Africa

Venezuela defectors ‘fear for families’

Venezuelan soldiers who defected into Colombia on Saturday say they fear for the safety of their families under President Nicolás Maduro’s government.

Speaking exclusively to the BBC’s Orla Guerin, one defector aged 23 says he is worried forces loyal to the president may “lash out against my family”.

“But I think it was the best decision I could have made,” he adds.

More than 100 soldiers are said to have defected, most during deadly clashes over aid deliveries on Saturday.

Tensions were high after President Maduro sent troops to block roads and bridges at the borders of neighbouring Brazil and Colombia, where food and medicine deliveries, organised by the US, were set to enter the country.

At various crossing points, Venezuelan security forces fired tear gas at volunteers and protesters burning outposts and throwing stones at soldiers and riot police.

We met the deserters – male and female – one day after they laid down their weapons and left their posts. They have found sanctuary in a Catholic church, with a discreet security presence outside.

Some seemed to be in shock over the violent scenes this weekend when Venezuelan troops fired on their own people with teargas and rubber bullets.

The parish priest who took them in told us many arrived battered and bruised. The deserters said they had fled because their homeland needed change, and their children needed food. After speaking on the phone to a loved one, one young officer wept openly.

Most of those we met were foot soldiers. They said the top brass was still bound – by corruption – to President Nicolás Maduro, and that he would fight to stay in power.

But they said he had lost the rank and file who were putting their faith in the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó.

After agreeing to speak with the BBC on condition of anonymity, a group of Venezuelan deserters based in a church in Cúcuta described what pushed them to leave President Maduro’s armed forces.

“There are many professional troops who want to do this. This will be a domino effect. This will have significant influence on the armed forces,” one 29-year-old man said.

“The armed forces have broken down because of so many corrupt officers.

“The professional military is tired. We cannot remain slaves, we are freeing ourselves,” he added. -BBC

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