reason why the “system began to collapse” in his country.
Chile has 1.5 million immigrants—both legal and illegal—or 8 percent of the nation’s population, according to data from the office of foreign relations and migration.
Back at the border, illegal migrants crawl out of a steep trench dug by the Chilean military on their side of the “street” and are promptly intercepted by a truck full of soldiers.
From a distance, Silva and his companions watched the action and waited for their chance to cross.
“It may be difficult, but the only way for us is forward,” Silva said.