Advertisement

Hundreds of Venezuela soldiers choose to desert army: ‘We’re still in time to change history’

Click to play video: 'Venezuelan military defectors speak out after weekend’s deadly clashes over aid' Venezuelan military defectors speak out after weekend’s deadly clashes over aid
WATCH: Venezuelan military defectors speak out after weekend's deadly clashes over aid – Feb 25, 2019

The simple house on a street ridden with potholes in this town on Colombia’s restive border with Venezuela has become a refuge for the newly homeless — 40 Venezuelan soldiers who abandoned their posts and ran for their lives.

The young National Guard troops sleep on thin mats on the floor. In one room, several flak jackets rest along a wall. On a balcony, boots that got wet crossing the muddy Tachira River are set out to dry.

READ MORE: Maduro oversees military exercises as pressure mounts on Venezuelan leader

“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 Saturday when troops loyal to Maduro refused to let the trucks carrying food and medical supplies cross, but it did set off a wave of military defections unlike any seen yet amid the country’s mounting crisis. Over 270 mostly low-ranking soldiers fled in a span of three days, Colombian immigration officials said Monday.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

WATCH: No end in sight in Venezuela crisis despite some defections from military

Click to play video: 'No end in sight in Venezuela crisis despite some defections from military' No end in sight in Venezuela crisis despite some defections from military
No end in sight in Venezuela crisis despite some defections from military – Feb 26, 2019

“The only way for this government to leave, unfortunately, and all of Venezuela knows it, is for there to be a direct intervention,” said Sgt. Jose Gomez, a father of two. “The only one with that power is the international community.”

In interviews with The Associated Press, nine National Guard soldiers described the day that they were ordered by commanders to stop the humanitarian aid from entering Venezuela. Fearful of being jailed, many complied with orders and admitted to launching tear gas at protesters. Two said they were part of a failed plot to get the aid in. All fled after making unplanned, split-second decisions with only the uniform on their backs.

Story continues below advertisement

“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.

READ MORE: Venezuela fires tear gas on residents crossing into Colombia for aid

The defections come as the Venezuelan opposition puts pressure on the military to recognize congress 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.

Defected Venezuelan National Guard sergeant Jean Carlos Cesar Parra shows his ID to the press after crossing the border to Pacaraima, Brazil, Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019 during a confrontation over aid shipments for Venezuela as its government closes its borders with Brazil and Colombia. AP Photo/Edmar Barros

Anyone who shows the slightest hint of disapproval risks arrest, they said, and jail has become increasingly synonymous with torture. Even those like Gomez, who wanted to see the aid brought in, followed orders to repress citizens. As Saturday grew increasingly tense, protesters threw rocks and gasoline bombs at him. He said he responded by throwing tear gas at them to protect himself.

Story continues below advertisement

Others at the home also had evidence of the resistance they faced that day: Torres still had blood caked beneath the skin on his nose from protesters kicking him on the ground after he surrendered to Colombian authorities. A young woman had a scratch across her cheek that she said came from a rock thrown by protesters.

During the clashes, armed pro-Maduro groups known as “colectivos” fired indiscriminately, and several of the soldiers said they feared being shot themselves. National Guard troops are equipped with crowd-control devices like rubber bullets and tear gas but do not carry any regular firearms.

WATCH: Venezuela-Brazil border shut by military as more aid arrives

Click to play video: 'Venezuela-Brazil border shut by military as more aid arrives' Venezuela-Brazil border shut by military as more aid arrives
Venezuela-Brazil border shut by military as more aid arrives – Feb 22, 2019

Like the rest of the population struggling against hyperinflation expected to reach an eye-boggling 10 million per cent this year, the soldiers also knew the indignities of life in Venezuela, where severe shortages of food and medicine have led to more than three million people leaving the country in recent years.

Story continues below advertisement

“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?”

Two months ago, Gomez watched as his newborn son died within 15 minutes because the hospital where his wife delivered did not have oxygen to pump into his failing lungs. Torres said an aunt died of cancer and an uncle succumbed to a curable stomach infection.

READ MORE: Defect from Maduro and protect your future Trump tells Venezuelan military

“That’s what pushed me to make this decision,” Torres said.

When Guaido first announced the aid push, Torres said that he and three soldiers in his barracks huddled and quietly discussed their options. As National Guard drivers, they had access to armoured trucks. They hatched a plan to drive the vehicles across the Simon Bolivar International Bridge, breaking down the barricades that stood in the way and allowing opposition trucks to carry the aid in.

Saturday morning, Torres climb into one of the white-painted trucks and charged it across the bridge. Though he broke through several barricades, he also hit a woman trying to enter Colombia. She escaped serious injury, but he was forced to stop.

A Venezuelan National Guard, centre, deserts his post as Colombian Police escort him after he managed to cross the Simon Bolivar International Bridge where his fellow guardsmen are blocking the entry of U.S.-supplied humanitarian aid, in La Parada, Colombia, Monday, Feb. 25, 2019, on the border with Venezuela. AP Photo/Fernando Vergara

Getting out with his rifle in hand, Torres raised his arms in surrender and helped the woman toward an ambulance.

Story continues below advertisement

As one of the first deserters, he was quickly taken in and presented to Guaido, who had sneaked across the border into Colombia to oversee the aid launch.

WATCH: News crew deported from Venezuela after interview with Nicolas Maduro

Click to play video: 'News crew deported from Venezuela after interview with Nicolas Maduro' News crew deported from Venezuela after interview with Nicolas Maduro
News crew deported from Venezuela after interview with Nicolas Maduro – Feb 26, 2019

Torres said he stood at attention and pledged his loyalty to the 35-year-old lawmaker recognized as Venezuela’s interim president by over 50 nations, including the United States and many Latin American countries.

For Gomez, the breaking point came when he saw another National Guardsman hit in the face by a fire bomb. Even though he was badly injured, commanders wouldn’t call an ambulance to take him to the hospital, Gomez said. Fearing what might happen if he himself was struck by protesters, he decided to flee.

Story continues below advertisement

“They wouldn’t have done anything for me,” Gomez said.

Chest vests belonging to defected members of Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Guard sit in room where they are sleeping at a shelter run by a priest in Cucuta, Colombia, Monday, Feb. 25, 2019. AP Photo/Christine Armario

As he darted into one of the hundreds of illegal dirt paths snaking across Venezuela’s porous border with Colombia, Gomez said “colectivo” gunmen shot in his direction. He crossed the river and ran through the brush, about a 20-minute trek. When he reached Colombian territory and spotted the military, he put his hands up in a sign of peace.

“I’m coming to surrender!” he cried out.

Many said they worry their wives and children will face repercussions and they are concerned about how they will make ends meet. Many soldiers who have fled in the last year have had difficulty getting work, winding up making a meagre living selling food on the streets.

WATCH: Venezuelans smuggling medicine, food across Colombia border in order to feed themselves, families

Click to play video: 'Venezuelans smuggling medicine, food across Colombia border in order to feed themselves, families' Venezuelans smuggling medicine, food across Colombia border in order to feed themselves, families
Venezuelans smuggling medicine, food across Colombia border in order to feed themselves, families – Feb 20, 2019

Asked about who he left behind, Torres said, “My wife,” and burst into tears. Too choked up to speak about his daughter, he could only hold up fingers to show how old she is: Six.

Story continues below advertisement

Nearly all the defectors would support a foreign intervention in Venezuela and join in the fight.

Guaido called on the international community Saturday evening to consider “all options” to resolve Venezuela’s crisis after the clashes over the aid shipments resulted in four deaths and 300 people injured.

In a visit Monday to Colombia’s capital for a meeting of regional leaders, U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence echoed Donald Trump’s warning that “all options are on the table,” but he gingerly avoided talking about the potential for military action.

Floating ideas among each other, several of the defectors said they believe the best way forward is for more troops to desert and help form a resistance from abroad. Some envisioned an intervention led solely by Venezuelans, while others are convinced it can only be done with the help of an international coalition.

WATCH: Political crisis in Venezuela as military backs Maduro

Click to play video: 'Political crisis in Venezuela as military backs Maduro' Political crisis in Venezuela as military backs Maduro
Political crisis in Venezuela as military backs Maduro – Jan 24, 2019

All said they don’t see themselves as traitors, but rather as troops intent on restoring Venezuela’s democracy.

Story continues below advertisement

“We’re going to change history,” Torres said. “We are history.”

Sponsored content