Venezuelan Defectors In Colombia 'Adrift' As Maduro Holds On More than 1,400 members of Venezuelan security forces crossed the border hoping to one day return. Some say they're losing steam as efforts to depose the administration have fizzled.
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Venezuelan Officers Who Fled To Colombia Are 'Adrift' As Maduro Holds Onto Power

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Venezuelan Officers Who Fled To Colombia Are 'Adrift' As Maduro Holds Onto Power

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Colombian border city of Cucuta has become a gathering point of defecting Venezuelan security forces. Many of these troops thought Venezuela's authoritarian president, Nicolas Maduro, was on his way out. But Maduro remains in power, so now these soldiers are in limbo. Reporter John Otis has more.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Jesus Parra spent four years as a police officer in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas. Now he parks cars at a Cucuta funeral home for spare change.

JESUS PARRA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: This is not what Parra had in mind when he deserted the police force and snuck across the Colombian border in March. He made his move after Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido called for an uprising against Maduro.

PARRA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Parra says he thought the defectors would receive military training then return to Venezuela to oust Maduro and install Guaido as president.

PARRA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But that didn't happen. He says, "we were left adrift." When they arrived in Cucuta, Parra and about 1,000 other military defectors were initially greeted as heroes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: They were given free room and board at hotels like this one in downtown Cucuta. Then they settled in to wait for instructions from Guaido, who's recognized by the U.S. and about 50 other countries as Venezuela's legitimate head of state. But the order to mobilize never came, and Guaido's drive for power stalled. In Venezuela, the bulk of the Armed Forces has remained loyal to Maduro. What's more, the Colombian government warns that Venezuelan soldiers who take up arms within its territory will be arrested. National Guard Sgt. Emanuel Nuñez defected in February with his wife and 18-month-old son.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY BABBLING)

EMANUEL NUÑEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: He had high hopes for Guaido but now says he was misled.

NUÑEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "I'm very disappointed," he says. "I thought Guaido had everything planned, but it's all been improvised." That's left the defectors in a bind. Many have family back in Venezuela but would be arrested if they tried to go home.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINE REVVING)

OTIS: Yet surviving in Cucuta is also tough. The city has been overwhelmed with job-seeking migrants fleeing Venezuela's worst economic crisis in history. Some of the troops sell candy and gum on the streets.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: This Venezuelan army colonel used to be in charge of thousands of troops. He now works 12-hour shifts as a security guard at a casino.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "We are trying to make an honorable living to be peaceful and hard-working, but it's been really difficult," he says. The colonel asked that he not be identified by name out of fear of retaliation against his family in Venezuela. Such hardships have been widely publicized by the pro-Maduro media in Venezuela.

JESUS RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: As a result, many troops in Venezuela are convinced that defecting would be a mistake, says Jesus Ramirez, a National Guard sergeant who fled to Cucuta in February.

RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Yet many of the soldiers in Cucuta claim to be at peace with their decision to come here. Among them is army lieutenant Henry Zambrano, who works at a store that sells plastic supplies. He's convinced Maduro's days are numbered and that soon, he'll be back in Venezuela.

HENRY ZAMBRANO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Zambrano says, "I haven't lost faith that we are going to take back our country."

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Cucuta, Colombia.

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