Venezuelan Crisis Brings Crime, Social Issues To Brazilian Frontier Town

Apr 7, 2017
Originally published on April 7, 2017 5:37 pm
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Venezuelans are fleeing their country because the government and the economy in Venezuela are in chaos. Many Venezuelans are going to neighboring countries, including Brazil. NPR's Philip Reeves spent some time in a Brazilian frontier town that's been flooded with people and transformed by the crisis next door.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: This is the little town of Pacaraima. It's in the hills right by the border with Venezuela. People say it was paradise here. Then Venezuela fell apart. The border gate opens for the day beneath dripping clouds. Some Venezuelans drive in. Andreina Marques arrives on foot.

ANDREINA MARQUES: I'm looking for another life.

REEVES: Another life.

MARQUES: Yes.

REEVES: She's 24 and an economics graduate. Marques is moving abroad to seek work. She's had enough of life in Venezuela.

MARQUES: The situation with the food is so complicated. The security - it's so difficult. And the public health is so difficult.

IRAIMA ROMERO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Iraima Romero arrives to buy toiletries to sell back home in Venezuela's capital, Caracas. The journey here is long and dangerous, but...

ROMERO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: ...Romero has three kids to support. Pacaraima's shops open. They're making good money selling rice, sugar, flour and oil to Venezuelans who haul it home.

(CROSSTALK)

REEVES: Jesus Sanchez is sitting on a couple of sacks of flour. He says he can't afford more...

JESUS SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: ...Because he lacks capital. He says he's so far been robbed four times in Venezuela on his way home.

(CROSSTALK)

REEVES: Up the street, Pedro Bello is wandering around. During Venezuela's boom, he made his living as a master builder. Right now, he's depending on two tiny white poodles that he's holding in his hands.

PEDRO BELLO: (Through interpreter) I'm selling these because I actually need the money to survive.

MARCOS SALAZAR: (Singing in Spanish).

REEVES: Marcos Salazar is cycling around town, selling coffee to pay for three kids back home. Salazar says he does this for 13 hours a day.

SALAZAR: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Being stubbornly optimistic is his way of dealing with adversity, so he sells his coffee with a song.

SALAZAR: (Singing in Spanish, whistling).

REEVES: It's lunchtime, and it's raining again. Perciano da Paixoa, the town's tourism director, is standing outside his office. There are lovely waterfalls and tropical forests around here but no tourists right now, he says. Da Paixoa says Pacaraima's declared a state of emergency because schools and hospitals are overwhelmed by the Venezuelan influx.

PERCIANO DA PAIXOA: (Through interpreter) Our town can't cope with this amount of people coming here.

REEVES: He says the influx is producing a crime wave. Violence used to be rare, but there have been 10 homicides in as many months.

(CROSSTALK)

REEVES: And the town now has a red light district. As the afternoon grows older, Venezuelan women begin to show up on the streets. Pedro Bello is still walking around with his puppies.

Have you had any luck yet selling those dogs? (Speaking Spanish).

BELLO: No, no, (speaking Spanish).

REEVES: The sun sinks, and the town grows dark and chilly.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: The faithful assemble in church for evening prayers.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: The thirsty gather in their temples, and the hungry - well, they do what they can.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Speaking Spanish, laughter).

REEVES: Mateus Gonzales and his family are cooking over a fire surrounded by trash and puddles. They sleep outside along with hundreds of other Venezuelans, including many tiny children. Gonzales spent the day looking for work unloading trucks but didn't earn a dime. Survival has become a matter of luck.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: And this family says today they had none. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Pacaraima.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEACH HOUSE SONG, "SPACE SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.