PAMPLONA, Colombia — As night approached, Sandra Cadiz wrapped her shivering daughter in a blanket and prayed for a ride up the frigid Colombian mountaintop known as “the icebox.”
Ten-year-old Angelis already had on nearly all of the clothes she’d brought for the 2,700-mile trek through four countries — two pairs of leggings, several T-shirts and a light jacket. They did little to shield the girl’s thin frame from a biting wind.
The mother and daughter had fled Venezuela on foot, joining more than 650 migrants who walk away from the collapsing nation each day because they cannot afford a plane or bus ticket. Cadiz knew not everyone survived the trek across dangerous borders and an unforgiving terrain, but she feared staying in Venezuela would mean her already malnourished daughter going hungry.
Cadiz had less than $6 tucked into her bra, all that was left of her life savings. An hour passed, and no one picked them up. Two hours passed, then three, as the temperature steadily edged toward freezing. Only one woman stopped in a beat-up silver Toyota, but she wanted $12 for the two of them, which Cadiz couldn’t pay.
After five hours, Cadiz and her daughter closed their eyes and braced for a long night on the ground outside a gas station. Cadiz, 51, had left behind a grown daughter who was pregnant, and the only world she knew. Now, faced with the bone-chilling tundra ahead where migrants are said to perish, she was terrified.
Quietly, she began to weep.
In one of the biggest migrations in the world today, more than 1.9 million people have fled poverty, hunger, crime and hyperinflation in Venezuela since 2015 — rivaling the flow of Middle Eastern and African refugees to Europe. President Nicolas Maduro denies any mass migration, calling it a media campaign against the government, even while his countrymen fill public parks and shelters throughout South America.
The toll of the Venezuelan migration has been largely invisible, with few keeping track of the dead and missing. United Nations figures show just two dozen migrant deaths or disappearances along routes Venezuelans frequent. But data collected by AP from various agencies in three countries found that deaths and disappearances could reach a few thousand, depending on how they are counted.
At least 235 Venezuelans were reported missing in Colombia, Peru and Ecuador over the last two years. Some 334 in Colombia were killed in homicides and accidents, and an unknown number are believed to have drowned aboard shoddy boats in the Caribbean. Another 2,841 died in Colombia from illnesses on the rise in Venezuela, like malaria and malnutrition. Although it’s difficult to know exactly what role migration played, Carlos Valdes, the head of Colombia’s forensic services office, said many arrive weakened by the exodus.
“They can’t withstand a trip that hard, because the journey is very long,” he said. “They don’t eat and they die.”
Cadiz had survived a lifetime of hardship and was determined not to become another casualty now. The daughter of a housewife and a cemetery worker, Cadiz got pregnant at 15 and dropped out of school to earn a living and raise her child. One of her husbands was killed in a robbery, another in a motorcycle accident. The eldest of her four children died at 25 in a hail of 20 bullets by an unknown assassin.
When Venezuela’s oil-rich economy was booming, her small stand selling candy, cigarettes and cellphone minutes paid for meat on the dinner table. And when a charismatic socialist named Hugo Chavez became president in 1999, she enthusiastically added Venezuelan flags and hats to her sales racks.
In those early years, she bought chicken, sugar, milk, even Kraft mayonnaise. After she won a seat on a new local council, the government rewarded her with a free two-bedroom apartment, where she marveled at the clear water that came out of the faucets.
Her revolutionary fervor struck a nerve with an older sister, who was among the first wave of migrants to leave Venezuela as socialism took root.
“You poor thing,” Cadiz remembers her saying before departing. “Keep believing in your chavismo.”
It’s hard for Cadiz to pinpoint exactly when she lost faith in the revolution, maybe because there are too many moments to count.
As Venezuela’s economy soured, food became harder to find. Cadiz and her daughter frequently slept outside supermarkets to grab whatever was available when doors opened in the morning.
When Cadiz’s pregnant daughter-in-law came down with a urinary infection, they couldn’t find an antibiotic. Then the newborn got diaper rash because they couldn’t afford diapers or detergent good enough to clean makeshift cloth ones. Cadiz worried the young family could be one illness away from disaster.
“Go or your child will die,” Cadiz told her son.
They fled by foot to Peru this summer, a trek nearly equivalent to trekking from Los Angeles to New York City.
In the meantime, customers no longer had cash to spend at Cadiz’s store, and she struggled to feed Angelis, who a doctor said was at least 10 pounds underweight. She wrote repeatedly to government ministers begging for help as a single mother, starting her letters with, “A revolutionary hello!” She got no response.
When Maduro went on television in August to announce a special bonus to help Venezuelans transition to a new currency with five fewer zeroes, Cadiz saw her chance. The money would be just enough for two bus tickets to the border with Colombia.
That night she approached Angelis with the idea. They could spend the money on something like a new pair of tennis shoes to replace her old blue ones with a hole in them. Or they could try to reunite with her brother in Peru.
A half-dozen of Angelis’ friends already had left. Angelis missed foods like yogurt and ice cream, and saw the photographs of what her brother and his family were eating in Peru.
“Let’s go, mama,” Angelis told her. “I’ll walk in my broken shoes.”
The trek from Venezuela typically starts on one of hundreds of illegal dirt trails that snake across the nation’s border with Colombia, because many Venezuelan migrants do not have passports to go through official crossings.
The illegal pathways are ruled by armed men who charge migrants about $10 to be let through, frequently robbing or assaulting those who can’t pay. Three days before Cadiz and Angelis embarked on their journey, police found the corpse of a 44-year-old father who had been shot five times.
The migrants then cross the murky Tachira River, where the current can be strong enough to pull them under.
Cadiz had a passport, but Angelis didn’t. She decided to try the journey with one passport and the handwritten death certificate for Angelis’ father. She bid goodbye to her older daughter, who accused her mother of abandoning her, and boarded the bus to the border with deepening trepidation.
At the Colombian border, Angelis and her mother got separated amid a swarm of migrants. A frantic Cadiz finally spotted her daughter on the other side; Angelis had walked quickly through in a group of children without anyone asking her for a passport.
They spent their first night in Colombia at the Cucuta bus terminal, where they watched in horror as an angry Colombian chased a Venezuelan migrant with a machete. The next day they set off walking toward the mountain.
Some 142 Venezuelans have been reported missing in Colombia so far this year — up from 85 in all of 2017, according to Colombia’s forensic services office. Facebook groups are filled with posts from Venezuelans looking for friends and family members who took off walking and haven’t been seen again.
“I have no other choice but to look here for help,” a woman wrote recently, sharing a photo of a young man who crossed illegally and hadn’t been heard from again. “His relatives are in complete despair not knowing what happened.”
The numbers for the dead are also growing. In Cucuta alone, there are 37 bodies believed to belong to Venezuelans that authorities have been unable to identify. Valdes, the forensic medicine chief, said investigators can typically piece together enough information to know if someone is Venezuelan, but not their name.
“They die and we don’t know who they are,” Valdes said.
As midnight approached, Cadiz rested a cheek against her daughter’s head and closed her eyes, but sleep in an ice-cold gas station parking lot surrounded by strangers was next to impossible.
The next morning, most of the migrants waited to hitch a ride rather than walk, too afraid of getting stranded in the lonely mountain plateau. But Cadiz didn’t want to spend another night there. As soon as the sun rose, she set off with Angelis and another migrant.
Within a few miles, the man’s feet began to blister. He took off his shoes, tore the plastic from a soda bottle into the shape of two soles and ripped up a T-shirt to tie the makeshift flip flops onto his feet. As they walked, the sound of the plastic creaking against the concrete echoed across the barren landscape.
Angelis stuck her thumb out to passing trucks. They were easily identified as Venezuelans because of their tricolor backpacks, handed out en masse by the socialist government to public school children. Families in SUVs, farmers and truckers with empty payloads all passed them by.
“They don’t stop,” Angelis sighed.
Along the narrow shoulder of the road were traces of the migrants who’d come before: Tennis shoes with broken soles, a ripped-up black suitcase, the wheels missing, and a rock wall with carvings of names of people and places.
Lara. Merida. David from Valencia.
Five hours later, they dropped their bags on the floor of another gas station. They were three days into their journey and barely a fifth of the way to Peru. Now they had to cross the coldest part of the mountain.
The mountain plateau known in Colombia as the Berlin paramo is one of the most feared parts of the journey, with temperatures that can dip to 10 degrees below freezing. Cadiz and Angelis heard multiple stories of death from fellow migrants. In some accounts, it was a mother and daughter who had fallen asleep and frozen; in others, an entire family.
Anny Uribe, a woman who runs a refuge for migrant walkers, said she has heard direct witness accounts of at least 17 people dying in the paramo. A Red Cross coordinator for the region said they have no bodies or other evidence that anyone has died. But officials concede the deaths may never have been reported by migrants who entered Colombia illegally.
Migrant Isaia Alberto Munoz, 34, said he saw a family digging a hole and crying along the side of the road, as they buried someone wrapped in a white blanket with red flowers. His group decided they could not stop.
“We couldn’t withstand the cold,” he said.
As Cadiz and Angelis walked steadily onward, Alba Camacho and a friend spotted them along the side of the road. At first she drove by. They only had room in the car for two people, and Angelis and her mother were walking with three other migrants.
“But the girl and the woman?” her friend asked.
The 27-year-old teacher feared none of the migrants would make it out of the paramo before night fell if they had to walk the entire way, especially the girl. They turned around for Angelis and Cadiz.
Camacho wrapped Angelis in her own thick blue coat and bought them empanadas. They drove over the mountaintop inside a warm SUV. When they arrived at the city of Bucaramanga, Camacho and her friend took them home rather than dropping them off at a public park with hundreds of other homeless Venezuelans.
That night, snug together in the kind stranger’s living room, Cadiz suddenly heard Angelis talking in her sleep.
“I don’t want to walk anymore!” she cried out.
Back on the road early the next morning, Cadiz quickly lost her orientation. She knew only what her son had told her: Take the Ruta del Sol — the Sun Route — through Cali to Ecuador. She approached an elderly man and asked, “Which way to Cali?”, eliciting a confused response. Her question was the equivalent of standing on a New York street and asking, “Which way to Cleveland?”
She and Angelis took their best guess and soldiered on, stopping a mile later to make a sign on a discarded box of Zev tomato sauce. Angelis, tired and frustrated, instructed her mom on what to write.
“Blessed driver, please help us with a ride,” Cadiz wrote in magic marker, misspelling the word “blessed.”
Angelis bobbed the sign up and down at every passing vehicle. Only a bicyclist bothered to stop, handing them the equivalent of a dollar in pesos. Two hours and almost three miles later, Angelis demanded to stop walking.
“Don’t you want to get home?” her mother asked, urging her to get up from the curb.
“What home?” she shot back angrily.
Angelis reluctantly kept walking. About a mile ahead, with the help of a police officer, they got a lift from a passing motorist to Lebrija, the pineapple capital of Colombia, where the scent of the sweet fruit filled the air.
They stopped at another gas station where a Venezuelan woman with her husband and nine-year-old son was desperately trying to cool down her feverish baby in the shade of a tree. Cadiz and her daughter were also trying to escape the suffocating heat when a man in a black sombrero gave them 50,000 Colombian pesos — the equivalent of $16.
“I hope you never vote for Maduro again,” he told them.
They walked and hitched more rides, but the progress was agonizingly slow. By the next evening, they were barely a quarter of the way through Colombia to Ecuador, the next country on their route. As the sun began to set in a place known only as “Kilometer 17,” Angelis and her mom bickered.
“Which is the Sun Route?” the girl asked.
“Oh, Angelis,” Cadiz said, flustered. “I don’t know!”
They made a small bed of blankets under the tin roof of a mechanic’s workshop. The two moved repeatedly all night trying to keep dry as a fierce storm blew in.
“We’re trapped,” Cadiz told her son in a WhatsApp voice message. But she had no cell signal, so the cry for help didn’t go through.
As on almost every night on the trip, Cadiz wept. That night, Angelis sobbed, too.
The road leading to the Sun Route was long and empty. But Cadiz found a small coffee shack and an oil trucker who, despite fears of being fined by police for transporting migrants, took them to the main drag of a small town called San Pedro de la Paz. It was there that Cadiz decided to switch her strategy: She had collected 250,000 pesos — about $82 — from generous Colombians and would use the money for buses.
That day Cadiz and her daughter made their way onto three buses, often working out a two-for-one price as long as Angelis sat on her lap. When they finally arrived in Cali, the two were fast asleep.
“Cali! Cali terminal!” the driver cried out, trying to rustle them awake. When they emerged several minutes later, their worn bags were the last ones waiting on the sidewalk.
The Cali bus station was filled with Venezuelan migrants sleeping outside on flattened cardboard boxes in a crime-riddled area. Cadiz quickly bought two bus tickets to Ecuador. Ecuador’s government had recently started requiring passports, but a court had temporarily suspended the policy. Aware of this, the passengers were in a desperate quest to enter Ecuador while they still had a shot.
Cranky children cried throughout the 12-hour ride. At the border, Cadiz and Angelis once again anxiously made their way toward the migration line for families.
As they waited, a man with a stack of Venezuelan bills said he’d buy any she might have. Cadiz took out all that was left of her life savings. The man counted the notes and offered her fifty cents.
She refused. She couldn’t stand taking so little for all she’d earned.
As her mom snaked through four hours of lines, Angelis fell asleep on the floor, her head lying awkwardly on a pile of bags. When Cadiz finally reached a migration agent, she handed over her passport, her husband’s death certificate and her daughter’s national identity card. The agent stared at the card, handed it back without a word and signed off on a special document that would let Angelis enter without a passport.
Cadiz’s relief was visible as she and her daughter posed for photos below a “Thanks for Visiting Ecuador” sign. But minutes later they realized that amid the frenzy of crossing, they’d lost Angelis’ national ID card.
It was the only photo identification they had for Angelis. They still had one more border and 1,288 miles (2,073 kilometers) to cross.
In Ecuador, Cadiz and Angelis headed toward a Red Cross tent already sheltering dozens of migrants. They learned a bus would be leaving for the Peruvian border that night — provided for free by the Ecuadorean government in an apparent bid to both help the migrants and get them out of the country.
Cadiz added their names to the long list of Venezuelans hoping for a seat. Women and children were instructed to board first, sparking tensions among a group of men.
“There are people who have been waiting for six days!” cried a man who said he’d spent 18 days walking to Ecuador.
“There are also people who should be given a priority,” a man carrying a clipboard quipped back.
Twenty hours later, the mother and daughter emerged hungry and suffering from nausea and indigestion. A Red Cross doctor stationed near the border diagnosed Angelis with gastroenteritis and gave her a bottle of Bactrim.
Eight days after fleeing Caracas, Angelis and her mother had reached their final border. Cadiz didn’t know what Peruvian migration officials would say when they found out Angelis didn’t have a single photo ID, let alone a passport. But having made it this far, she felt confident God would guide her.
The next morning they set out walking to the Peruvian migration checkpoint several miles away. Several thousand migrants waited, but they were again put in a special line for families with children. When they got to the front about an hour later, Cadiz pulled her documents out of a crinkled Hello Kitty folder.
“First time you’re in Peru?” a migration officer asked Cadiz.
“Yes,” she replied.
She instructed Cadiz to place her fingers on a digital scanner. Angelis impatiently showed her how. When it was her turn, the girl grinned ear to ear at the camera.
“Calm down,” the agent told her coldly. “Don’t smile.”
Angelis pursed her lips together into a straight line.
On board a double-decker bus filled with Venezuelans for the 18-hour ride to Lima, Cadiz and her daughter feasted on two hamburgers and a Peruvian drink. At one stop, Cadiz saw her daughter staring at a food stand with fried chicken and soda and bought her some. By the time they reached Lima, they didn’t have a cent in their pockets.
“I arrived by a miracle,” Cadiz said.
Angelis’ older brother, Leonardo Araujo, his wife and their 1-year-old daughter welcomed them with an embrace. Cadiz saw they had gained weight, and Angelis admired the toddler’s sparkly silver shoes.
They picked up their bags for the final walk to the Lima neighborhood they hoped to call home.
A month after arriving in Peru, Angelis and her mom are back on the move. The landlord kicked them out of the tiny room where Cadiz’s son lives when they couldn’t pay more rent.
In one desperate moment, Cadiz considered going back to Venezuela, but relatives there told her things had only gotten worse.
They now live in a shelter and walk the streets each day selling knick-knacks. Still, there have been glimmers of the life they hoped for in Peru.
Angelis has gained 11 pounds.