EspañolDaniel Muñoz Arias is a direct witness to the measures Venezuelan authorities take to hide the truth about the situation on the Colombian border.
Earlier in April, Soldiers strip-searched the Colombian journalist and wiped the memory on his camera, telling him that reporting on the Venezuelan border “is a crime” against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
Much has been said already about the political pressure and aggression facing journalists in Venezuela. But Muñoz, who works for the RPTV news agency and Colombia’s Direct Witness TV show, told the PanAm Post how simply trying to see how much COL$50,000 (US$20) could buy in Venezuela became a story he later wrote up as “Panic at the Border.”
Why did you decide to visit Venezuela, and what were you reporting on?
I had the opportunity to travel to the Vichada Department [in Colombia], which is on the border with [Venezuela’s] Apure State, separated by the Orinoco River. I was invited, because they were celebrating some folkloric festivals with citizens and Venezuelan artists like Reynaldo Armas.
They told me there about the huge amount of smuggling of products from Venezuela, and how with COL$50,000, if you just cross the river you can make purchases to last your family up to 15 days.
I decided to see if I could prove it, and I asked authorization from my boss in Bogotá. They told me that I should only approach the frontier, sign the papers, and pay for the journey from a boat that would bring us to Apure state. The cost of the transfer was COL$3,000, which is worth 150 bolívares in Venezuela.
I took my camera, and I changed COL$50,000 for 4,000 bolívares. I went together with two other colleagues, but they decided to hide their identity because they were doing it as independent journalists.
Once I got to Apure State, I saw mountains of food: there are markets of fruits and vegetables. I walked a little more, and I entered a market that had the picture of former President [Hugo] Chávez everywhere, and you could get everything: oil, rice, salt, a kind of lentil, canned goods, really expensive things like milk, chicken, and beef, and much more. There was so much that you’d think there was an abundance of food in Venezuela.
The idea was to later go to Bogotá and go shopping with the same amount of money in pesos to make a comparison: you can’t do much with COL $50,000, but with 4,000 Bs. I bought so much I could have almost bought the boat, and something to drink as well.
At what point were you confronted by the National Guard?
When we were getting ready to go to other supermarkets, I put my camera away, and suddenly a guard took me by surprise and asked me to hand it to him. We were then taken to a control post where there were six guards, and they began to grill us with questions.
To begin with, they asked me why I was filming them, they asked me if I was a soldier or a spy, and whether I knew that what I was doing was a crime against the government of President Maduro.
I denied it, and explained to them that I was a journalist and that I was doing a report; I explained to them what it was about.
At that point I felt a lot of pressure; you feel that it’s a genuinely defiant, arrogant, and petulant regime. The guards were looking at me with hate; they began looking through the camera and to call Caracas. They told us that they would take us to the capital and keep us prisoner, because allegedly what I’d done was a crime.
Then a lieutenant came along, and we immediately got into an armored Toyota with two guards, and drove the half hour to Puerto Páez [Apure state]. It was really hot; the only cold thing in that truck was the lieutenant’s attitude.
We arrived at the battalion headquarters in Puerto Páez, and we were struck by all the images of Hugo Chávez. They put us in a kind of office, and they began to interrogate us with the same questions; I gave them the same answers.
We went through long hours of interrogation. At one moment they searched us, one of the most degrading things, they stripped us and inspected us down to the fingernails. At one point the soldiers left the room, and I grabbed my phone, activated international roaming, and sent a quick message to my boss to let him know what was happening to us.
I was terrified of being imprisoned in Venezuela. I thought that it could cause a diplomatic incident, because I knew that I wasn’t doing anything wrong.
I think that in a way the Internet saved me, because they began to research me on the other side of the office, and I could hear that they were watching my reports on YouTube. They handed me my camera with the memory conveniently erased. They then threw us out in the street. I asked them how we were going to get back to the river to return to Colombia, and they didn’t respond. They turned their backs on us, and they left.
So we walked and came to the control point where the six guards were at the beginning. We promised them that we were leaving, and they returned everything we’d bought aside from some toothpaste.
The lieutenant, before we crossed the border, told me: “If you come back to Venezuela to do the same thing, it’s going to go very badly for you.”
When I finally arrived back on Colombian soil, people were surprised: they said that many people have disappeared on the Venezuelan side.
Do you know what your legal situation in Venezuela is now?
They filled out lots of documents, perhaps with my details, although I never signed anything. I’m scared to think what my legal state is now in Venezuela. I’m waiting to confirm with my country’s Foreign Ministry what my rights are, not only as a journalist but also as Colombian citizen.
I want to know if they have the right to treat a journalist like a criminal just for doing his job; if they have the right to take my things, and wipe the images and videos that I took with my camera.
I’m going to appeal to human-rights organizations and the Colombian ombudsman, and I want to appeal to the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), because I experienced firsthand the pressure that Venezuelan journalists are facing.