To understand the illegal immigration problem on our southern border, we must first understand what is happening in Latin America. Why have millions of people left their homes, possessions, and families and endured hardships and perils of every sort in a bid to make a life for themselves elsewhere? Ask a South American refugee, and he’ll likely tell you the problem is socialism.
A little boy of perhaps three, naked, teeth clenched, stiffened as his mother poured water drawn from a spigot over his soapy head.
He broke into a jig, splashing about in the ever-widening puddle at his feet, facing the cold of this makeshift shower with the courage of a man who refuses to betray his country’s secrets as he is being waterboarded.
Then he saw me.
His jig stopped abruptly. Frozen, he seemed wholly unaware of his chilly torment. He simply stared. His mother, until that moment preoccupied with the task at hand, followed his gaze and, with a look of alarm, swept up her toddler and disappeared into the shadows of something like a garage.
I felt like I had violated some unwritten rule, but being that it was unwritten, I was unclear as to the precise nature of my offense. The scene was, to me, cute — the sort captured in the pages of National Geographic countless times. But it was hardly an intimate one, occurring as it did in the open air of a busy, dusty street of this barrio in northeast Colombia.
“They think we are with the [drug] cartels,” Néstor, my Spanish translator and a grizzled old journalist, said.
I looked back at the little nondescript Kia and its equally diminutive owner that had brought us here. He stood, arms crossed, trying to look confident, vigilant against any threat. But even with the sunglasses, he did not make for an intimidating figure. No, the car, his stature, none of it fit with that narrative.
“If we are with one of the cartels,” I said to no one in particular, “then we aren’t very good at it.” People watched us from doorways, windows, and walkways that substituted for porches. “If it helps,” I added, “we could always say we are a start-up cartel.”
I chuckled at my private joke, but Néstor, too far away to hear me, just shrugged as if to say, ¿Qué?
Facing the ramshackle house, he proceeded to address the doorway, where no one was visible. “We just want to talk,” Néstor declared loudly, his hands outstretched in a gesture to indicate friendliness. I was suddenly aware of the pungent smell of raw sewage.
This particular barrio, populated as it is by Venezuelan refugees, is called Caraquitas — “Little Caracas.” Situated on the outskirts of Barranquilla, it lies some 200 miles west of the Venezuelan border and the illegal routes taken by most refugees in this part of Colombia. This was African-level poverty. I had seen worse, but not much worse.
A man, the woman’s husband we soon discovered, emerged from the dark interior like a warrior ready to do battle but who is nonetheless certain of his own doom. The cartels are known to shoot people in broad daylight or even to take their children.
Squinting in the bright Caribbean sun, to me he was little more than a tenebrous figure. Pulling my Panama hat lower over my brow, I tried in vain to see the man before me as Néstor told him our purpose.
The Spanish was clear: the gran Gringo simply wants to talk to you.
As often happens to me, an obscure fact from a book I read decades ago interrupted my thoughts like an annoying pop-up ad when you’re just beginning to enjoy your favorite blog (and if you don’t have one, may I humbly suggest larryalextaunton.com?). According to Denis Winter in his book Death’s Men, malnutrition conspired to produce a generation of English conscripts who were, on average, five inches shorter than their officers, men almost without exception drawn from the ranks of the aristocracy.
At six feet, three inches, I am tall by American standards, but not absurdly so. Here, in this place, however, I was Gulliver in Lilliput. The height differences of those around me, too, were a result of malnutrition. While 40 percent of Americans gained an average of 29 pounds during the last year, in 2017 alone, the average Venezuelan reported a loss of 24 pounds. More than 90 percent of that country’s population lives in poverty. That’s classic socialism. Is there equality? Sure. Equality of misery.
I smiled warmly and extended my hand. The man took it. His serious, frightened demeanor gave way to a broad smile. The tension was broken. For the moment, anyway.
He introduced himself as Julio, and Paola, his wife, who only moments ago had seemed terror-stricken at the sight of me, came out, a baby at her breast and six more children surrounding her, tugging at the hem of her jeans.
The family, friendly now, waved for my camera and invited us into their extemporized home. It was basically a storage unit. A roll-up garage door served as the entrance. There were no back or side doors. Or, at least, there were none that I could see. The same can be said for a bathroom, a kitchen, and running water of any kind. But those amenities would have been unusual here since this building was meant to house people’s stuff, not the people themselves. To put it another way, it was the kind of structure that this family, with so few worldly possessions of their own, would have no need of were they to use it as it was intended.
Mattresses, blankets, and toys were stacked against the wall, no doubt to maximize space in the overcrowded room. As Julio spoke animatedly to Néstor, I tried to get a head count. How many people lived here in addition to Julio, Paola, and their seven children? What appeared to be extended family observed but kept their distance. Were there 11? Twelve? I wasn’t sure.
Julio told us that he had been an automotive mechanic in Venezuela, but that they had to flee the country as socialist policies continually led to tax hikes. “Food and personal necessities became scarce,” he said. “What costs one dollar today is 20 dollars tomorrow. Paola and I were skipping meals to feed the children.”
This would be a common refrain from refugees.
“How long have you lived here?” I had assumed they were new arrivals and that this was just a temporary stop until better lodgings could be secured.
“Four years? In this place the whole time?”
“Sí.” He gave a wan smile.
My reflection on that reality was interrupted by the howl of the now-clean toddler who had caught my attention in the street only a short time ago. I had stepped on his toes. I apologized profusely.
“Lo siento, lo siento!”
This had no effect. But I was saved when his brother whacked him with a plastic tennis racket and the previously wailing child, seeking revenge, chased him.
“How did you get here?” Néstor asked Julio. Paola listened intently to our conversation but said nothing.
In 2015, Venezuela’s socialist dictator Nicolás Maduro closed the border. When it reopened 11 months later, it was only to pedestrians. Then, in 2019, he closed the border permanently. Thus the only way in or out of that country is via the trochas — that is, the illegal trails. On the Venezuela–Colombia border, there are more than 200 of them, and all are controlled by bands of armed guerillas. This should not be confused with a hike on the Appalachian Trail. Think South America’s equivalent to the Donner Party.
At this moment, our driver, still standing by the car, gave Néstor a knowing look. I knew what was coming. This wasn’t my first rodeo, as they say.
“This is a tough neighborhood,” Néstor said. “We are in danger. We need to get the f**k out of here.” I didn’t acquire Néstor from the local missionary society. But in addition to being a lively travel companion, he was the right man for this job.
And he was, of course, right. This headline speaks of a man having his throat cut in Caraquitas. This one reports that another was shot in the head. These were not isolated incidents. Tough, indeed. Still, I was not finished.
“How much do you pay for this?” With a sweep of my hand I indicated Julio’s home.
“He says 15,000 Colombian pesos,” Néstor translated.
Julio, apparently understanding some English, shook his head vigorously and added to his previous statement. Néstor’s eyes grew wide: “He says 15,000 pesos per day, per occupant.” He looked directly at me. “You see the problem these people face?”
Fifteen thousand Colombian pesos is about $4.25 USD. That’s not much by American standards. But given the fact that the average Colombian makes $326 USD a month, it’s a lot. Worse, Julio did not have the benefits and protections, meager though they are, of Colombian citizenship.
Perhaps you’re thinking, “Why doesn’t he move elsewhere?” Because he’s undocumented, illegal. And while the Colombian government has done much to recognize displaced people like Julio and Paola, he was still easy prey for vulturous elements.
“I just told him about the new law making him and his family eligible for health care,” Néstor said. He then added under his breath, “You know who pays for that, don’t you?”
Colombian citizens. And they are beset with their own massive economic challenges, all the more so in the era of pitiless government quarantines and lockdowns that had annihilated whole sectors of the economy in the developed world. But here in the third world, the devastation is incalculable.
I asked an obvious question: “How do you earn a living?” Julio disappeared for a moment. He returned holding high a bag of lollipops.
Néstor chuckled: “You know those vendors who are always annoying you on our streets?” His eyebrows were raised in a bemused look.
I did. They are common to the third world, but in Colombia I was besieged by them on a scale that dwarfs even India or the hawkers in an Egyptian or Turkish bazaar. I had grown to admire them. Obnoxious, yes, but straight capitalists — and relentless.
“He’s one of them!” Néstor laughed. “He and his family sell them for about a nickel apiece.” He shook his head. “These people are persistent. They can endure anything.”
“One last question,” I began, looking at Julio. “What does the word ‘socialism’ mean to you?”
Julio needed no translation. He groaned and rolled his eyes: “Unfulfilled promises, lies, and corruption.”
Out on the street a crowd had gathered. Our driver was urging us to hurry up.
“These people think we are armed.” Néstor looked anxious. “If we don’t get out of here now, we are f****d!”
This time, I didn’t resist.
Julio followed us to our car, which wasn’t, I will say again, cartel quality. Those guys drive Mercedes G-Wagens and Range Rovers. No self-respecting mafia-type would drive a Kia Picanto.
Discreetly, I reached into my pocket and withdrew a wad of cash that amounted to about $25 USD. I tried to place it into Julio’s hand like a spy passing microfilm.
Julio, oblivious to my efforts to be inconspicuous, didn’t play along. He unwrinkled the notes, inspected them carefully, and, with great emotion, hugged me. This wasn’t the impersonal side-hug that is something more than a handshake but something less than an intimate embrace. It was a full-on, arms-around-waist bear hug (albeit a somewhat small bear as the man only reached the height of my armpit). Moved by this display of gratitude for my meager offerings, I nearly cried, too.
Onlookers seemed to soften, as if knowing instinctively what had transpired. This was no drug deal, one sensed them thinking, and it wasn’t muscle here to collect.
This scene is a microcosm of the immigration problem from the other side of the border. According to some on the American left, the crisis on our southern frontier is the result of global warming. Nonsense, I say. In addition to Biden’s implicit invitation and disastrous government lockdowns, it is caused by South America’s version of the Democrat Party — socialists who have as much regard for the people they govern as Nancy Pelosi for the homeless of San Francisco.
Over the course of two months, I traveled the continent speaking to dozens of people like Julio. Without exception, they wanted to go home — not to Venezuela as it is now, but to a free Venezuela. That surprised me. Moreover, I was struck by the fact that none saw himself as a victim. The difficulties they faced were hurdles to be overcome. And these refugees weren’t the automatic Democrat voters Republicans fear them to be. On the contrary, the law-abiding elements among them (the majority) are naturally conservative in every meaningful way: family-oriented, hard-working, possessed of a Catholic sensibility, and driven by a desire to flourish free from government interference.
Indeed, if I could trade a Julio for a Democrat, I would do it every time. Ten years into his American experience, he would preside over a lollipop empire and be sending his children to private schools. But Republicans have to get their policy — and their messaging — on immigration right. As it is, they are viewed as the party opposed to immigration of any kind. That message is driving immigrants crossing the Rio Grande, a people who are generally naïve as to the ways of American politics, into the arms of Democrats, who want only to use them for their own nefarious ideological ends.
And let’s face it: these immigrants are going to keep coming, because anyone who will brave the trochas, which are teeming with armed bandits, and the Darién Gap, the most dangerous jungle in the world, won’t be put off by a wall and a few border agents. By the time they get there, these people have endured a kind of continent-sized Death Race, and, since no government subsidies are offered on this Deliverance-like journey, the would-be Democrats are weeded out along the way with ruthless efficiency. Surely such spirit has more in common with the party of self-reliance than the party of perpetual victimhood.
Before squeezing back into the Kia, I waved at the family, who stood in a row at the railing in front of their tenement. What would become of them? All around us in this slum, street after street, block after block, were families in identical situations.
As we drove away, Néstor pointed: “See that bar? Police raided it last week. Child prostitution. Little boys and little girls. People sell them for food.”
 This math does not add up. Néstor and I agree that we did not mishear him. By my household count, that means he needed to make $51 USD a day just to pay his rent, to say nothing of feeding his family and buying life’s necessities. There is no way that he sells that much in lollipops daily. So, either he misspoke or he does not pay 15,000 pesos for all of those people. This much is certain, though: he is being victimized by slum lords.
Larry Alex Taunton is a freelance columnist who contributes to USA Today, Fox News, First Things, the Atlantic, the New York Post, CNN, the Daily Caller, and The American Spectator. He is also the author of The Gospel Coalition Book of the Year The Faith of Christopher Hitchens and the just-released Around the World in (More Than) 80 Days: Discovering What Makes America Great and Why We Must Fight to Save It. You can subscribe to his blog at larryalextaunton.com and find him on Twitter @larrytaunton.