As President Nicolas Maduro's government continues to stifle dissent and democracy in Venezuela, thousands are crossing the border into neighboring Colombia in search of basic necessities like food, water, security and work.
Each day, nearly 25,000 desperate Venezuelans battle the scorching South American sun and make the trek across Simon Bolivar International Bridge with hopes of obtaining supplies unavailable in their country due to economic collapse and unprecedented inflation.
One of those Venezuelans crossing the 1,300-foot porous border is 29-year-old Erick Oropeza, who wakes up at 4 a.m. every day.
"I'd never thought I'd say this. But I'm more grateful for what Colombia has offered me in this short time than what I ever received from Venezuela my entire life."
Thanks to "Casa de Paso," a church-run shelter that serves nearly 2,000 Venezuelans each day, Oropeza is able to obtain a free hot plate of food. But that's not all he does when he crosses the border. Hoping to gain a bit of extra cash to provide for his family of four, Oropeza sells soft drinks on the street at a rate of 50 cents each.
"Every day I have to remind myself why I am here," said Oropeza, donning a faded striped collared shirt. "I try to repeat it to myself so that I won't, you know, so those moments of weakness don't affect you so much."
Oropeza's life wasn't always like this. In fact, he once earned twice the minimum wage in Venezuela while working for the Ministry of Education and selling hamburgers on the side. But the $70 monthly wage wasn't enough, even with the government-delivered parcel of food his family received.
"So the other three weeks, like most Venezuelans, we have to make magic happen," he explained, referring to the decision to quit his government job and seek other opportunities.
While the influx of Venezuelans into Colombia isn't anything new -- numbers began increasing at the turn of the century -- Maduro's clench of power has expedited migration patterns. According to Colombia's immigration department, in the first four months of 2017, 8.3 million Venezuelans traversed the border, many of them hoping to fulfill their dietary needs.
A national survey of living conditions found that 75 percent of Venezuelans lost an average of 19 pounds. And, of the 32 million Venezuelans in the oil-rich country, 93 percent say their don't make enough money to cover their food needs.
That demand places an enormous amount of pressure on food shelters. In the first two months of operation, Casa de Paso served 60,000 hot meals.
Jose David Canas, a Colombian priest of the Santa Martha parish of Cucuta, Colombia, expressed doubt about the shelter's sustainability, given the backdrop of an escalating humanitarian crisis that shows no signs of dissipating.
"How long will the Casa de Paso last? Until God decides. Until they close the border. Until everything is eaten or until the province tells us that they no longer have lunched to give out. And then it's the end."
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