A journey on a caravan of misery

CARACAS (Reuters) - Just after dawn, dozens of Venezuelans gathered at the dark bus station in Caracas. They lugged one big suitcase each, as well as blankets, toilet paper, cheap bread and jugs of water. Weeping wives, confused children and elderly parents hugged them over and over until it was time to check tickets and weigh bags, then hung back, waiting hours for the bus to leave. When it finally pulled out, the passengers looked down at their loved ones, pounding on the windows and blowing kisses as they speeded out of this crumbling capital city.

On board the bus, web developer Tony Alonzo had sold his childhood guitar to help pay for his ticket to Chile. For months he had been going to bed hungry so that his 5-year-old brother could have something for dinner. Natacha Rodriguez, a machine operator, had been robbed at gunpoint three times in the past year. She was headed for Chile, too, hoping to give her baseball-loving son a better life. Roger Chirinos was leaving his wife and two young children behind to search for work in Ecuador. His outdoor advertising company had come to a bitter end: Protesters tore down his billboards to use as barricades during violent rallies against authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro.

Their bus tells the story of a once-wealthy nation in stomach-dropping free fall, as hundreds of people flee daily from a land where fear and want are the new normal.

37 PHOTOS
Venezuela's caravan of misery
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Venezuela's caravan of misery
Alejandra Rodriguez packs her belongings before traveling by bus to Chile, at her home in Caracas, Venezuela, November 2, 2017. Alejandra Rodriguez, 23, accountant at an import company, said she had never wanted to leave Venezuela, and especially not on a bus, "I had never even thought of Chile in my entire life! But because of the situation I had to". REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TO MATCH SPECIAL REPORT XXX
Adrian Naveda (C) talks on the phone, as he stands next to his girlfriend Glenys Reyes, before he travels by bus to Chile, at their home in Caracas, Venezuela, November 2, 2017. The night before the bus was due to leave, Naveda received several calls from friends to invite him for a drink and farewell party, but he preferred to stay at home with his girlfriend. The atmosphere was melancholic. In the end the bus did not leave the next day, because the road was blocked by protests in Colombia. He had to wait four more days to start his journey to Chile. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TO MATCH SPECIAL REPORT XXX
Houses are seen in Caracas, Venezuela, January 12, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Josmer Rivas (L) eats a Venezuelan arepa for breakfast as he and his family wait for the bus to travel from Caracas to Ecuador at the Rutas de America's bus station in Caracas, Venezuela, November 3, 2017. Protests about land reform in Colombia led to the Pan-American highway being blocked so the bus was cancelled that day and Rivas left a few days later. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TO MATCH SPECIAL REPORT XXX
Carlos Rivero (C), who travelled by bus from Venezuela to Chile, looks at the display of products in the counter of a shop in Santiago, Chile, November 18, 2017. Due to the Venezuelan economic crisis the variety and availability of basic products has dramatically reduced in recent years. For the newly arrived migrants to see the variety of cheeses and sausages available in a butcher's shop, or walk along the aisles of a fully stocked supermarket to make their first purchases, could be an overwhelming experience. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Adrian Naveda (L) looks at his cellphone as he travels by bus from Caracas to Chile, in Tulcan, Ecuador, November 10, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Adrian Naveda (R), who travelled by bus from Venezuela to Chile, carries a package of dry dog food during his first day working in a pet shop in Concon, Chile, November 16, 2017. Adrian went out to look for work the day after arriving in Chile and a couple of hours after distributing his resume got a call from a pet shop at a commercial area near where he was staying. He started to work that same day. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Natacha Rodriguez (L), traveling by bus from Caracas to Chile, smokes a cigarette as she stands by her son David Vargas and her sister Alejandra Rodriguez while they wait to board the bus at a road services complex in Copiapo, Chile, November 14, 2017. Carlos Garcia Rawlins: "After seven days traveling by bus, getting out for a few minutes to stretch your legs and go to the bathroom, even if you didn't need to, was the best way to break the monotony". REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Alejandra Rodriguez (C) and her sister Natacha Rodriguez (R), who travelled by bus from Venezuela to Chile, talk with their housemates as they prepare to sleep at their house in Concon, Chile, November 20, 2017. Natacha, her son David, her sister Alejandra and Adrian (a family friend), arrived at the small apartment rented by a group of Venezuelan friends. Even though they were already living in cramped conditions, they happily offered the newcomers a place to stay while they got on their feet. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
An emergency exit sign is lit up inside a bus in Chimbote, Peru, November 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Alejandra Rodriguez, who travelled by bus from Venezuela to Chile, uses her cellphone to speak with her boyfriend who lives in Venezuela, as she sits at a bench of a shopping mall near her house to take advantage of a free internet connection in Concon, Chile, November 20, 2017. Alejandra walked several blocks during the night to a shopping mall and sat for hours in front of the closed stores, to use the free internet network and chat with her loved ones in Venezuela. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A barren landscape is seen from the bathroom window of a bus on the road near Antofagasta, Chile, November 14, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Adrian Naveda, traveling by bus from Caracas to Chile, records voice messages to send at the next free internet spot while he waits to board the bus at a customs point in Quillagua, Chile, November 14, 2017. Not being able to keep in touch with loved ones, was one of the things that most worried the travelers during the journey, so they were always trying to connect to the internet. Adrian said several times that he missed his mother and his girlfriend, so he decided to record messages for them despite not being able to send them or receive an answer, until the next free wifi network. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Alejandra Rodriguez, traveling by bus from Caracas to Chile, sleeps while she rides on the bus in Iquique, Chile, November 14, 2017. After traveling by bus for seven days through five countries, everyone either had found a comfortable position to sleep in their seats or were so tired that it did not matter how they slept. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Adrian Naveda compares the data on passports and bus tickets ahead of his trip to Chile, at his home in Caracas, Venezuela, November 1, 2017. Naveda, 23, car battery salesman, had been pondering whether to leave Venezuela for a while, but only decided to go when his school friend Alejandra Rodriguez told him she was emigrating too. "I sold my two motorbikes to fund the trip" Naveda said. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TO MATCH SPECIAL REPORT XXX
Wilder Perez uses his hand to shade himself from the setting sun as he drives a Rutas de America bus through Valencia, Venezuela, November 7, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TO MATCH SPECIAL REPORT XXX
Madelein Rosal cries while she talks on the phone before boarding a bus to travel from Caracas to Guayaquil, at the Rutas de America's bus station in Caracas, Venezuela, November 7, 2017. Rosal, 28, a hotel worker, decided to emigrate after the ruling Socialist Party won the October 2017 gubernatorial elections, leaving the opposition in disarray. "I'm leaving heartbroken" said Rosal, who entrusted her 8-year-old son to the care of her mother. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TO MATCH SPECIAL REPORT XXX
Alejandra Rodriguez (R) talks to her sister Natacha Rodriguez (2nd L), while she, her son David Vargas (L) and Adrian Naveda, have a meal with the food they brought from Caracas route to Chile, at a restaurant in Supe Puerto, Peru, November 12, 2017. Most of the migrants were very short of money and unsure how much they would need to settle in their new homes, so they tried to save as much as possible. At rest stops some could afford to buy hot food but others had to continue eating the sandwiches and canned food they brought from Caracas. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
The shoes of Alvaro Betancourt, who is traveling by bus from Caracas to Chile, are seen through a hole in a door while he takes a shower at a bus station in Tumbes, Peru, November 11, 2017. Carlos Garcia Rawlins: "At the bus terminal in Tumbes the bathroom was in a bad state of repair; the toilets were dirty and didn't work properly, the floor and walls of the showers were covered in fungus, to the point that someone placed a piece of wood on the floor so they could stand under the water without touching the floor. But after several days without bathing, the conditions of the bathroom were not so important, so one by one, most of the travelers took a shower before continuing on the road". REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
The road winds around the side of a hill in Atico, Peru, November 13, 2017. Carlos Garcia Rawlins: "The view from the first row of seats on the top floor of the bus was amazing. At moments there was a feeling of emptiness as the road disappeared around a bend and mist descended and blurred the horizon. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Karelys Betancourt, traveling by bus from Caracas to Chile, drinks a cup of tea while she recovers from motion sickness in Ocona, Peru, November 13, 2017. At this stage of the trip the group of Venezuelan migrants were traveling on the top floor of the bus, because it was cheaper, but the motion was stronger. When Karelys started to get sick, the bus hostess gave her tea without sugar and recommended that she should go and sit on the stairs in front of the bathroom to recover. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Natacha Rodriguez (C), traveling by bus from Caracas to Chile, talks with fellow travelers while they wait to board at the bus station in Tumbes, Peru, November 11, 2017. In Tumbes, the first stop after crossing from Ecuador to Peru, passengers had to transport their luggage by three-wheel moto taxis from the arrival point to another bus station, as each company has its own terminal. When they got there, they realized that the only way to buy the tickets to continue the journey was with Peruvian soles. So they talked and agreed that one group would go to an exchange house several blocks away, carrying everyone's cash, while others waited and took care of the luggage. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Adrian Naveda, Alejandra Rodriguez and her nephew David Vargas (R-L), traveling by bus from Caracas to Chile, smile after crossing the border between Peru and Chile at the migration office in Arica, Chile, November 13, 2017. Getting to Chile was the goal, but everyone was a little worried, because they knew this was the border where the authorities could ask them tricky questions. As they walked out of the migration office in Arica, happiness and a mood of "We made it!" took over, even though they still had two more days on the road ahead of them. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Josmer Rivas, 7, traveling by bus from Caracas to Guayaquil with his mother, embraces his father upon arrival at the bus station in Guayaquil, Ecuador, November 10, 2017. Carlos Garcia Rawlins: "Josmer's mother, Genesis Corro, told me that her husband would be waiting for them at the Guayaquil bus terminal and that her son was very excited to see his father, who moved there from Venezuela four months ago. As soon as we arrived, I hurriedly got off the bus so I could witness their reunion. Josmer ran out and jumped into his arms, happiness was overflowing from his eyes, undoubtedly one of the most emotional moments during the journey". REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A truck drives past a Rutas de America bus traveling the route between Cucuta and Guayaquil near Bucaramanga, Colombia, November 8, 2017. Carlos Garcia Rawlins: "Much of the journey through Colombia is on busy narrow roads in the Andean mountains, full of sharp curves. It was shocking to see how close the trucks pass by. On several occasions when we reached a curve, we had to stop and wait for another vehicle to pass before the bus could keep going". REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Alejandra Rodriguez, who is traveling by bus from Caracas to Chile, puts her passport on a desk while she waits in line to stamp it at the binational border service centre in Huaquillas, Ecuador, November 11, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Karelys Betancourt (L), who is traveling by bus from Caracas to Chile, smiles after seeing a man urinate next to the bus in Huarmey, Peru, November 12, 2017. Karelys, 25, who dreams of launching a chocolate business, packed sweet moulds into her suitcase. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Adrian Naveda (C) and Natacha Rodriguez, who are traveling by bus from Caracas to Chile, sleep sitting on the floor while they wait in line to have their passport stamped at the binational border service centre in Huaquillas, Ecuador, November 11, 2017. After four days of traveling, the fatigue among the passengers was evident. Having boarded the last bus in Guayaquil after midnight and travelled approximately four hours to the border between Ecuador and Peru, many fell asleep on the floor while queuing to get their passports stamped. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Federico Urquiola (2nd R), 27, a worker in a construction business who is traveling by bus from Caracas to Peru, exchanges money in Cucuta, Colombia, November 8, 2017. Federico said he struggled to get contracts for his construction business and was often paid late for work, when the money had already depreciated. He hoped his wife could join him in Peru. After crossing into Colombia the first thing the travelers had to do was to change their Venezuelan bolivar notes - Cucuta was the last point on the road where they would be accepted. The exchange operations were quite informal and very fast: a cash counting machine and a calculator on a desk. The tension among the travelers was evident - they wanted the best rate possible, but didn't have many options. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
People traveling by bus from Caracas to Ecuador wait in line to stamp their passports at the migration control office in San Antonio del Tachira, Venezuela, November 8, 2017. After more than twelve hours traveling, crossing into Colombia was for many on the bus the first time they had left Venezuela. When they arrived at the migration office, it was temporarily closed because the computers were down. Travelers had to wait in line about three hours to get their documents stamped. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A bus from the Rutas de America (2nd R) company stops to fill its tank next to other buses at a gas station in Tocuyito, Venezuela, November 7, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Abrahan Bastidas, 26, an I.T. specialist, looks through the window while he travels by bus from Caracas to Chile in Pamplona, Colombia, November 8, 2017. For Abrahan, the trigger to leave came mid-year when his employer, a Caracas hotel, decided it could no longer provide him with breakfast and dinner. Suddenly, all his income was going towards food. "As a professional it was impossible to continue like that" he said. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Carlos Rivero (L) and Adrian Naveda (C), traveling by bus from Caracas to Chile, look out of the window while they drive through Zorritos, Peru, November 11, 2017. "I think we waited too long to leave" said Carlos Rivero, 31, a former security operator for the Caracas metro. The road the bus travels along in northern Peru goes through through tiny villages near the seashore. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
A gas station worker pumps fuel into a Rutas de America bus as a chicken looks for food, near Pamplona, Colombia, November 8, 2017. Carlos Garcia Rawlins: "We stopped to refuel the bus and although the passengers did not get off except those who urgently needed to use the restrooms, I had agreed with the driver that I would get off at every opportunity to take pictures. This time, there was a chicken pecking at the gas station floor in search of food and creating a peculiar scene, almost something out of the Latin American magic realism". REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
David Vargas (R), 12, cries as he sits next to his aunt after saying goodbye to relatives while he waits to board a bus to travel from Caracas to Guayaquil, at the Rutas de America's bus station in Caracas, Venezuela, November 7, 2017. The moment before getting on the bus was very sad, filled with silence, tension, hugs and tears. Carlos Garcia Rawlins: "It was very hard to see the disconsolate way David was crying, once he said goodbye to his loved ones and realized that he was about to start the journey to Chile". REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Karelys Betancourt (C) looks at men pushing a cart loaded with luggage which belongs to people traveling by bus from Caracas to Ecuador in San Antonio del Tachira, Venezuela, November 8, 2017. Since 2015, vehicular traffic between Venezuela and Colombia has been restricted, so the first stage of the trip ends in the Venezuelan border city of San Antonio de Tachira. There, travelers have to leave the first bus and carry all their luggage as they cross by feet to the Colombian side, after going through several customs checkpoints and getting their passport stamped. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Madelein Rosal (L) speaks with another passenger while she travels by bus from Caracas to Guayaquil near Barinas, Venezuela, November 7, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins SEARCH "RAWLINS BUS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TO MATCH SPECIAL REPORT XXX
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By the time dawn rises over Caracas, hungry people are already picking through garbage while kids beg in front of bakeries. Come dusk, many Venezuelans shut themselves inside their homes to avoid muggings and kidnappings. In a country with the world's largest proven crude reserves, some families now cook with firewood because they cannot find propane. Hospitals lack supplies as basic as disinfectant. Food is so scarce and pricey that the average Venezuelan lost 24 pounds last year.

"I feel Venezuela has succumbed to an irreversible evil," Chirinos said.

Many blame the country's precipitous decline on the government of Maduro, who has tightened his grip on power, holding fast to statist policies that have throttled the economy. His government says it is facing a U.S.-led conspiracy to sabotage leftism in Latin America by hoarding goods and stoking inflation.

Poorer by the day, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have concluded that escape is their only option. With the country's currency virtually worthless and air travel beyond the reach of all but elites, buses have become Venezuela's caravans of misery, rolling day and night to its borders and returning largely empty to begin the process all over again.

The 37 Venezuelans leaving on this day had hocked everything – motorbikes, TVs, even wedding rings – to pay for their escape. Most had never been outside the country before.

For nine days, a reporter and a photographer from Reuters accompanied the migrants as they headed for what they hoped were better days in Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina. For nearly 5,000 miles, they rolled through some of South America's most spectacular landscapes, including the vertiginous Andean mountain range and the world's driest desert in Chile. But even though the Venezuelans were awed by the views whizzing by their window, their minds were mostly on the land they had left behind – and the uncertainty facing them in the lands ahead.

FROM CARACAS TO CONCON

A heavy silence fell over the bus after it pulled out of the Rutas de America terminal. Passengers glumly texted family members or stared out the window as the packed vehicle rolled by mango trees, shuttered factories and crumbling murals of the late President Hugo Chavez.

Natacha Rodriguez, the machine operator, had been running on adrenaline in the mad rush to pack, sell her television and washing machine, and endure long lines to get her documents in order. Now, on this day in November, she was near exhaustion as she tried to get comfortable in her seat.

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A year of turmoil in Venezuela
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A year of turmoil in Venezuela
A protestor holds a national flag while standing in front of a fire burning at the entrance of a building housing the magistracy of the Supreme Court of Justice and a bank branch, during a rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas, Venezuela, June 12, 2017. Protesters angry at the pro-government Supreme Court's ruling attacked a branch of the court with petrol bombs. Carlos Garcia Rawlins: "As had happened before, security forces from inside the building repelled the attack, but this time the clashes were more intense. The demonstrators looted and burned a bank branch in the same building, which was later engulfed in smoke and flames. By the end of the day, several protesters were injured and detained." REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo SEARCH "POY VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Opposition lawmaker Carlos Paparoni is hit by jets of water during riots at a march to the state ombudsman's office in Caracas, Venezuela, May 29, 2017. A group of young Venezuelan lawmakers has risen to prominence on the violent front line of anti-government marches that have shaken the South American country for three months, bringing 75 deaths. On the streets daily leading demonstrators, pushing at security barricades and sometimes picking up teargas canisters to hurl back at police and soldiers, the energetic National Assembly members are heroes to many opposition supporters. Carlos Garcia Rawlins: "I remember clearly how instants after I spotted Paparoni standing in front of 'The Whale', the common name of the water cannon armoured cars, he was flying through the air due to the unstoppable power of the water, as if he was a feather. Fellow protesters had to drag him out of the place, because from where I was, he seemed to have been unconscious." REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo SEARCH "POY VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
A member of the riot security forces points a gun through the fence of an air force base at David Jose Vallenilla, who was fatally injured during clashes at a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, June 22, 2017. Carlos Garcia Rawlins: "Once again, protesters clashed with security forces in front of an air base during an opposition rally in Caracas. In a matter of seconds, a demonstrator standing in a gap in the fence of the base, jumped down as a group of military men carrying long firearms approached from inside. Vallenilla, who was crouched down on the highway covered by the fence, stood up at just a few feet from the soldier, who began shooting. He fell to the ground, and immediately got to his feet to escape, as another activist wrapped in the Venezuelan flag and carrying a flimsy wooden shield, tried to give him cover and also came under fire. Fellow protesters gathered round Vallenilla to drag him away, so I rushed in and by then he looked very badly injured. Vallenilla died later in hospital." REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo SEARCH "POY VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Riot security forces clash with demonstrators as a motorcycle is set on fire during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in San Cristobal, Venezuela, May 29, 2017. Carlos Eduardo Ramirez: "Security forces arrived to disperse demonstrators that already had burned two taxis and a bus, throwing tear gas and pellets and the demonstrators' response was to throw molotov cocktails and one of those petrol bombs reached a National Guard member, setting him and the motorbike on fire." REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez/File Photo SEARCH "POY VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Riot security forces detain a demonstrator during a rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, July 28, 2017. Rock-throwing Venezuelans braved tear gas and rainstorms, blocking streets in protest against a legislative super-body to be elected two days later that critics call an attempt by President Nicolas Maduro to create a dictatorship. Carlos Garcia Rawlins: "After many hours of very violent clashes between the demonstrators and security forces, the National Guard in an attempt to end the situation, suddenly advanced their line very quickly, even going beyond where I and other photographers were taking cover. All the protesters who did not react fast enough to leave the place were detained." REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo SEARCH "POY VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH Opposition lawmaker Luis Stefanelli (L) gestures next to fellow opposition lawmaker Leonardo Regnault after a group of government supporters burst into Venezuela's opposition-controlled National Assembly during a session, in Caracas, Venezuela, July 5, 2017. Carlos Garcia Rawlins: "Rowdy groups of government supporters busted into Venezuela's opposition-controlled National Assembly. There were several clashes happening at the same time, so I tried to follow a small group of attackers as they pushed their way through the main building. By the time I got into the building, they had already finished hitting people and were on their way out, leaving behind an opposition lawmaker covered in blood. I quickly went over to the politician, Leonardo Regnault, whose grey suit was spattered in blood. He was up against an ornate wooden door, clearly in a state of shock. Another opposition lawmaker, Luis Stefanelli, was standing next to him, hands up in a sign of surrender and pleading with the attackers to stop the beating. Minutes later, the attackers were expelled and I thought everything was over, but no. Government supporters remained outside and kept us trapped inside. The injured lawmaker, Regnault, was treated at the nurse's office in the congress and then evacuated in an ambulance next to the others injured. Eventually, around dusk, state security forces pushed back the government supporters and created a path out for us, more than eight hours after I first arrived." REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo SEARCH "POY VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Flames erupt as clashes break out while the Constituent Assembly election is being carried out in Caracas, Venezuela, July 30, 2017. Deadly protests rocked Venezuela as opposition voters boycotted an election for a constitutional super-body that unpopular leftist President Nicolas Maduro vowed would begin a 'new era of combat' in the crisis-stricken nation. Carlos Garcia Rawlins: "Suddenly, a bomb exploded in the capital during an opposition protest and wounded seven police officers in what seemed to be the spread of more aggressive tactics. We were taking photos from close by but the police panicked and chased everyone away, firing teargas, rubber bullets and pellets." REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo SEARCH "POY VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
An injured opposition supporter is helped by volunteer members of a primary care response team during clashes with riot security forces at a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, June 22, 2017. Ivan Alvarado: "This image was taken next to an airforce base where another protestor was fatally injured that day. I don't know how this man was injured, I first saw him as the first aid volunteers carried him out from the midst of the tear gas. You can really see the pain in his expression as he cries out. After I took the image the motorbike speeded off down the highway." REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado/File Photo SEARCH "POY VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
A demonstrators attends a rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, June 19, 2017. Ivan Alvarado: "I was under the highway photographing some protestors who had surrounded a woman they accused of stealing a phone from someone. I turned around to check what was happening behind me and saw this man appearing from the shadows to see what was going on. The white on his face is salt, which the protestors said helped to reduce the effects of the tear gas." REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado/File Photo SEARCH "POY VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Supporters of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro demonstrate outside Palacio Federal Legislativo with a picture of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez during the National Constituent Assembly's first session, in Caracas, Venezuela, August 4, 2017. Carlos Garcia Rawlins: "After winning a majority in the National Assembly in 2015, lawmakers of the opposition removed all images of the late President Hugo Chavez from the main building and gardens. This act was seen by Chavez's supporters as a huge offence and they promised that someday he would be returned and honoured again. As soon as the Government won the National Constituent Assembly election, the very day of the installation ceremony, elected members and their supporters gathered outside the building and brought images of Chavez back." REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo SEARCH "POY VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
A demonstrator throws back a tear gas grenade while clashing with riot police during the so-called "mother of all marches" against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, April 19, 2017. Maduro said that beneath a peaceful facade, the protests were little more than opposition efforts to foment a coup to end socialism in Venezuela. The opposition said he has morphed into a dictator and accused his government of using armed civilians to spread violence and fear. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo SEARCH "POY VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
A protester dressed in a jacket with the national colours stands next to a burning roadblock during a rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, June 26, 2017. Ivan Alvarado: "The street was open and empty a little while before I took this picture. The man wearing the Venezuelan flag jacket brought the tyres to the middle of the highway and set them alight. For me the highway in this image acts like a imaginary border that divides two realities in Caracas - behind me was the chaos and tear gas at the rally and across the other side of the road a quiet scene of the houses stacked up on the hill." REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado/File Photo SEARCH "POY VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Demonstrators use a giant slingshot while clashing with security forces during a rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 20, 2017. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets on Saturday to mark 50 days of protests against the government of President Nicolas Maduro, with unrest gaining momentum despite a rising death toll and chaotic scenes of nighttime looting. Carlos Garcia Rawlins: "While the days of battle in the street passed, it was evident that little by little, 'The Resistance', the group that was always at the forefront of opposition protests, had developed new strategies to confront the sophisticated riot control equipment of the police." REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo SEARCH "POY VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Demonstrators ride on a truck while rallying against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, June 29, 2017. Ivan Alvarado: "This was one of the last really big rallies, and the number of protestors coming out on the streets started to decrease. The protesters used trucks to make barricades and block the streets in the Altamira area. This truck was being driven quite slowly, and I shot the image at a slow shutter speed panning to capture the sense of movement of the truck. I like the man standing on the top of the truck who looks like he is urging the group onto action." REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado/File Photo SEARCH "POY VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Riot security forces take up positions while clashing with demonstrators rallying against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, July 28, 2017. Venezuelans have been protesting against Maduro to demand him to respect the opposition-led Congress and resolve chronic food and medicine shortages that have fuelled malnutrition and health problems. Carlos Garcia Rawlins: "Security forces, often angry and frustrated, began firing directly at protesters." REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo SEARCH "POY VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Venezuela's opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who has been granted house arrest after more than three years in jail, salutes supporters, in Caracas, Venezuela, July 8, 2017. Marco Bello: "Lopez was transferred from the Ramo Verde military jail in the middle of the night and the news broke really early in the morning. A lot of people, including opposition supporters, politicians and media, were waiting for him to show up. We all knew that he would, despite the fact that he had been forbidden to do so. After several hours, Freddy Guevara, lawmaker of the MUD and right hand man for Lopez, came out to read a statement and while he was doing so, Lopez appeared over a wall of his Caracas house, waving the Venezuelan flag and punching the air. The sea of supporters cheered and cried upon seeing him." REUTERS/Marco Bello/File Photo SEARCH "POY VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH Paramedics try to help a demonstrator who was fatally injured during riots at a rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, June 7, 2017. The government said Neomar Lander died when a homemade mortar exploded in his hands while hundreds of youths faced off with National Guard troops in the Venezuelan capital. Opposition lawmakers, however, said he was killed by a tear gas canister fired straight at him. The state prosecutor's office announced a probe, without giving details. Carlos Garcia Rawlins: "In the middle of the street, both paramedics and fellow demonstrators tried to resuscitate him, while everyone around desperately cried and shouted. It was just a few minutes, but with the intensity of the moment, it felt like hours. I saw his fellow protesters crying like little boys only minutes after fighting with security forces like warriors." REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo SEARCH "POY VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY. TEMPLATE OUT
A demonstrator jumps away from a jet of water released from a riot security forces vehicle during a rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 26, 2017. Carlos Barria: "Weeks into protests against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, I landed in Caracas to reinforce our Reuters team coving the chaos. The protests had fallen into a routine. Every day around 10am - 11am protesters gathered around Altamira Plaza and started to march towards the downtown area where a cluster of government buildings are located. Protesters walked along a main highway and riot police would intercept them to contain the crowd. Clashes erupted when they met, with tear gas and water cannons were used to disperse the protesters. On May 26, a young student walked towards a water cannon wearing a backpack, as if he had just come out of class. As he got closer, the riot police turned the water canon directly on him. Then, the student began jumping and dodging, trying to avoid the blast of water. He looked almost as if he were dancing in the rain." REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo SEARCH "POY VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Demonstrators fall on the ground after being hit by a riot police armoured vehicle while clashing with the riot police during a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 3, 2017. Marco Bello: "In that moment, demonstrators attacked a couple of National Guards when they fell off a bike during clashes. Then another National Guard driving an armoured vehicle ran over the motorbike, trying to intimidate demonstrators and to rescue their fellow guards. The reaction of the crowd was to attack, throwing rocks and molotov cocktails and trying to jump over the truck. In the midst of confrontation and confusion, the driver drove back hitting people." REUTERS/Marco Bello/File Photo SEARCH "POY VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Demonstrators take cover during riots at a march to the state ombudsman's office in Caracas, Venezuela, May 29, 2017. Drawing inspiration from the Ukraine's 2013-14 revolt, Venezuela's young protesters are donning Viking-like shields in battles with security forces and eagerly watching a film on the Kiev uprising. The protesters use the shields to form walls, or even beat on them in unison, mimicking the Norsemen's battle cry. Fellow demonstrators cheer as the self-styled 'Resistance' members link arms to walk to the front lines and face off with National Guard troops and police. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo SEARCH "POY VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Demonstrators scuffle with security forces during an opposition rally in Caracas, Venezuela, April 4, 2017. Venezuelan security forces quelled masked protesters with tear gas, water cannons and pepper spray in Caracas after blocking an opposition rally against socialist President Nicolas Maduro. The clashes began after authorities closed subway stations, set up checkpoints and cordoned off a square where opponents had planned their latest protest against the government and the crippling economic crisis. Carlos Garcia Rawlins: "For me that was the day that made a difference, never before had I seen the protesters and police clashing men-to-men and struggling back and forward. From then, the strategy of the police changed and they never faced the protesters so close again." REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo SEARCH "POY VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A man who was set on fire by people accusing him of stealing during a rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro runs amidst opposition supporters in Caracas, Venezuela, May 20, 2017. Marco Bello: "I spotted a man running in front of me as a group of protesters, most of them hooded and with makeshift shields, were chasing him so I followed them. Some 100 meters down the street, the protesters caught the man and surrounded him. When I walked up and went through the circle of people to take pictures, someone had already poured gasoline over the man and set him on fire. The government said that the man was set on fire for being "chavista" (a follower of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez), but all I heard throughout was that he was being accused of trying to steal from a woman. I didn't hear anyone accusing him of being a pro-government infiltrator. The mob was crazy, you cannot reason with them, they do not think. Later, when things calmed down, I thought, 'This is mad'. I was just taking pictures and thinking about the technical aspect of my shooting. It's how I deal with shocking situations that are happening in front of me. Orlando Figuera, 22, passed away two weeks later." REUTERS/Marco Bello/File Photo TEMPLATE OUT . VENEZUELA OUT. SEARCH "POY VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Opposition supporters clash with riot security forces while rallying against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 18, 2017. Protesters were demanding elections to kick out the socialist government that they accused of wrecking the economy and turning Venezuela into a dictatorship. Maduro, the successor to late leader Hugo Chavez, said his foes were seeking a violent coup. Carlos Garcia Rawlins: "The image brings to life the disparity in strength between the protesters and security forces. The shield-bearer protects the protagonist, who clutches a stone as he prepares to counterattack, unaware the power of the water cannon is flexing the traffic sign as if it were a sheet of paper." REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo SEARCH "POY VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Volunteer members of a primary care response team, huddle together during clashes with security forces at a rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, April 26, 2017. In Caracas, around 120 medicine students, doctors, and volunteers have revived a primary care response team first created during 2014's bout of anti-government protests. While they wear white helmets with a green cross, none wear flak jackets and some resort to wearing goggles to protect themselves from tear gas. Their equipment has nearly all been donated or bought by the volunteers themselves, and they've had to create makeshift neck braces from shoes, belts, and hats. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo SEARCH "POY VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Volunteer members of a primary care response team help a child during a rally against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 24, 2017. Carlos Garcia Rawlins: "In their attempt to go beyond the blockade of the police, demonstrators changed the route taking some alternate streets. That caused clashes with the security forces to start in the middle of a residential area and many people who were not taking part in the protest, were trapped between the stones and the tear gas. In the middle of the chaos, someone shouted, 'A boy, a boy!' so I ran and when I arrived to the place, a group of volunteers were helping this crying and disoriented boy." REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo SEARCH "POY VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
A demonstrator is detained at a rally during a strike called to protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, July 27, 2017. Ueslei Marcelino: "As the young protestor realised that he was being arrested he began to shout his name. I think that he hoped he could warn his relatives through people who were there and maybe through the press". REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino/File Photo SEARCH "POY VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
A demonstrator prepares petrol bombs during a strike called to protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, July 26, 2017. Millions participated in a 24-hour shutdown, leaving businesses closed, families behind doors, and streets barricaded or empty across swathes of Venezuela. From dawn of that day, neighbours gathered in some parts of Caracas to block roads with rubbish, stones and tape, while cafes remained shut. There was still, however, a trickle of people on their way to work. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo SEARCH "POY VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Demonstrators march during the so-called "mother of all marches" against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, April 19, 2017. Carlos Garcia Rawlins: "That day was one of the biggest rallies up to then. There were thousands of people trying to find their way to the office of the state ombudsman after gathering in more than two dozen points around Caracas. But as in previous rallies, they were blocked by the National Guard. Waving the country's yellow, blue and red flag and shouting 'No more dictatorship' and 'Maduro out,' demonstrators clogged a stretch of the main highway in Caracas. I remember the desperation of the people trying to escape the tear gas and not having space to run because there were so many." REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo SEARCH "POY VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
A demonstrator shouts slogans in front of police officers during a women's march to protest against President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela May 6, 2017. The women's marches, which took place in most major cities around the country, were the latest in five weeks of sustained protests against Maduro. In Caracas, marchers sang the national anthem and shouted 'We want elections!'. They were halted at various points by lines of policewomen and National Guard troops with armoured cars. Carlos Garcia Rawlins: "Unlike most of the previous protests, after many hours the protesters decided to leave and there were no violent clashes." REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo SEARCH "POY VENEZUELA" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
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The 29-year-old single mom was traveling with her 12-year-old son, David, her sister Alejandra and a family friend, Adrian Naveda, to what she dreamed would be a quiet life. The group was bound for Concon, Chile, a beach resort where Venezuelan expat friends assured them there was plenty of work.

Rodriguez said she had hoped Venezuela's youth could bring about change. Like millions of her countrymen, she took to the streets to protest the unpopular Maduro last year, only to despair when he responded by consolidating his authority.

Fear added to Rodriguez's hopelessness: Her story of three robberies at gunpoint is a familiar one in a country awash with drugs and gangs. And with inflation fast outrunning her paycheck, the already petite woman had lost 13 pounds as she cut fruit and soft drinks from her diet so that David would not go hungry. She knew she had to act.

"In Venezuela you go to sleep thinking about what you're going to eat the next day," Rodriguez said. "I never wanted to leave, but the situation is forcing me to."

She had never left the country, and the enormity of what she was attempting was sinking in. In the days ahead she would visit four new countries, cross the equator and see the Pacific Ocean for the first time. But she couldn't stop thinking of how far she had traveled from the home she still loved.

'FIGHTING AGAINST THE TIDE'

Venezuelans elected Chavez, the late leftist firebrand, in 1998 with a mandate to fight inequality. A charismatic former lieutenant colonel, Chavez transformed the country during his 14-year rule, pouring oil revenue into wildly popular welfare programs. But he also nationalized large swaths of the economy and implemented strict currency controls, state meddling that economists say is the root of the current crisis.

Once a magnet for European and Middle Eastern immigrants during its 1970s oil boom, Venezuela now exports its people along with petroleum.

Spooked by Chavez, a first wave of engineers, doctors and other professionals began fleeing for the United States, Canada and Europe in the early 2000s. Most arrived to warm welcomes in their adopted homes, many with their savings intact.

Now, financially ravaged Venezuelans with fewer skills are pouring across South America in a frantic search for work in restaurants, stores, call centers and construction sites. Some travel only as far as their savings will stretch: A one-way bus ticket to neighboring Colombia from Caracas costs the U.S. equivalent of around $15; the fare for a trip to Chile or Argentina can run as high as $350, a small fortune for many. The plunging currency and rocketing inflation make financing the voyage more expensive with each passing day.

Sociologist Tomas Paez, an immigration specialist at the Central University of Venezuela, estimates that almost 3 million people have fled Venezuela over the past two decades. He believes nearly half of them have left in the last two years alone, in one of the largest mass migrations the continent has ever seen. The socialist government does not release emigration statistics, but Maduro says his enemies have exaggerated the extent of the exodus.

Neighboring Colombia has taken in the bulk of migrants in Latin America, although Argentina, Chile and Peru are also seeing a big influx.

In contrast to refugees fleeing Syria, Myanmar and North Africa who have met with violence and resistance, Venezuelans are moving easily across land borders on tourist visas. But tensions are increasing as their numbers strain the resources of South America's developing countries, which have their own problems with poverty and crime.

Carmen Larrea has a front-row seat to the migration. She is the owner of Rutas de America, a small Caracas-based bus company founded nearly 50 years ago to ferry Peruvians and Ecuadoreans to Venezuela in search of work.

At 75, she has lived long enough to see the world turned upside down. She now survives on Venezuelans heading in the other direction. Her customers included the 37 migrants whom Reuters followed.

Larrea's terminal sees dozens queue up daily to purchase tickets. Many must return repeatedly to pay in installments. Daily withdrawal limits on debit cards no longer keep up with inflation-fueled prices. Card readers frequently crash.

Requests for tickets abroad had roughly doubled in the last six months, Larrea said. Around 800 Venezuelans leave the country every month on her company's handful of Caracas-based buses alone.

But skyrocketing prices for spare parts and the plunging bolivar have hammered her profits, Larrea said. And while Rutas de America buses leave Caracas jam-packed, they often return empty, further denting business.

"We're fighting against the tide," she said.

'HERE NO ONE SPEAKS ILL OF CHAVEZ'

By daybreak, the bus had arrived in the garbage-strewn Venezuelan town of San Antonio del Tachira, near the Colombian border. The teeming frontier is a lifeline for desperate Venezuelans. They cross daily to sell goods like liquor, copper, even their own hair, often making more money in a day in Colombia than in a month back home.

Maduro has increased security at the border in an attempt to crack down on contraband. The bus riders were forced to disembark and pass through half a dozen checkpoints on foot, struggling to haul their suitcases, backpacks, blankets, food and water jugs under the searing sun. Trudging to the narrow Simon Bolivar International Bridge that links Venezuela to Colombia, they walked under a big government sign that read: "Here no one speaks ill of Chavez."

The gauntlet took five hours, in part because the Venezuelan migration office's computers crashed. The travelers' apprehensions grew as Venezuelan soldiers, known for shaking down border crossers, searched their bags repeatedly.

Passenger Chirinos, the ad man, was carrying $200 in U.S. currency, a precious hedge against inflation. A National Guard soldier demanded half of it to let him through with an old Playstation video game console deemed contraband. Chirinos handed over a $20 bill to end the standoff.

"Our own people rob us," Chirinos said later, recounting the humiliation.

The Armed Forces did not respond to a request for comment.

Just a few years ago, the 34-year-old Chirinos was solidly middle class. He boxed at a gym and splurged on vacations, including a 2014 trip to Rio de Janeiro with his wife.

But as the crisis worsened, even small indulgences like movie tickets spiraled out of reach. Chirinos cut down on his own food intake to ensure his two children had enough to eat. He began to pray daily that his kids would never fall ill; there was no medicine to treat them.

The coup de grace came during anti-government protests last year when the demonstrators outside the capital knocked down his company's billboards to shield themselves from National Guard soldiers. The enterprise his parents had founded in the 1970s was all but lost.

Several passengers around him wept as they listened to his story. Chirinos, an athletic man with a shaved head and goatee, remained stony-faced.

"I don't have time for resentment," he said. "What I feel is deep sadness."

'I HAVE TO BE STRONG AND CONTINUE'

Once over the border in the buzzing Colombian town of Cucuta, Jehovah's Witnesses, vendors and hustlers of all stripes descended on the overwhelmed migrants. The streets of Cucuta were already full of poor Venezuelans, some sleeping in parks and washing their clothes in creeks because they had no money to travel farther.

The bus passengers immediately bought Colombian pesos in crowded exchange houses where wads of near-worthless Venezuelan bills flew out of money-counting machines. The bolivar has lost a mind-boggling 98 percent against the U.S. dollar in the last year, meaning $100 worth of local currency a year ago is worth just $2 now.

Pesos in hand, the migrants boarded a new Rutas de America bus waiting for them in Cucuta. The vehicle climbed upward into the foggy Colombian mountains. Out the window, farmers in traditional Andean ponchos tended their herds.

Crossing the city of Bucaramanga, Naveda, the family friend who was traveling with Rodriguez and her son, learned by text that his great-grandmother had died. The 23-year-old felt an urge to turn back. But he knew the rest of his family was depending on him to send money home once he reached Chile and found employment.

"I have to be strong and continue," Naveda said.

Even though entering other parts of Latin America on temporary tourist visas is easy for Venezuelans, some are struggling to secure jobs and work permits. Those who strike out often get back on the road to try their luck in another country. In the United States, for example, Venezuelans now lead monthly applications for affirmative asylum.

Others are forced to return to Venezuela, broke and distraught. Maduro has warned Venezuelans that life in "capitalist" societies is tough.

"In six months you'll be back in Venezuela," the president said in a recent televised address.

Meanwhile, his government is benefiting from migrant remittances that are helping to prop up Venezuela's economy and keep a lid on unrest in the nation of about 30 million. The government does not release remittance figures. But the Inter-American Dialogue think tank estimated that some $2 billion flowed into Venezuela last year from citizens working abroad.

Other Latin Americans have been largely sympathetic to Venezuelans' troubles. Chileans, for instance, note that Venezuela sheltered thousands of their exiled countrymen during Gen. Augusto Pinochet's right-wing dictatorship in the 1970s.

But the influx is stoking tensions with some South American workers who view Venezuelans as rivals. News broadcasts increasingly feature stories about Venezuelans committing crimes. In Brazil, Venezuelans are already living in shelters just over the border in Boa Vista. In Colombia, the government says it has treated more than 24,000 Venezuelans for medical emergencies, and authorities in January evicted more than 200 homeless Venezuelans from an athletic field in Cucuta. In a possible sign of further crackdowns ahead, Brazil and Colombia tightened their borders in February as they grapple with the influx.

Despite the hardships of starting over, almost all Venezuelans on the bus journey said they planned to help relatives leave – or "get them out," as most now say.

'IT'S A NEW WORLD!'

The bus plowed on, stopping in Colombia's western Cauca province on the third day to let the Venezuelans shower and eat. The week before, hundreds of Venezuelans had been stranded there for several days after indigenous Colombian protesters blocked the highway to demand better living conditions from the government.

Milena Ramos, who works in a store at the roadside stop there, recalled the helplessness of the marooned Venezuelans.

"Some slept on the bus, others on the floor. People from the area brought them food and water. They were in a bad state," Ramos said. She estimated that up to eight buses full of Venezuelans pull up every day.

Just before 2 a.m. on the fourth day of the journey, the bus arrived at the frigid Colombian border town of Ipiales, near the Ecuadorean border, 9,508 feet high in the Andes. The shivering Venezuelans, almost none of whom had warm coats, lined up in the dark to get their passports stamped. Several more buses pulled up, unloading more of their countrymen.

As they crossed into Ecuador, the Venezuelans told border agents they were tourists; the bored-looking officials stamped their documents and waved them through. Any who are rejected just wait to cross during the next shift, handlers and food sellers there told Reuters.

As the bus kept heading southward, the Venezuelans expressed amazement at the views from their windows: Plump cows. Functioning traffic lights. Fully stocked store shelves. Thriving corn and coffee fields. People nonchalantly wearing gold jewelry on the streets.

"It's a new world!" exclaimed 7-year-old Josmer Rivas. Back home, the boy sometimes missed school because his family couldn't afford a few U.S. cents' worth of transport costs. In the Ecuadorean capital, Quito, Josmer was so excited to find soap in a bathroom that he insisted on dishing it out to everyone.

Still, the mood on the bus was often heavy, especially among parents who took advantage of stops to call children left behind. Billboard company owner Chirinos, who disembarked in Ecuador and headed straight to the home of some Venezuelan friends who were putting him up, felt lost without his kids. Some migrants had swollen ankles or painful backs after several days on the road. Others were sick of munching their stashes of white bread and other cheap staples.

For Rodriguez, the single mom, warm food at the rest stops was a luxury she splurged on only for her son, David. He was excited about the trip at first, thinking it was a sort of vacation. But as the voyage dragged on, he became tired and threw up one night on a winding mountain road in Colombia. He wondered why they hadn't taken a plane.

Although many Venezuelan parents entrust their children to relatives and send for them once they have a toehold abroad, Rodriguez said she couldn't risk it.

"What if they limit emigration or entry to other countries, or everything becomes more expensive and I can't get him out?" she said. "I wasn't going to be at peace with myself if I went and left him."

When in the early evening the bus pulled into Guayaquil, the last stop on the Rutas de America line, little Josmer Rivas flew into the arms of his overjoyed father, who had emigrated to Ecuador four months earlier.

Rodriguez's foursome and a few others boarded a midnight bus to continue their journey south to Chile, some carrying tuna and crackers given to them by those who had disembarked. Again, the buses were mostly filled with Venezuelans – easily recognizable by their bulky bags and jugs of water – although they were now rubbing shoulders with grungy Western backpackers.

The voyage across Peru was uneventful, punctuated by views of the Pacific Ocean and Hollywood action films on video screens hanging from the bus ceiling. But potential trouble loomed at the crossing into Chile, one of Latin America's most stable and prosperous nations. Police grilled the Venezuelans sharply.

"How much money do you have?" one officer asked Rodriguez. "Do you know Chile is an expensive country? Do you know there are Venezuelans sleeping under bridges here? Are you and your child going to sleep under a bridge?"

Rodriguez, unflustered, responded that she had a place to stay and enough money to get by.

18 PHOTOS
Desolate grocery stores show dire food crisis in Venezuela
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Desolate grocery stores show dire food crisis in Venezuela
A woman selects goat cheese from partially empty refrigerators at a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela January 10, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello
Workers sit on empty shelves at the fruit and vegetables area in a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela January 10, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello
Empty refrigerators are seen at the fish area in a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela January 10, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello
A woman stands in front of partially empty refrigerators at a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela January 10, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello
Police officers stand guard outside a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela January 10, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello
A woman selects lemons from partially empty shelves at the fruits and vegetables area in a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela January 10, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello
A man walks past empty shelves at the bakery area in a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela January 10, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello
A woman walks past empty shelves at the fruits and vegetables area in a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela January 10, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello
Stacked shopping carts are seen next to empty refrigerators at the deli area at a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela January 10, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello
Police officers control the crowd as people line up to buy sugar, outside a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela January 10, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello
People walk past empty shelves at a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela January 9, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello
A woman looks at a partially empty refrigerator in a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela January 9, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello
A man looks at an empty refrigerator in a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela January 9, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello
A man walks past an empty refrigerator at a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela January 9, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello
Empty refrigerators are seen at the butchery area in a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela January 9, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello
An empty refrigerator is seen at a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela January 9, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello
A woman walks past empty shelves at a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela January 9, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello
A woman walks past an empty refrigerator at a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela January 9, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello
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She and the rest of the group eventually were admitted into Chile. Beaming, they hugged quickly before yet another bus journey, to Santiago – nearly 1,300 miles to the south.

Alonzo, the Chile-bound web developer, was not so lucky. He had tarried a few days in Peru to spend time with a cousin. Arriving at the same border crossing just a few days after Rodriguez, he was refused entry by Chilean police.

STARTING OVER

It was just the latest in a series of setbacks for Alonzo, who had been trying to leave Venezuela for two years. His trip had been thwarted twice after he was forced to use savings for medical bills, first for a lung problem and another time to fix an infected molar.

When the 26-year-old web developer finally left Venezuela, he had just $230 in his pocket, scraped together from loans from friends as well as a fire sale of his dearest possessions.

"I sold the guitar I had since I was 16. I sold my computer. I sold my bed," Alonzo said.

He had hoped his programing skills would be snapped up in Chile, a budding technology hub. But after he was turned back at the border, Alonzo had little choice but return to his cousin's apartment in the Peruvian capital, Lima.

Chirinos and Rodriguez have fared better, both quickly obtaining work and legal papers.

Chirinos has rented an apartment in Quito and is working six days a week at a graphic design and advertising company. He spends what little free time he has with old friends from Venezuela.

A family man to the bone, Chirinos says he feels incomplete without his wife, 9-year-old son and baby daughter and wants to bring them over as soon as possible.

"I'm terrified about what's happening in Venezuela, and I don't want my children to grow up in such a heavy and negative environment," said Chirinos, whose family is surviving off the money he sends.

Down in Chile, Rodriguez waits tables at a busy seafront restaurant popular with tourists. She initially slept on the floor in a crowded two-bedroom apartment packed with Venezuelans. Now she sleeps in a room with David because her sister and friend Naveda moved to their own place, freeing up space in the apartment.

Rodriguez relishes simple pleasures: walking alone to a nighttime party; finding soap at pharmacies. She was especially thrilled to buy her son a bicycle for Christmas.

David loves his new home. He quickly made friends – all Chileans – and has ditched baseball, a major sport in Venezuela, in favor of pick-up soccer at a field near his home. Photos sent from Rodriguez's cell phone show the boy grinning astride his black mountain bike in one shot, tucking into a hamburger at McDonald's in another.

Rodriguez herself, meanwhile, gets frequent news about Venezuela from her mother and siblings. Hungry mobs have been looting stores as shortages and inflation worsen. Maduro has just announced he is running for re-election in May. With the opposition's two main leaders barred from holding office, the unpopular president looks likely to clinch a six-year term.

In Chile, Rodriguez has found the tranquility she longed for. Still, she cannot let go of Venezuela.

"Every day I ask myself – how long will it be until I can return?"

18 PHOTOS
Elderly Venezuelans protest against the government
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Elderly Venezuelans protest against the government
A nun (R) confronts riot security forces while rallying against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Riot security forces uses a pepper spray as elderly opposition supporters confront them while rallying against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Elderly opposition supporters cover their faces after being pepper sprayed while confronting riot security forces during a rally against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Marco Bello
Elderly opposition supporters rally against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Opposition supporters confront riot security forces while rallying against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Opposition supporters rally against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
A police officer tries to calm the people down as elderly opposition supporters rally against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Opposition supporters rally against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Opposition supporters confront riot security forces while rallying against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Elderly opposition supporters confront riot security forces while rallying against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Marco Bello
Opposition supporters confront riot security forces while rallying against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Elderly opposition supporters confront security forces while rallying against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
An opposition supporter confronts riot security forces with a sign that reads "No more repression" during a rally against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Elderly opposition supporters confront riot security forces while rallying against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Riot security forces uses a pepper spray as elderly opposition supporters confront them while rallying against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
An opposition supporter in a wheelchair carries a sign with a Venezuela's constitution glued to it and that reads "Do not change it, obey it!" while rallying against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Christian Veron
Elderly opposition supporters confront riot security forces while rallying against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Opposition supporters confronts riot security forces while rallying against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
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((Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; editing by Kari Howard and Marla Dickerson))

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