CUCUTA, Colombia—Standing outside a budget hotel in Cúcuta’s humid and congested city center as night falls, Jefferson Del Río ponders what brought him to live in a Colombian border city, far from his family, and leave Venezuela’s National Guard after 13 years of loyal service.
Risking his own safety and that of his wife—“the love of my life,” he said—as well as his 1-year-old daughter and two sons, the 34-year-old admits the decision to desert his post wasn’t easy, but there were no options left.
“I had to do what I had to do,” the ex-sergeant said, lamenting the distance between himself and his young children. “It was time to put myself on the right side of history.”
Dressed in casual civilian attire of a T-shirt and jeans, Del Río is one of hundreds of young men who have left everything behind to answer the Venezuelan opposition’s call to abandon the dictatorship in an effort to topple illegitimate dictator Nicolas Maduro.
Putting on his uniform once made him and his sons proud, Del Río said, but in recent years, his green fatigues started to bring him shame. As Venezuela’s rapid demise intensified, he could no longer support the “narco-dictator” Maduro, whom he considers responsible for the country’s collapse and who continues to concentrate power illegitimately into his own hands.
The embattled president has faced strong public and political opposition in recent months with consistent large-scale protests, but continues to cling onto power because of military support.
“I saw families protesting peacefully being attacked and sometimes killed. … I can’t support that—it’s a disgrace,” Del Río said, appalled by the heavy-handed tactics that have come to characterize the response of the security services to pacifistic protests.
As a member of the National Guard, Del Río was expected to violently break up demonstrations. Protests have become increasingly common in Caracas since fresh-faced opposition leader Juan Guaidó invoked the constitution to declare himself interim leader on Jan. 23. Guaidó—recognized by more than 50 countries as the legitimate president—disputes Maduro’s re-election, which was widely considered to be fraudulent.
As with many of the more than 1,500 Venezuelan ex-soldiers and security officials who have deserted their posts since Maduro blocked the entry of humanitarian aid into the country on Feb. 23, Del Río said taking orders from “corrupt” generals who support a “narco-regime” funded by drug-trafficking became insufferable.
While he fears his family could be violently targeted by the regime as payback for his desertion, he could no longer live with supporting the regime or carrying out morally reprehensible orders, such as beating members of the public.
Corruption and Fear
Del Río said corruption has now permeated the armed forces so deeply that, on one occasion, soldiers had nowhere to sleep as their beds were given to members of colectivos—pro-government paramilitaries who, he says, have the support of the military.
Former Sgt. Frank Rengifo, 31, also left his family behind, crossing the border on March 9. He believes the colectivos have become the true enforcers of law and order in the country.
“We are the armed forces, but they are in charge,” he said, having seen the groups traffic drugs and steal food from hungry families on the Venezuelan–Colombian border with legal immunity. “I witnessed how the colectivos mistreated people and our bosses told us not to touch them.”
A number of former soldiers and security officials told The Epoch Times that the ranks of the armed forces have swollen in recent years with criminals and colectivos members, who don’t have the training nor the ethics needed to serve.
Rengifo said he regrets following orders he “should not have,” such as stealing goods or detaining people for trumped-up crimes. Being seen in his uniform in the streets became humiliating and “shameful.”
The ex-soldier alleges hundreds of people were imprisoned unjustifiably in Casigua-El Cubo alone, a small town he formerly patrolled that sits on Venezuela’s porous border with Colombia. Meanwhile, criminals went free because of their links to the regime.
“It was there that I realized all we were doing was making the people suffer,” Rengifo said.
Several ex-soldiers told The Epoch Times that the majority of rank-and-file soldiers are against such actions, but are held in line by fear of violent reprisals against themselves or their families.
They believe the majority of low-ranking soldiers would quickly abandon Maduro and defect to the opposition should an invasion ever be launched, but, for now, fear prevents all but the boldest from leaving.
“Anyone who says they do not fear repercussions has no heart,” said Rengifo, who believes the family homes of a number of his comrades have been destroyed and set on fire since they broke ranks and fled to neighboring Colombia.
Hope and Struggle
Those who have made the move, despite these fears, are now struggling to make ends meet, and scrape together a few dollars a week to send home to buy basics for their children, such as diapers.
They had hoped to form an invasion force led by Guaidó to remove Maduro from power, but as that call never arrived, they are now disappointed, disillusioned, and idle, living off minimal benefits from the Colombian government—which are soon to be cut. But it was the unlivable conditions at home that forced some to take a leap of faith.
“I did not want to leave my family—they are my life—but we couldn’t survive anymore in Venezuela,” said 23-year-old former Sgt. Nikol Paez.
Paez abandoned his unit to dart across the border the day Maduro blocked aid into the country while his family was going without food and medicine. Severe basic food and medicine shortages persist in Venezuela, and 4 million people have now fled the crisis, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency. Maduro denies the existence of a humanitarian crisis.
While the deserters’ dreams of taking back the country themselves are nearly extinguished as the months drag on, they also hold little hope for political negotiations—the latest round between Maduro’s and Guiadó’s camps in Oslo, Norway, ended without agreement.
Many lament that it is the only current option, seeing violence as the only way out for themselves, their families, and their countrymen, who continue to suffer at the hands of a military dictatorship.
“Guiadó has tried diplomatically, and I congratulate him for it, but the regime is dirty, they don’t play clean. The only thing that will work is face-to-face confrontation,” Del Río said. “The regime has to be stopped.”