At a squat, concrete brothel on the muddy banks of the Arauca River, Gabriel Sánchez rattled off the previous jobs of the women who now sell their bodies at his establishment for $25 an hour.
“We’ve got lots of teachers, some doctors, many professional women and one petroleum engineer,” he yelled over the din of vallenato music. “All of them showed up with their degrees in hand.”
And all of them came from Venezuela.
As Venezuela’s economy continues to collapse amid food shortages, hyperinflation and U.S. sanctions, waves of economic refugees have fled the country. Those with the means have gone to places like Miami, Santiago and Panama.
The less fortunate find themselves walking across the border into Colombia looking for a way, any way, to keep themselves and their families fed. A recent study suggested as many as 350,000 Venezuelans had entered Colombia in the last six years.
But with jobs scarce, many young — and not so young — women are turning to the world’s oldest profession to make ends meet.
Dayana, a 30-year-old mother of four, nursed a beer as she watched potential clients walk down the dirt road that runs in front of wooden shacks, bars and bordellos. Dressed for work in brightly colored spandex, Dayana said she used to be the manager of a food-processing plant on the outskirts of Caracas.
But that job disappeared after the government seized the factory and “looted it,” she said.
Seven months ago, struggling to put food on the table, she came to Colombia looking for work. Without an employment permit, she found herself working as a prostitute in the capital, Bogotá. While the money was better there, she eventually moved to Arauca, a cattle town of 260,000 people along the border with Venezuela, because it was easier to send food back to her children in Caracas.
The previous night, her sister had traveled by bus for 18 hours from Caracas to pick up a bundle of groceries that Dayana had purchased — pasta, tuna, rice, cooking oil — and then immediately jumped on a bus back home.
“If you had told me four years ago that I would be here, doing this, I wouldn’t have believed you,” said Dayana, who asked that her last name not be used. “But we’ve gone from crisis to crisis to crisis, and now look where we are.”