By Elizabeth Llorente
Published February 27, 2019
More than 450 Venezuelan soldiers have defected in just four days as the country plunges deeper into chaos.
Soldiers who have sought refuge in Colombia since the weekend told the Associated Press that the catalyst for defection was the command from above to keep desperately needed humanitarian aid from their compatriots.
"I was tired of people seeing me as just one more of them," Sgt. Jorge Torres said, referring to President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government. "I'm not."
A high-stakes plan by the Venezuelan opposition to bring humanitarian aid into the country floundered over the weekend when National Guard troops loyal to Maduro refused to let the trucks carrying food and medical supplies cross.
Troops found themselves engaged in violent confrontations with their fellow Venezuelans. Many abandoned their posts and ran for their lives across the border into Colombia, which has become a refuge for the newly homeless, mostly low-ranking soldiers.
Colombian immigration officials said on Tuesday that so far, more than 320 Venezuelan soldiers have defected since the weekend.
The defections come as the Venezuelan opposition puts pressure on the military to recognize National Assembly leader Juan Guaido as the nation's rightful president.
Venezuela's military has served as the traditional arbiter of political disputes, forcing out dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958. But the top military brass has stood fast with Maduro, who has shown no sign that he intends to relinquish power.
While Guaido has proposed amnesty to military officers who back him, the low-ranking soldiers who have defected say breaking ranks with Maduro is all but impossible. Even as the number fleeing swells, they represent a small percentage of the 200,000-plus troops in Venezuela's army.
Anyone who shows the slightest hint of disapproval risks arrest, and jail has become increasingly synonymous with torture. Even those like Sgt. Jose Gomez, a father of two who wanted to see the aid brought in, followed orders to repress citizens.
Gomez called his father to tell him of his predicament and his desire to abandon his post and flee.
"Son, if this decision is to save your life and so that there is change, do it," Gomez said his father told him in a brief phone call before he sprinted across the border. All fled after making unplanned, split-second decisions with only the uniform on their backs.
With no relatives in Colombia, several dozen have ended up in a shelter run by a priest. The home on a street with low-hanging electrical wires is where they are nervously keeping track of relatives left behind, figuring out how to apply for asylum and deciding what should come next.
"The only way for this government to leave, unfortunately, and all of Venezuela knows it, is for there to be a direct intervention," said Gomez. "The only one with that power is the international community."
Like the rest of the population struggling against hyperinflation expected to reach an eye-boggling 10 million percent this year, the soldiers also know the indignities of life in Venezuela, where severe shortages of food and medicine have led to more than 3 million people leaving the country in recent years.
"You know that in your own home you don't even have a kilo of rice," said the female soldier, who requested anonymity, fearing for the safety of the children she left back home. "And I'm supposed to stay here fighting, why?"
The Associated Press contributed to this report.