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1,000 Venezuelan Armed Forces Have Fled Across Border, Says Colombian Government

Colombian police escort a Venezuelan soldier into Cúcuta, Colombia. The soldier surrendered at a bridge crossing the Venezuela-Colombia border, where people tried to carry humanitarian aid into Venezuela on Feb. 23.
Fernando Vergara
Colombian police escort a Venezuelan soldier into Cúcuta, Colombia. The soldier surrendered at a bridge crossing the Venezuela-Colombia border, where people tried to carry humanitarian aid into Venezuela on Feb. 23.

After eight years in Venezuela's National Guard, Lt. Juan Carlos Mora fled to Colombia last month, denounced President Nicolás Maduro and declared his support for Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader now recognized by the U.S. and about 50 other countries as the legitimate head of state.

Guaidó "is president and military commander," Mora said in an interview in Cúcuta, a Colombian city near the border with Venezuela. "He is now my boss."

Since taking the oath of office in January, Guaidó and U.S. officials have been urging Venezuela's armed forces to withdraw their support for Maduro, arguing that this action would cause his authoritarian regime to quickly collapse. But there has been no broad military uprising inside Venezuela and, rather than a tidal wave of troops fleeing, there's been just a trickle.

Over the past month, nearly 1,000 Venezuelan troops have fled to Colombia to avoid arrest back home, according to the Colombian Foreign Ministry, which recognizes Guaidó as Venezuela's interim president. In one case, Venezuelan troops used armored cars to smash through barriers on a border bridge and reach Colombia.

Pro-Maduro officials say these exiled troops are massing on the border and preparing to take part in a U.S.-backed military invasion of Venezuela.

Still, those who left their post amount to less than 1 percent of the 160,000-strong Venezuelan military. What's more, most are rank-and-file soldiers or midlevel officers while the military high command remains loyal to Maduro.

Mora estimates that up to 90 percent of Venezuelan troops oppose Maduro but refuse to take action out of fear that counterintelligence agents may have infiltrated their ranks or that family members would face reprisals.

"Why don't they rise up? Because they are afraid," Mora said.

Some troops have risked their necks only to see their plans for a coup fall apart.

They include Harry Solano, 36, a sergeant in the Venezuelan National Guard. A 14-year veteran, Solano worked as a motorcycle escort for top officers. He told NPR that he initially supported the socialist revolution ushered in by the late Hugo Chávez in 1999. But he grew dismayed by government corruption and demands that troops vote for ruling Socialist Party candidates.

Solano bided his time, thinking the political opposition would dislodge Maduro. Instead, the government jailed or banned from running for office the most prominent opposition leaders, and Maduro was re-elected last year in a presidential vote condemned by much of the international community as a sham.

The result prompted Solano to take part in a brief uprising against the government by National Guard units in and around Caracas in January, just days before Guaidó swore himself in as Venezuela's interim president. But Solano said the rebellion collapsed when tank commanders, who had initially signed on, refused to support the coup.

Solano escaped to Colombia but said military agents beat his mother as they pressed her for information on his whereabouts.

"The military is under very tight control. The phones are tapped. If you have any negative thought about the government they will arrest you," Solano said. By contrast, "if you denounce soldiers for coup-plotting they will award you with a new house or a car. That's why we haven't been able to achieve anything."

Another National Guard sergeant who fled to Colombia last month told NPR that he delayed his decision for years because he was the only breadwinner in his family and had to take care of his ailing parents. But after a decade in uniform, the sergeant, who is now 27, decided he could no longer follow orders to violently repress the growing number of anti-government demonstrations. Since 2014, scores of protesters have been reported killed and thousands arrested.

"I identified with the protesters who, like soldiers, are just average people," he said. "I did not want to be an accomplice in the repression."

Last month, he told commanding officers that he was leaving the base to buy food for the troops. Instead, he drove to the Colombian border. Once on the other side he was warmly received by immigration officials.

"They told me: 'Welcome to freedom,' " said the sergeant, who did not want to give his name for fear of reprisals against his wife and son, who are still in Venezuela.

For Mora, the National Guard lieutenant, Venezuela's economic crisis was a major factor in his decision to get out. Hyperinflation meant that his monthly salary was only enough to buy a package of diapers for his 1-year-old daughter. He also chafed at orders to crack down on protesters.

"I was never repressive," he insists. "And when I did things, I did them out of self-defense."

His plan was to cross into Colombia along with the 50 troops under his command. Mora's hope was that such a mass desertion would help undermine support for Maduro. But counterintelligence agents tapped Mora's telephone and learned of the plot. In a panic, he gathered up his wife and daughter, drove to Táchira River, which forms the border, and crossed in a canoe.

Since then, Mora's brother-in-law back in Venezuela has been interrogated four times by counterintelligence officials, he says, and was forced to sign a document saying he would help capture Mora or go to jail. But the brother-in-law may have gotten off easy. Human rights groups have documented numerous cases in which relatives of fleeing service members have been detained and tortured.

Like most Venezuelan soldiers across the border, Mora now lives in Cúcuta, where the Colombian government provides food and hotel rooms to the troops and their families.

Some of them talk of forming a militia to help Guaidó take control of Venezuela.

"All of us have the conviction that we would support an uprising. If it will liberate our people we will do it," said the sergeant who fled.

Bloomberg reported that last month Guaidó enlisted 200 exiled troops to drive back Venezuelan border guards and help escort convoys of humanitarian aid from Cúcuta into the country. The report said that Colombian officials, fearing violence, pulled the plug on the plan and troops loyal to Maduro blocked the aid from entering Venezuela.

But even though there is little support in Colombia or elsewhere in Latin America for military action against Maduro, the Venezuelan troops in Cúcuta say they are preparing for the next phase in the campaign to free their country.

Solano, the National Guard sergeant who took part in the January uprising, said: "We are waiting for instructions from Guaidó."

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