July 28, 2018 |  Text: Carolina Gutiérrez Torres. Photos: Juan Arredondo

The Yukpa lived in Cúcuta for a year and we just found out

The first Yukpa arrived in Colombia in June of 2017. After many months of meandering the streets of Cúcuta, they settled in the neighborhood of El Escobal, located abreast the Francisco de Paula Santander border crossing.

These indigenous Venezuelans arrived to Colombia following a rumor that here, at the very least, there was rice to eat. They were 300 and were in the country until June, living in undignified conditions. Two of their children died of malnutrition. The group was the target of constant threats for being supposed contraband smugglers.

The first week of May 2018, Cúcuta.

To find the indigenous Venezuelan Yukpa in Cúcuta, you have to go to the Francisco de Paula Santander Bridge that connects Colombia and Venezuela: the second border crossing between the two countries (the first is the Simón Bolívar Bridge); the entrance least guarded by authorities and least covered by media outlets; the place through which contraband passes in broad daylight and right before the eyes of the authorities; the scene of nightly confrontations between criminal groups that want to control to trafficking routes; the place where sometimes, and only sometimes, do they bother to stamp passports.

On the right bank, just below the bridge, is the first group of Yukpa. You have to proceed with caution: they are troublemakers, indigenous arrow-throwers, smugglers. Or at least that’s what the police and the news headlines say: “Indigenous Yukpa attacked officials at the border bridge with rocks”, “New confrontations between Yukpa and authorities”. The other two groups are to the left side of the bridge. To get to them, you have to walk along the road that parallels the Táchira River, pass through a soccer field, continue until you cut through bushes and navigate the thicket. And there they are. With them you do not have to worry: they are very orderly. However, you must ask the chief’s permission to enter. In total, they are 300 people.

The history of the Yukpa is almost as invisible to the country as is that of the Francisco de Paula Santander bridge, through which the indigenous group entered Colombia in June 2017, fleeing the hunger and sicknesses of their territory (the highlands of Perijá, in the state of Zulia, Venezuela), and where they stayed the live. The Yukpa have been here one year and we know next to nothing about them. Not just because they are fleeing and coming from their territory, nor because they do not have clear leaders who would be their spokesperson, but rather because their relationship with the Colombian state has been strained. They trust almost no one.

- The underbelly of the Francisco de Paula Santander Bridge, the second border pass between Colombia and Venezuela, has been converted into the abode of a group of indigenous Yukpa, who took advantage of this strategic location to pass merchandise between the two countries.

Of the Yukpa, we know that they are living outdoors in indignant conditions, and that two of their children have died of malnutrition this year. We know that they have reported the disappearance of many of their members, and that they feel threatened by the criminals that move about the bridge. We know that they are determined to stay in Cúcuta, because in Venezuela the purchase of rice has become a luxury; here, at the very least, they have not had to go without this important and beloved dietary staple. We know that they are asking the Colombian state to be treated as citizens of this country, because they come from a territory that is shared with Colombia. This, they maintain, renders them “binational indigenous people”. We know nothing, however, about their origins, their culture, or their worldview. That is why we are here.

- While the police have implemented some Health and Recreation Fairs with the indigenous Yukpa, the Yukpa continue to insist that they feel ignored by the Colombian state.

It is Tuesday, May 8th, and we are in front of the Francisco de Paula Santander Bridge. We step onto the bridge, walk along its right side, and stop halfway across to peer downwards. We see the huts of sticks and plastic in which the first group of Yukpa we spoke of live; we see naked children, or children with dirty clothing that barely clings to them lying down on cardboard boxes; we see indigenous people with lumps on their backs, crossing the dirty, smelly waters of the Táchira River to avoid the border patrol posts. We ask a police officer about the Yukpa settled below the bridge and he responds that they are an unruly people who become even more aggressive when they are caught with smuggled contraband—but that what else can the police do if their mission is to maintain security and order.

Sonia Martínez, a Yukpa girl, explains a drawing that the community made to teach Colombians about the community’s ancestral territory, in the Venezuelan highlands of Perijá. /Photo: Angélica M. Cuevas

We returned, and left the bridge, pausing for a few moments to think about what to do next. We decided to take the path to the left of the bridge and look for the two groups of Yukpa settled behind the thicket. When we got closer we saw an indigenous women surrounded by children. We smiled at her and told her we were looking for Henry or for Samuel, their chiefs. The woman signaled to us to follow her and turned to start walking. We cut through the bushes and arrived at their small community, built with wooden sticks and old recyclables.

Other women received us, taking us by the hand towards a ranch-house when we asked for their chiefs. Meanwhile, more women and children were surrounding us; the majority of the little ones had welts on their skin, bellies inflated with parasites, and discolored hair. After a few seconds the chief, Samuel Romero, arrived, wearing a straw hat and a yellow, blue and red bracelet. White stars covered his chest. He sat down on a seat and the rest of us settled onto the floor, surrounding him. We told him what we were doing and asked for permission to be there. Although many did not understand even a word of Spanish, everyone listened attentively. Samuel gave us his permission.

“It took us between three and six months to gather three sacks of yucca, and they bought it from us for ridiculously cheap prices.”

Brinolfo said

When we asked them about their origins, for the place from which they migrated, one of the women ran into the chief’s ranch with a green piece of paper, on which there was a drawing made by a child. “We come from here”, says Sonia Martínez, while she explains the sketch made with blue pencil. Sonia’s finger points to some mountains, to a sun, to a large house located in the center, and to a collection of little houses on the outskirts. They historically lived there in houses made of grand reeds and daub, with roofs of straw or palm leaves, and floors of earth. They do not have authorities, nor do they have an absolute government. They are divided in small groups led by a chief, all of which are settled around a sort of headquarters, where they used to receive medical attention, provisions and the education that the Venezuelan government provided them. They survived by hunting; growing taro, yucca, plantains, and beans; and selling their harvest to buy salt, rice, oil, and personal hygiene products—basic necessities needed to live. But Venezuela’s political and economic crisis also climbed that mountain and is now threatening their end.

“It took us between three and six months to gather three sacks of yucca, and they bought it from us for ridiculously cheap prices,” says Brinolfo, a leader of the neighboring Yukpa community that sits just a few steps away from this one, led by Chief Henry. For those three bags of yucca they were paid some one million bolívares (Venezuelan currency), the man explains, and that money hardly covered the cost of one kilo of rice. No one can survive like that. Hunger and desperation had forced them to steal from the neighboring Yukpa groups; to fight amongst each other. They quickly realized they were hitting rock bottom.

By then, the rumor that there was a Colombian city called Cúcuta that at the very least offered rice to eat had reached the highlands of the Venezuelan’s Perijá region. Without thinking twice, the group decided to cross into Colombia. They got themselves together and began a three-day journey by donkey and bus, with long treks in between, until they arrived at the Francisco de Paula Santander Bridge. They were some 60 people. The majority: kids, women, and sick elders. Very sick elderly.

- In Cúcuta, the Yukpa used their artisanal abilities to make and sell hats and baskets woven with natural fibers, to make just a bit of money.

Sonia grabbed the piece of paper with her hands and pointed to the peak of a mountain, from which a waterfall flows. This has been their sacred mountain since the time of “atancha” (“from our ancestors”, explained Samuel). Its name is Turi, which means “water from a natural spring”. “You can’t get to her. When we are right there next to her she moves far away. The first rock with which we built our community came from there”, recounts Sonia. The ancestors of the Yukpa are indigenous Caribbean people. It is estimated that there are some ten thousand across Venezuela.

In that blue countryside lies everything that the Yukpa had to abandon to search for food and for medical attention for their children sick with, above all else, tuberculosis and malnutrition. They left their place of origin, their sacred Turi, and of course, their traditions. For example, one custom of worship is to cut a girl’s hair up to its root after her first menstruation cycle. She is then confined to the mountain for one month, completely isolated, during which she weaves and eats foods without salt. “Once that month is over a party is thrown. The young girl has to prepare la chicha [a fermented corn drink] to show that she knows how to cook”, explains Neli Achita, another woman from the community. To marry, young women must be at least 18 years old.

We remained seated in the circle, listening to the stories of the women. All of a sudden the Chief Samuel stood up and brought the women close to him. They exchanged a few words in their language and then told us that they wanted to show us their traditional dances. Four women formed a horizontal line and one of them took a child into her arms. They began to sing in their language and sway back and forth.

It is the dance of the newborn children, which they do every 24th of December. The women pick up the babies of the communities and dance with them while, with their hands, they simulate feeding the children. It is a representation of the child’s first bite being blessed by the chief: a form of assurance that they will never find themselves without food. However, in the Venezuela of today, under the command of a dictator, there are no ancestral powers that avail. The Yukpa are dying of hunger in their own territory and today, with their migration and the division of the community, the survival of their culture is at risk.

The women dance. The children laugh and applaud. And for an instant the community of the Chief Samuel is filled with joy.

- When the Yukpa arrived in Colombia, they formed three communities, each one named after their chief; in the settlement of Chief Samuel, the majority of the community leaders are women.

Under the bridge there is a large trash-pit. And in the middle of the trash: huts, scrap metal, naked children, bonfires, women sleeping on the ground. Betilio begins the conversation by saying that the community is very different from those on the left side of the bridge. “18 years ago, thanks to Commander Chávez, we entered civilization”, Betilio says. Now Betilio has a house made of bricks, not a little ranch. Now Betilio couldn’t fathom eating rice without fried chicken. Now Betilio is very different from his grandparents who survived by hunting.

Later, Remijio Segundo Romero, the great chief, joins the conversation. He agrees with Betilio, who is his right-hand man. He says that his group is very different from the other Yukpa, but that everyone traversed the bridge for the same reasons. “In the highlands of Perijá, nobody had medications or food, and our children were dying. Chávez brought in a market and helped us, but the country outgrew Maduro. We all had the same needs,” says Remijio, who is wearing an old Colombian soccer jersey, blue trousers, black tennis shoes, and a watch, with a cellphone always on hand.

While there, we watch as various people arrive at the Táchia River loaded with bags and sacks. Remijio follows every one of their movements and, with subtle gestures, seems to give them instructions about where to unload or what path to take. When we asked him about smuggled goods, Remijio responds right away that yes, they are smuggling merchandise, but that they do so “because we have to, because we have single women with four or five kids and we need to guarantee them food”. He later clarifies: “we do smuggle things from here to that side, but that is not contraband: it is a small sack of flour; it is some oranges, some avocados. But the press has slandered us, saying that we are trafficking meat”. This is what the authorities maintain: that the indigenous groups are transporting scrap metal and meat from Venezuela, using criminal networks.

For months, the Jesuits and the NIOC appealed to the Colombian government to declare the Yukpa a binational community, so that they could be protected by both Colombia and Venezuela.

The contraband has caused innumerable clashes between the police and the Yukpa that occupy the underbelly of the bridge. The press has even published photos in which one can see indigenous people with bows and arrows. Remijio recognizes that they have used such weapons but only “in cases of emergency”. We walked a few steps until we reached a hut. Betilio took out various arrows and tells us that they are the same ones used to hunt by the men from their mountain. They show them to us with a hint of pride. They are thick and enormous, reaching all the way up to our waists, and the points look like knives.

The three Yukpa communities settled at the Táchira River are very different. But the problem, the main problem, is that there are government media outlets and entities determined to stigmatize them, repeating every chance they get that “all of the Yukpa” are smugglers. This has left them exposed, far more vulnerable than they already were.

“Here we have to sleep like cats: with one eye open. After 5 PM, anything can happen”, says Remijio. And he is right. In the neighborhood of El Escobal in Cúcuta, located right after crossing the international Francisco de Paula Santander Bridge, nobody is guaranteed safety come nightfall. They say that the Rastrojos, the Clan del Golfo, and other criminal groups move around this area, and are interested in controlling the trails through which contraband passes from Venezuela. And apparently, the Yukpa are obstructing them from doing so. The three groups that we visited said that they feel endangered and harassed. They report that two members of their community have disappeared, and that they receive constant threats to abandon their territory, and that there are criminal groups that are trying to take away their young men.

- Daily life in the neighborhood of El Escobal in Cúcuta, which borders Ureña (Venezuela), changed radically with the settlement of the Yukpa. The clashes between criminal groups, who are determined to force the Yukpa out, have worsened.

It is Wednesday, May 9th, and we are in front of the Francisco de Paula Santander Bridge. This time we take the path to the right: we are heading towards the community that lives under the bridge. We walk a few meters until we arrive at a few little stores, where we find Betilio, the leader of the group. The day before, we had called a number that a photographer had shared with us to set up this meeting.

The Municipality of Cúcuta and the government had moved them to a shelter and were negotiating a “plan of return”. Another one. Since the Yukpa had arrived, the authorities had returned them to Venezuela on several occasions and they have continued to return to Colombia. The NIOC (National Indigenous Organization of Colombia) has decried that these returns have been carried out “without planning or differential guarantees”. And the Jesuit Refugee Service has reiterated that before forcing the return of a vulnerable community, who has no guarantees in Venezuela, the Colombian government should consider other “standards of protection”.

The Jesuits and the NIOC have also spent months soliciting the Colombian government to declare the Yukpa a binational community, and to give them the same treatment they give the indigenous Wayuu in La Guajira, who are protected by both countries. But a government source told us that tending to that request has been impossible because it is necessary for there to be a will on the part of both countries, and the government of Nicolás Maduro is not interested in dialogue.


It is Wednesday, June 6th, and the newspaper La Opinión de Cúcuta has published an article on one of its first pages titled: “The Yukpa have returned, again”. The article notes that: “after 14 days of accommodation in the Center for Transitory Migrant Attention, the 21 Yukpa families that stayed there returned to the highlands of Perijá. Upon their return, the families received humanitarian aid comprised of food, personal hygiene products, basic medicines, aid packages of basic necessities (or bienestarinas), water, snacks and 88 workplace tools”.

Today, to find the indigenous Yukpa you have to go to the highlands of the Venezuelan Perijá region. You can get there in three days by donkey and bus, with long stretches of walking. Of their life in Venezuela we know that they can no longer survive by hunting, farming, and artisanal production, as they did in the past, because their country’s deep crisis has touched them, too. And, finally, we know that the Venezuela that they abandoned a year ago, desperate from hunger and illness, is the same. Or worse.

- The medications and food that the Yukpa managed to get in Colombia not only benefited the group in Cúcuta but also the families that stayed behind in the highlands of Venezuela’s Perijá region, from which they originate. Many of them spent the year coming and going.