Colombian police protect themselves during clashes between opposition supporters and Venezuela's security forces at Simon Bolivar bridge on the border line between Colombia and Venezuela as seen from Cucuta, Colombia, Feb. 25, 2019.
Colombian police protect themselves during clashes between opposition supporters and Venezuela's security forces at Simon Bolivar bridge on the border line between Colombia and Venezuela as seen from Cucuta, Colombia, Feb. 25, 2019.

CUCUTA, COLOMBIA - Sergeant Javier Gonzalez knew he would be killed if caught deserting Venezuela's military to flee to Colombia, but the thought of his nine-month-old son suffering the lack of milk and diapers in his economically devastated country steeled his resolve.

Gonzalez's wife, Sergeant Kari Castro, escaped a day later on Sunday, crossing a riverbed near the Colombia city of Cucuta with their baby and two other family members.The couple are two of at least 167 members of the Venezuelan armed forces who have deserted and turned themselves into Colombia's migration agency over the last three days.

The desertions began Saturday, during a failed attempt by Venezuela's opposition to drive a convoy of hundreds of tons of international humanitarian aid into the country, despite a refusal by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to accept the food and medicine.

Venezuelan migrants near the Simon Bolivar International Bridge plead for people to support them with food and water so they can continue protesting in La Parada near Cucuta, Colombia, Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019, on the border with Venezuela.
US, Venezuela Opposition to Discuss Ways to Oust Maduro
The United States is planning new ways to pressure Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to give up power and other means to provide assistance to the people of the economically devastated South American nation after a weekend effort failed to deliver aid.Vice President Mike Pence travels Monday to the Colombian capital to meet with members of a regional coalition and Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido to discuss the next steps aimed at ousting Maduro. …

Two trucks caught fire on a border bridge, after being halted at Venezuelan National Guard barricades. Violent clashes between protesters and the armed forces left almost 300 wounded and at least three protesters dead near the Brazilian border.

The support of the military is considered key for Maduro to retain his hold on the country, especially since last month, when opposition lawmaker Juan Guaido invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency. 

"I deserted for the life of my son. We're working for a salary that doesn't stretch to anything. We can't live in misery. Enough, we're tired," said former national guardsman Gonzalez, 28, who earned about $13 a month in the ranks.

A woman carrying a child walks across the Tachira
A woman carrying a child walks across the Tachira river on the outskirts of Cucuta, on the Colombian-Venezuelan border, Colombia, Feb. 25, 2019.

Shortages of basic goods and political unrest finally pushed the family to leave, said Castro, 38, who has spent half her life serving in the armed forces.

"It's so difficult to go to another country when you've given your life to an institution," she said.

Gonzalez said that since his desertion he has been in contact with former colleagues who are also willing to defect.

Many in the armed forces are afraid of Maduro's intelligence forces, he said, which has reportedly tortured and killed those who go against Maduro.

"They're going to do it — I have lots of colleagues writing to me and they are motivated, they just need a little push," he said during an interview in Cucuta.

US Vice President Mike Pence is welcomed by Colombia's Foreign Affairs Vice Minister Luz Stella Jara upon arrival in Bogota, on Feb. 25, 2019.
Pence: US With Guaido '100 Percent'
Guaido has called on the international community to consider "all options” to resolve Venezuela’s crisis

The couple said they are willing to return to their home country to help Guaido wrest control from Maduro, who denies any crisis and says the aid convoys are a U.S.-backed ruse to oust him.

"It's never too late to take the step — if our president Guaido is supporting us, we'll support him," said Gonzalez, who served in the national guard for eight years. "If we must form units here to plan the takeover of our country we'll do it."

Guaido, recognized by most Western nations as Venezuela's legitimate leader, urged foreign powers to consider "all options" for ousting Maduro at a Monday meeting of the Lima Group regional bloc.

Colombian President Ivan Duque told the body the desertions showed there are cracks inside the Venezuelan armed forces and called for a "domino effect" of more defections.

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