In the Casablanca of the Andes, seemingly everyone’s plotting—or counterplotting—for control of neighboring Venezuela.
By Ethan Bronner and Ezra Fieser
Small families with bedrolls loiter quietly on the red-brick sidewalks outside the high-end eateries and upscale boutiques of Bogotá’s northern neighborhoods, taking handouts. Along the gritty, honking avenues farther south, young men push cartloads of candy for sale or shoulder food-delivery backpacks as employees of one of the Colombian capital’s fastest-growing startups. They are Venezuelan refugees, hundreds of thousands of them, and in the past couple of years they’ve poured into this damp, thin-aired, sprawling city high in the Andes.
Geopolitical crises tend to create unexpected centers of refuge and espionage. During the Cold War, it was West Berlin; in the buildup to the Iraq War, the Jordanian capital of Amman. Now the world’s attention has shifted to Venezuela, a nation whose people are near starvation, even as they sit atop the world’s largest known oil reserves. The Trump administration, invoking the Monroe Doctrine claim of U.S. primacy in the Western Hemisphere, says the departure of its president, Nicolás Maduro, is nonnegotiable. It’s led more than 50 countries in supporting opposition leader Juan Guaidó as interim president and has imposed punishing economic sanctions. Moscow has replied by sending military advisers to Caracas. Along with Beijing, Ankara, and Havana, it’s standing by Maduro. So is the Venezuelan military command, at least so far.
With U.S. diplomats pulled out of Caracas and Venezuela barely functioning amid power cuts and hyperinflation, Bogotá has become a proxy battleground for the conflict building on Colombia’s eastern border. Those candy sellers? Members of a counterintelligence unit known as la Sombra—“the Shadow”—sent by the embattled Maduro regime. Those middle-aged folks in tasteful but worn suits sipping coffee at a cafe in Virrey Park as rollerbladers speed by? Venezuelan professors who escaped arrest last year and rushed here without documents to live in noisy first-floor apartments furnished with sleeper sofas. And those fit young men in crew cuts drinking beer at the Hotel Dann Carlton? Mercenaries and ex-Venezuelan officers plotting their next move.
Flights into Colombia are full. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, along with congressional Democrats Representative Eliot Engel of New York and Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, have all recently led delegations here. Before his 2018 poisoning in England caused a major blowup with Russia, Sergei Skripal, a former double agent working for MI6, was sent to help the Colombians figure out what to do about the growing Russian presence. (Since surviving his murder attempt, Skripal has changed his identity and couldn’t be reached for comment.) The Cubans have told Colombian officials they’re reducing their numbers in the country, but the Colombians say the opposite is true. The U.S. isn’t yielding the playing field: Its Bogotá mission, one of the largest in the world, has 3,000 employees. Meanwhile, more Venezuelans are coming every hour.
Some say Bogotá feels like Casablanca during World War II. As in the 1942 Humphrey Bogart classic about life and death in the wartime city, refugees are rushing in and upending the social order. In the film, a leading Amsterdam banker has to work as the pastry chef at Rick’s Café Américain, and his father as a bellboy. Here there are Venezuelan judges driving Ubers, their bank accounts and homes seized by the regime.
Of course, Casablanca—both the historic place and Hollywood’s version—was a place refugees hoped to get out of, seeking passage to Lisbon and then New York. For some Venezuelans, Bogotá is also a stop on the way to somewhere else—Brazil, Chile, Peru. But for many others it’s a comfortable place to make a new life. One with no plans to leave is Humberto Calderón, 77, a gruff former energy minister and OPEC president who’s the representative to Colombia from the Guaidó “administration,” Venezuela’s parallel ruling structure, which has international backing but no actual authority. He’s had the job for a few months and works out of the same building where he lives. “We don’t move too much, so as not to give them the opportunity to follow us,” he says.
Calderón took control of the official embassy, about a mile away, when Colombia recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s president and revoked diplomatic status for Maduro’s representatives. Under Maduro’s control, the embassy was little more than the “center of an intelligence-gathering operation” with hundreds of operatives, Calderón says, switching seamlessly between English and Spanish. Two men stand guard by the floor-to-ceiling windows of the conference room in his building, framing a recently refurbished park with outdoor exercise equipment, part of a civic focus on fitness. At one end of the park, a Venezuelan family of four sits on a bench asking passersby for help.
Colombia has always been a paradox, sophisticated and crude at the same time. Its technocratic class was training at the world’s finest institutions while gangs of Marxist revolutionaries took over the countryside by force. For decades, Bogotá was a dismal place, with its endless chilly rain and traffic-choked streets, filled with petty thievery and devoid of charm. Wearing a watch was risky; someone might yank it off your wrist and sell it on the next corner. As recently as 2002, the presidential inauguration was interrupted by homemade guerrilla rockets.
But lately the place has blossomed with hundreds of first-class restaurants, miles of bike paths, numerous green spaces, and chains of appealing coffeehouses. There’s a sense of freedom, of hipster experimentation. On weekends, bikers trek up the mountains to the east, lunching at grills overlooking the city where guerrillas used to rule. Bomb-sniffing dogs still patrol major hotels, and lines of buses belch fumes right alongside the bike paths, so Bogotá is perhaps best seen as a city in transition rather than one that’s arrived. In January, guerrillas drove a car bomb into a police academy, killing more than 20 cadets. But it’s far more confident than ever in its history and has been embracing its fleeing neighbors with grace and generosity.
Zair Mundaray is grateful for that. He was the director of Venezuela’s state prosecutor’s office in Caracas until the summer of 2017, when his boss, Prosecutor General Luisa Ortega, fled to Bogotá under threat of arrest for investigating Maduro’s role in a corruption scandal that had spread from Brazil across Latin America. Mundaray followed and, along with a small staff of lawyers and investigators, has set up a cramped version of their office in exile. The escape was messy. Their passports had already been confiscated, and they had to walk across the border in disguise and request protection from the Colombian attorney general. It was granted immediately. Some months afterward, Mundaray was walking in Bogotá when two cars blocked his path. Four men jumped out and called his name. He ran and found refuge at a busy construction site. The men drove away. Since then, he’s had a two-man guard unit provided by the Colombian government.
Other Venezuelan exiles in Bogotá—physicians, legislators, and military officers—have similar stories. José Manuel Olivares, a member of the opposition-controlled legislative body who’s played a key role in frustrated attempts to get U.S. emergency aid across the border, says he started receiving photos of himself in his WhatsApp feed: Someone was following him and wanted him to know it. In February, two men with Venezuelan accents trailed him on bicycles as he jogged, calling out his name. Photos of his wife and young child were among the files the opposition discovered when it took over the Venezuelan Embassy.
Not since it gained independence in the 19th century has Colombia had to wrestle with immigration—Congress never even felt the need to pass a law limiting or regulating immigration—because so few foreigners wanted to move here. Its issues have been internal, leading to decades of bloody battles. Billions of dollars of U.S. aid helped it tamp down an exploding cocaine industry and sign a 2016 peace deal with Marxist guerrillas who once held sway over large sections of the country. As Colombia wrestled with itself, people left—usually for Venezuela, the Caribbean paradise to the east and the continent’s richest nation, where the Cuban-inspired government provided food, housing, and education for all.
Now the stampede is entirely in the opposite direction. Over the past two years, the Colombian government has counted 1.2 million permanent Venezuelan arrivals, an additional 700,000 in transit to elsewhere in the region, plus half a million Colombians returning from Venezuela. There are also tens of thousands of so-called circular migrants who live in Venezuela and come into Colombia daily in search of food and supplies. If this goes on for another year, Venezuela will surpass Syria in the scale of its refugee crisis. Colombia has vaccinated more than 900,000 newcomers, and it’s placing tens of thousands of Venezuelan children in schools.
Felipe Muñoz, an economist with many years in Washington under his belt, is President Iván Duque’s point person on Venezuela. A sweater-vest, whiteboard kind of technocrat, Muñoz explains the challenges he faces while hunched over data in his office in the impressive Nariño presidential palace in the Candelaria neighborhood. As a military band marches across the plaza outside, competing briefly for his attention, Muñoz cites a study that found international aid has amounted to $5,000 per Syrian refugee; for Venezuelans in Colombia, it’s been less than $300. Much more is needed to prevent the country from being overwhelmed, he says.
Then there are the ex-Venezuelan military who camp in Bogotá to plot coups d’état. One lives elsewhere in Colombia and comes to the city often to meet with fellow dissident officers. He wears jeans and T-shirts, stays at modest, inconspicuous hotels, and takes public buses, all to make himself harder to trail. He doesn’t want his name published and goes silent at the mention of guns. The Colombians bar him and the others from keeping arms (though they do anyway).
Another former Venezuelan soldier, Carlos Guillen, says he’s proud of his anti-Maduro activities and won’t hide behind anonymity. A recent arrival in Bogotá, he suggests meeting at a working-class cafe in a barrio south of downtown. As soon as the interview begins, he asks to move to a different section of the city; he fears he’s being watched. He speaks of collaborators inside the headquarters of Venezuela’s security services in Caracas and shows videos of the building’s interior—they need the layout for the planned invasion. He says he’s ordering spying equipment from the U.S.—pens that record video, eyeglasses with cameras—which he’ll send on to his colleagues in Caracas.
The Colombian authorities despise Maduro and are eager to see him driven from power. But the presence of armed agents makes them nervous. They don’t mean to be inhospitable, but they worry about Bogotá’s growing reputation as the center of anti-Venezuelan plotting. On Feb. 23, when international aid was blocked by Maduro’s militias, more than 1,000 Venezuelan National Guardsmen slipped across seeking asylum. The Colombians want to accommodate them, putting them up at a hotel replete with a palm-lined pool near the border while considering granting them entry. But there’s fear that some are spies and many others hotheads; authorities have caught and deported a handful of alleged Maduro-sent infiltrators. The influx poses challenges the Colombian government is only starting to grasp.
“We as a country hadn’t thought about how we were going to handle the people coming into the country on the 23rd,” says Major Victor Guerra of the Customs Police. “We weren’t prepared with any protocol. We’re in the process of creating a system to tell us whether they’re entering the country for the reasons they said or for other reasons and, most importantly, who they really are.” If the refugees cause more problems, Bogotá will have a ready word when it rounds up its “usual suspects”: Venezuelans.