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Colombia Moves Out Venezuela's Military Defectors


In the border city of Cucuta, Colombia, about 800 defectors from Venezuela's military and police have been watching the crisis in their home country and waiting for a call from their leader, Juan Guaido, to overthrow the government of Nicolas Maduro. I met some of those defectors back in March, including Williams Cancino, who was a member of Venezuela's notorious Special Forces.


WILLIAMS CANCINO: (Speaking Spanish).

SHAPIRO: He told me, "we are here to overwhelmingly attack the dictatorial regime of Maduro." They've been living in a safe house, a former luxury resort, where they're kept under strict guard. And now, at the request of Juan Guaido, the Colombian government is moving them out. Dylan Baddour is a journalist based in Colombia, and we worked together during my reporting trip there. Dylan, It's good to talk to you again.

DYLAN BADDOUR: Good to talk to you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So tell us, what exactly is happening with the situation these defectors are in after waiting for months and months?

BADDOUR: So these defectors have lost the hospitality of the Colombian government and the United Nations. They're being moved out of hotels, where they've stayed for almost the last three months. And in doing so, largely having to give up the dreams they had of joining an insurrection to overthrow the government of Nicolas Maduro.

SHAPIRO: I want to ask you about that sense that they're giving up the dream of fighting for freedom. But it seems like, on the one hand, they're now just joining the general populace and no longer getting room and board provided for them. On the other hand, the defectors we met were really eager to kind of find money and weapons. Does the fact that they're no longer living under armed guard all day mean that they could potentially now go get those kinds of weapons to stage some kind of insurrection?

BADDOUR: It does mean that, but it also means that they're now confronted with the very immediate need to find housing and begin supporting themselves, which is really the stressor that many of them are up against. Until now, they've been fed and they've been housed by this coalition of Colombia, Venezuela and the United Nations.

Many of them still are in contact with networks of defectors that I've spoken with who are all across the continent, people who've been leaving over years. And there are many people as far away as Ecuador and Chile who have this idea, this hope to organize themselves into a fighting force. But it is really difficult facing those daily needs to feed yourself, to find the time to do that sort of organizing.

SHAPIRO: OK. So I know that you checked back in with Williams Cancino, one of the defectors who we spoke to when I was in Colombia. And what did he tell you? Is he giving up this dream of overthrowing the Maduro regime now that he has to earn a paycheck?

BADDOUR: He's not totally giving up the dream, but for now, that is no longer on his agenda. Williams Cancino was quite heartbroken by this. And he is now looking at rental options that he has around Cucuta. He wants to stay in the area because he still believes that he has a role in the fight for Venezuela, although it's very difficult to see exactly what that role is.

SHAPIRO: Let's listen to part of what he told you.

CANCINO: (Speaking Spanish).

BADDOUR: So he's saying, it seems like the Venezuelan politicians want to negotiate with criminals against humanity. You can't negotiate with Nicolas Maduro. You can't negotiate with criminals, he says.

SHAPIRO: He's talking about those negotiations we were just hearing about from our correspondent, Phil Reeves. What role did Juan Guaido, the leader of these defectors, play in the decision to move them out of this safe house?

BADDOUR: The Venezuelan opposition under Juan Guaido and Colombia have been in contact about these defectors. And eventually, they decided they were not going to keep paying the bill, which is tens of thousands of dollars every month to house almost a thousand people in hotels. It's not clear what idea Guaido and his folks ever had for these military members who were housed in Cucuta, but it is clear that now they decided to pull the plug on this hospitality.

SHAPIRO: Do the defectors feel like Juan Guaido has betrayed them? What are their feelings about him at this point?

BADDOUR: Yeah, the feelings of the defectors towards Juan Guaido have really soured. Back when Guaido issued calls for their defections in February, they thought they were being called to join a sort of uprising. Now, three months later, they say they haven't heard anything. And they're really questioning whether Juan Guaido is the leader that they needed to make a change in Venezuela.

SHAPIRO: Dylan Baddour, a freelance journalist based in Colombia. It's great to talk to you again. Thank you.

BADDOUR: My pleasure, Ari. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.