If Gabriela Ochoa had known what would happen to her down by the Táchira River that divides Venezuela and Colombia, she never would have crossed.
But her family was desperate.
The 21-year-old single mother had been struggling as Venezuela’s economy collapsed under the regime of embattled President Nicolás Maduro. In 2019, she lost her job at a fruit shop and could no longer feed her three young children, all under the age of five.
With government subsidized food growing scarcer and more expensive, Ochoa didn’t even bother seeking government aid. Instead, after a short stint living with her mother, with whom she had a troubled relationship, she set her sights on moving to Colombia, where people advised she might find work and a friend had offered to host her.
As the first Covid-19 cases started popping up at home, she traveled towards the Colombia-Venezuela border. Many Venezuelan migrants have been living in the city of Cúcuta, the closest major city on the Colombian side of the border, often in the precarious conditions of slums and temporary shelters.
Ochoa and her children made it to the border bridge in early April, after hours of hitchhiking and walking from her hometown, the coastal city of Puerto Cabello — more than 450 miles (730 km) from the border. But the Colombian government had already closed all checkpoints to avoid the spread of the novel coronavirus in mid-March.
The only option left for Ochoa to make it across to Cúcuta was to cross through one of the nearly 80 muddy, crime-ridden trochas in the Cúcuta area — informal routes across the Táchira river — controlled by criminal gangs, guerrillas and paramilitary groups, she said.
On the first day, Ochoa said she begged people on their way to the trocha to help her cross, with no luck. That night, she slept on the street with her children, their stomachs roaring with hunger. By the end of the second day, as the sky darkened, a young man finally offered to help her, she said.
As they inched closer to the water, a group of men emerged from the bushes, their heads covered by hoodies.
“They had guns, knives, all kinds of things,” Ochoa recalled. The men grabbed her children and threatened to take them away if she didn’t pay them to cross.
“I thought they were going to kill me and the children,” she said. In tears, Ochoa told them she didn’t have any money and begged them