Venezuelans keep coming over Brazilian border despite attacks

Eugenia LOGIURATTO
Residents of Pacaraima burn tires and the belongings of Venezuelan immigrants after attacking their two main makeshift camps, leading them to cross the border back into their home country on August 18, 2018

Venezuelans desperate to leave their collapsing country continued to flow into Brazil on Monday despite fear of anti-migrant violence in the tense border town of Pacaraima.

Two days after a riot in which locals targeted Venezuelan camps, driving some 1,200 migrants back over the border, the crossing, reinforced by extra troops, was again busy.

An army colonel in charge of the refugees program at the base in Pacaraima said some 900 new arrivals were expected Monday. That's more than the daily average and far above the trickle seen as tensions mounted over the last few days.

One of the many money changers crossing each day from the Venezuelan city of Santa Elena de Uairen to change the country's almost worthless currency and the Brazilian real said Saturday's violence had shaken everyone.

"We were scared and didn't know what could happen," he said, asking not to be identified.

Despite that fear, the pressure to get out of Venezuela -- where under President Nicolas Maduro the once booming economy is in freefall and basic goods are hard to get -- is even greater.

Brazil's security minister, Sergio Etchegoyen, insisted that Brazil will remain open to its fleeing neighbors, saying "closing the border is unthinkable, because it is illegal."

Extra troops from the elite National Force and health specialists have been deployed to the area, the government said over the weekend.

- Scapegoats -

Saturday's violence was sparked by local outrage at the beating and robbery of a local merchant in Pacaraima. Venezuelans were blamed.

Within hours, rioters had attacked two camps housing some of the approximately 1,000 refugees sheltering in the small town, burning their meager belongings and chasing them to the border. Shots were fired.

"It was terrible," said one Venezuelan, Carol Maracano.

Jorge Idrogo, a 22-year-old Venezuelan who supports his family by selling food in Brazil, said refugees felt they had nowhere to turn.

"We were made to pay the price for the sinners. We shouldn't be blamed for the bad done by our government," he said.

But for Brazilians, as for other neighbors or turbulent Venezuela, the pressure is also rising. Just 12,000 people live in Pacaraima, meaning that almost one in 10 people there comes from across the border.

Tens of thousands of Venezuelans have crossed the border into Brazil over the past three years, while Colombia has given temporary residence to more than 800,000, with an estimated 3,000 entering daily. Last week alone, 20,000 Venezuelans entered Peru, authorities say.

On Monday, President Michel Temer called his second emergency cabinet meeting on the border situation in as many days. But Etchegoyen ruled out closing the border, saying: "It's a solution that does nothing to help the humanitarian question."

The situation is calmer now, Etchegoyen said, "with no sign of conflict."

Caracas on Monday began issuing new banknotes after lopping five zeroes off the crippled bolivar, casting a pall of uncertainty over businesses and consumers across the country.