CUCUTA, Colombia – Pvt. Andry Rosales hugged a Colombian soldier and broke into tears as he surrendered himself to this country’s military.

The 21-year-old Venezuelan soldier had sneaked out of his army base across the border early in the morning and crossed into Colombia by walking on a dirt trail used each day by hundreds of migrants who enter Colombia illegally. He carried only a small backpack and wore civilian clothes, which helped him avoid Venezuelan border guards.

“We have a terrible dictatorship there,” Rosales said, wiping tears from his face as he was escorted to a Colombian immigration office. “We were given orders to repress protests and shoot at people, even if they were our relatives.”

As political unrest increases in Venezuela, hundreds of soldiers and police officers are deserting and seeking shelter in neighboring Colombia.

The Catholic Church and other religious groups in the area are responding to this new chapter of Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis by providing shelter for these deserters and helping them to apply for asylum.

“Many of us are living in fear,” said a 23-year-old soldier who defected in late February and is now living in a hotel room paid for by the Diocese of Cucuta. He did not want to have his name published, fearing reprisals against family members still living in Venezuela. “We don’t know how much this help will last, but we are very grateful for everything we have gotten so far.”

The defections of Venezuelan soldiers started to increase Feb. 23, when Venezuela’s opposition tried to deliver several trucks of food and medicine into the country across three border bridges in Cucuta and via a remote road that connects Venezuela with Brazil.

The aid was provided mostly by the U.S. government, and it was vehemently rejected by embattled President Nicolas Maduro, who said it was part of a plot to replace him with opposition leaders, who have promised to hold new elections. A constitutional crisis reached a critical point following Maduro’s inauguration Jan. 10. Allegations of rigging by local and international monitors prompted Juan Guaido, who was president of the opposition-led legislature, to assume the presidency.

On Feb. 23, Maduro ordered his troops to disperse civilians who attempted to escort the aid into Venezuela, and clashes quickly erupted along Venezuela’s borders with Colombia and Brazil. At least seven people died.

Amid the mayhem, Venezuelan soldiers started to flee into Colombia, saying they were sick of following Maduro’s orders.

According to Colombia’s immigration authorities, more than 500 Venezuelan soldiers and police officers have fled into the country since Feb. 23. Most are now staying in shelters and hotels guarded by Colombian troops.

Read more at Crux. 

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