An explosive new report reveals how Guaidó representatives in Colombia embezzled $125,000 meant for humanitarian aid, suckering deserting soldiers and blowing the aid money on luxury goods.
by Dan Cohen
by Dan Cohen
Part 3 - Suckering the soldiers
Popular Will party members Rossana Barrera and Kevin Rojas are the main subjects of the corruption investigation. Barrera replaced Roberto Marrero as Juan Guaidó’s chief of staff after Marrero was arrested by the Venezuelan government on charges of plotting terrorist attacks. Rojas, for his part, is the regional coordinator of the Popular Will party in the border state of Tachira, and had been denounced for his role in violent destabilization plots by the state’s former governor, Jose Vielma Mora.
For months, Popular Will party parliamentarians Dr. José Manuel Olivares and Gaby Arellano had been tasked with overseeing the aid operations, and according to Avendaño, Olivares was preparing for a collapse in the military’s command and control structure on the border that would allow the opposition to ram the aid trucks through.
Yet Olivares and Arellano were replaced without explanation on direct orders from Guaidó. I reached out to Olivares via Whatsapp for comment, but he declined to respond. However, the two released a statement expressing confidence in the investigation while blaming their disgraced counterparts, Barrera and Rojas.
“We don’t have any responsibility with respect to the soldiers that are in Colombian territory that began to enter on February 23rd through the bridges where we were,” they remarked. “We must highlight that the person in charge of this process of the Venezuelan officers into Colombian territory is the ambassador, Humberto Calderón Berti, and the president’s appointees in Cúcuta: Kevin Rojas and Rossana Barrera.”
While the attempt to push aid trucks across Venezuelan borders was a resounding failure, the desertion by scores of Venezuelan soldiers to Guaidó’s cause was spun as a major success. Soon, Guaidó and his partymates promised, thousands more soldiers would break ranks and Maduro’s government would dissolve. The soldiers had been promised amnesty and stays in hotels, schooling for their children, medical care and employment. Chilean president Sebastián Piñera even offered renewable one-year visas with the possibility of permanent residency.
On February 25th, I spoke to three defector soldiers in Bogotá who expressed optimism that Maduro would soon be ousted and their conditions would improve dramatically. “This country has extended its hand and helps us,” Sergeant Major Jose Luis Suarez told me. “As a Venezuelan soldier, I’m very thankful to Colombia.”
At first, the turncoat soldiers were put up in nine hotels in Cúcuta at $30,000 per night, paid for by the Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Juan Guaidó’s ad hoc Humanitarian Aid Coalition.
However, just one day after they arrived, representatives from the Coalition for Humanitarian Aid in Cúcuta told soldiers to stop coming across the border because they were in “a complicated situation” with an insufficient budget.
Optimism soon turned to outrage as the benefits the soldiers had been promised failed to materialize. By mid-March, funds for the deserters had completely dried up. The UNHCR attempted to expel a group of soldiers from one shelter, giving each a stipend of 350,000 Colombian pesos ($106), a mat, and a sheet to sleep on.
“We are desperate. We do not want to stay in Colombia, we want to return to Venezuela, but not in the conditions that are being lived now. We do not know what to do,” one deserter complained.
The soldiers’ families paid an especially heavy toll. Several of their wives were pregnant and were denied access to medical attention. One woman was forced to give birth in an emergency room and could not pay for a taxi to leave. The 130 children of the deserters were so poorly fed that twenty percent were assessed to be suffering from malnutrition.
Unable to work, some defectors joined paramilitaries and drug trafficking operations along the Colombian-Venezuelan border and received training in high-powered weapons. Others drank away their misery, descended into violence and cast about for prostitutes.
By the beginning of May, Guaidó’s representatives had cut off all communication with the soldiers. Having sold out in pursuit of promises that turned out to be hollow, the lost army was set to turn on Guaidó’s gaggle.