On a warm day in 2017, Rafael stood on a highway near the Caribbean Sea. He wore olive fatigues, carried a rifle, and was staring down hundreds of his countrymen — most of them students and young activists from humble backgrounds like his own. They were protesters, resisting the latest power grab by Venezuela’s dictator, Nicolás Maduro, and now they were throwing rocks.
Rafael and his fellow soldiers advanced, shooting tear gas as they marched, Rafael recalled. But instead of retreating, the protesters dug in and tossed back Molotov cocktails, which exploded on the pavement.
Rafael, in the second line, behind other soldiers carrying polycarbonate shields, surveyed the scene and realized they were losing control. The protesters were fanning out, coming around their flanks. Soon the soldiers were surrounded on three sides. They ducked as rocks thudded against the shields. Then Rafael heard the order: Shoot.
With his finger on the trigger of his rifle, and protesters bearing down on him, Rafael froze. He couldn’t comply.
He wasn’t the only one. “None of us fired,” Rafael said. After months of brutal crackdowns against protesters — heads split open by police batons, eyes shot out with rubber bullets, activists assassinated in the streets — Rafael and his comrades had realized they were on the wrong side of the struggle. “I saw that what the protesters were fighting for was true,” he said.
He now faced an impossible choice: stay and serve a murderous regime or desert and risk prison. He chose to run.
Rafael’s decision to desert the military would change the course of his life. It would turn him into an exile in his own country and eventually force him to flee for faraway lands. During that flight, he traversed barren deserts and remote jungles. He climbed mountains, forded rivers, and stepped over the corpses of those who fell along the way. He was robbed and then jailed and then robbed and jailed again. All of this he accepted as the price to pursue a dream.
Rafael’s story, told to the Globe in hours of interviews in Spanish, illustrates the hardship many migrants endure to reach the United States and the oftentimes desperate circumstances that compel them to leave their home countries. Relatives and neighbors corroborated details of his backstory. The Globe also spoke with three fellow migrants who accompanied him for long stretches of the journey; at least one person besides Rafael witnessed, and described, nearly every event in the account that follows.
Rafael was motivated to tell his story, in part, because of its strangest feature: the plane flight that whisked him from Texas, where his arduous journey ended with a crossing of the Rio Grande, to Massachusetts, where he was promised good jobs and housing awaited. The flights, orchestrated by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, were a political ploy designed to highlight the flood of migrants crossing the southern border and to call out blue state complacency about the crisis. Rafael has come to see the stunt as exploitative, reducing him and the other migrants to “objects,” he said, “as if we don’t feel pain, as if we don’t have families.”
“We’re not from here,” he said, “but we’re human beings.”
After leaving the northern Venezuelan city where Rafael had been stationed, he, his wife, and their infant son moved into his mother’s three-room cinder-block home in the remote Andean village where Rafael had grown up. He lived in the shadows, afraid to go out, always looking out the window wondering if military officials would come for him. (The Globe is identifying Rafael with a pseudonym, and withholding other identifying details, because he fears reprisals by the Venezuelan government against family members he left behind.)
Money was a source of stress, too. Although he took carpentry gigs when he could, the work was sporadic and by the first half of this year it had petered out. Choices had to be made: toilet paper or food. He wondered how he would ever provide a decent life for his wife and son.
He was already thinking about leaving Venezuela when, in the summer, the decision was more or less made for him.
A rumor went around that the government was rounding up deserters. Rafael wasn’t sure what to make of it. Under the oppressive Maduro regime, rumors are ubiquitous, often terrifying, and often bogus.
Then, in July, Rafael heard from friends that two men in military uniforms had knocked on a neighbor’s front door. Rafael didn’t see it himself, but he knew exactly what it meant. The neighbor was also a deserter. The rumor was true.
This was the moment Rafael had feared. If he was caught, he was sure he would spend 25 years in prison. There would be no trial, no opportunity for parole, just a guarantee that he wouldn’t get out until his son was a grown man. His neighbor had been spared, he learned, because the man’s parents had paid a bribe. But Rafael’s family was poor. They wouldn’t be able to pay.
The neighbor had deserted a year before Rafael. Did that mean he had time before the men came for him? A year? A few months? A matter of days? The only thing he was sure of was that he had to leave. He started laying plans with his best friend, José.
Rafael and José were close because they complemented each other, not because they were alike. Rafael talks more than José, but is otherwise more reserved. “I don’t like hugs,” Rafael said. José, by contrast, is all smiles and warmth. He expresses affection with a stroke on the upper arm, an embrace.
While Rafael left the village to become a soldier, José had stayed home and lived with his mother, taking a carpentry gig here, a bricklaying job there. In Venezuela’s broken economy, there were few other options.
To escape his dead-end life, José had often talked about a fantasy of immigrating to the United States, 4,000 miles to the north by land. His mother thought it was a joke. Rafael had always viewed it as an “impossible dream.”
But now the two men were planning how they would get there: across Colombia, into a Panamanian jungle, and then north through six countries to the United States’ southern border.
They sold their belongings, and several family members took out small loans. With that, they were able to round up the equivalent of about $300 each. They packed lightly, each carrying a small backpack. Then, on July 25, they climbed onto two mopeds and descended from their village on a winding dirt road toward the border.
They rode with two friends, who would later take the mopeds back home, but no one said much. José had left behind a weeping mother who had been unable to accept her son was really going until the moment he left. Rafael had said goodbye to his wife and his 5-year-old son, who was too young to understand he might never see his father again.
In a village in eastern Colombia, Rafael and José stepped off the mopeds and started walking. There was no turning back.
Wearing knee-high rubber boots, Rafael and José traipsed through a Colombian beach town toward densely wooded hillsides that seemed to rise up over the rooftops. Where the road stopped, they joined a stream of migrants — speaking Haitian Creole, Brazilian Portuguese, and Spanish in various accents — funneling onto a muddy uphill path.
They were beginning the journey’s first test, the trek across a mountainous rain forest known as the Darien Gap.
Their boots sank into the mud as they walked, so that every step was an effort. Step, sink, balance on the other leg, extract the sunken foot with a thwop.
As the canopy grew denser, nearly blotting out direct sunlight, they noticed a Venezuelan couple struggling to lug their two young daughters and their belongings up a slope. Rafael and José took the girls on their backs.
As they approached a river crossing, on the trek’s second day, they spotted a bird that looked like a vulture. Then, at the river’s edge, they saw their first corpse — a man with parts of his face and arm missing. The body was a reminder of the journey’s dangers. Deep in the jungle, far from any roads or towns, a broken leg, a moderate illness — anything that slowed forward progress — could mean death.
They kept hiking, fording streams, dropping to their hands and knees to claw their way up slippery trails. The mud was everywhere, coating their clothes, infiltrating their boots. Their feet, which were constantly wet, blistered all over. At night, they pitched their tent on the driest bit of land they could find and then they woke up and did it all over again.
The only thing that kept Rafael moving was this: “I saw the United States like a point of salvation,” he said.
It was a place, he believed, where soldiers would never be ordered to kill fellow citizens and where people like himself and José, without much formal education, could provide comfortable lives for their families. He’d even heard of migrants reaching the US and soon earning $200 a day for their labor, a gobsmacking sum.
They kept walking.
With two days left in the jungle trek, they ran out of food. The next day, dizzy with hunger, they picked bright green, unripe bananas from a tree. The skins were thick like plastic. The flesh, when they bit into it, was as dense as beef.
Past sunset, on the fifth day, they saw a single point of light through the trees. They forgot their hunger and bounded toward it. The beams of their flashlights illuminated rooflines. They started hollering because they knew what it meant. They’d made it across the Darien Gap.
Just 3,000 miles to go.
The jungle crossing delivered them to southern Panama, where the government operated a camp for migrants. Rafael and José spent three days there drying off, trying to gather their strength, and sleeping on a cafeteria table because every other surface was taken. Then they were off again.
They crossed Central America — Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala — by bus, hitchhiking, or on foot. Money was a constant problem. The cash they’d left Venezuela with was gone. Now they begged or sold candies one-by-one at stoplights. Sometimes they called home and asked for a few dollars, sent by Western Union, for the next bus fare.
But even when they had cash, it was hard to hold onto it. In Guatemala, police officers stopped them by the roadside and demanded bribes.
In mid-August, after crossing into Mexico, they spent two nights in an immigration jail. When they were released, officials gave them each a sheet of paper. At the top, it said “Instituto Nacional de Migración.” Beneath that was a mug shot of each of them and text instructing them to leave the country within 10 days.
The immigration document gave them a respite from shakedowns as they traversed most of the country; when they presented it to police officers, they were allowed to carry on. But their luck ran out when they reached the northern desert, where drug cartels reign.
On a highway near the city of Monterrey, men wearing police uniforms flagged down their bus.
Rafael had a thousand pesos, about $50, exactly what he needed for his last bus ticket to the US border. As the bus rolled to a stop, he found a tear in his seat cushion and tucked the money into the slit. An officer boarded and walked down the aisle asking every passenger for identification. He told Mexicans to stay seated and migrants to get off.
At the roadside, another officer demanded cash. When Rafael said he didn’t have any, the officer followed him back onto the bus and told him to beg the other passengers for cash. No one helped. So, defeated, Rafael returned to his seat, fished his last pesos out of the cushion, and handed them over.
The bus dropped them off in a desert town called Nueva Rosita, 70 miles from the Texas border. After a day of walking, they slept by the roadside under some scraggly brush. On the second day, they reached the town of Nava, just 25 miles from the US border, and lay down in a park. On the third day, they begged door-to-door trying, fruitlessly, to raise enough cash for bus tickets. Eventually, a taxi driver took pity and agreed to drive them to Piedras Negras, a border town on the Rio Grande, for a reduced fare.
As they climbed into the car, Rafael called his mother. “Stay by the phone,” he said. “In 20 minutes, we’ll know if we’ve made it across or not.”
They drove down a desert highway. They passed a bright red, towering Coca-Cola sign outside an industrial facility. The town of Piedras Negras came into sight. They felt like they were pulsating with adrenaline. Their legs trembled.
The taxi driver gave them advice. “When you get out,” Rafael recalled him saying, “don’t look back, don’t look right, don’t look left. Just run.”
So that’s what they did. They sprinted through the streets of Piedras Negras, past crumbling buildings of stucco and brick and then down a hill to the river’s edge. They didn’t stop.
The water rose to their knees and then their waists and then it was so deep they had to swim. There was a current and now it was carrying them downstream. They swam harder. Rafael almost wanted to laugh he was so close.
The river delivered them to a grassy island — which lay a stone’s throw from the American side — and they crawled onto it. Rafael pulled his phone from his pocket and found, improbably, that it still worked. He called his mother. “We made it!” he recalls saying. “We’ve achieved the dream.”
The hard part was surely behind them. American opportunity lay ahead.
After wading through the last few feet to the American side, Rafael dropped to his knees and wept.
Shortly, a soldier wearing green fatigues and carrying a rifle approached. “What’s wrong with you?” Rafael recalled the soldier asking him in Spanish. Blubbering, Rafael tried to explain: He was just so happy to have made it.
Rafael and José spent their first night in the United States in a jail in Eagle Pass, Texas, the border town they reached when they crossed the Rio Grande. The jail was frigid — many migrants refer to the facility as la hielera, the freezer — but the night of detention came as no surprise.
Rafael and José knew what they were doing. They had always planned to cross the border without authorization and then turn themselves in to immigration authorities. That was the path available to Venezuelans who lacked the wealth and connections to obtain visas.
They had heard that the US government released Venezuelans into the country quickly, after two or three nights in jail at most. And Rafael and José had imagined that US facilities — and their treatment in them — would be humane, surely better than what they experienced in Mexico.
But the next morning brought a shock. Officers removed them from their cell, locked cuffs around their ankles and wrists, and then led them, along with dozens of other men, in a jangling line to a bus. “Oh my God,” Rafael recalled thinking. “We’re prisoners.”
Rafael would spend 11 days in various Texas jails (José was detained a full two weeks). The detention was, for both men, among the worst parts of the journey. Their cells were overcrowded; the portions of food were so small that they were left hungry; at one point, they spent days in a cell without natural light. (US Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not respond to requests for comment.)
Then, all of a sudden, they were released, dropped off by a border patrol van at a church in a town near Texas’s southern tip. The government had kept their passports and given them an immigration document in exchange. They were free to go, on the condition that they show up for future immigration proceedings. What they did in the meantime was their problem.
Like many migrants who enter the country in South Texas, Rafael and José made their way to a San Antonio shelter known as “Seven Thousand.” When they reached the facility, at 7000 San Pedro Ave., they found a place that looked less like a shelter than a regional airport. At all hours, charter buses, minibuses, and vans pulled up to the sidewalk and unloaded passengers who joined a line of migrants waiting to get in.
Inside, city workers clasped green bracelets around Rafael’s and José's wrists. The bracelets — color-coded by date of arrival — started a clock. They could stay for three days. After that, back to the street.
Beyond those three days, Rafael and José didn’t have much of a plan. They had friends of friends in Washington, D.C., so they thought they’d try to get there. But how they’d travel and what they’d do on arrival were not clear.
Then a better opportunity seemed to materialize. On their second day at Seven Thousand, Rafael noticed a group of migrants talking with a tall, Latino man outside. He walked over to them. “Who is this?” Rafael asked one of the other migrants.
“He’s with a new organization,” Rafael recalled the migrant telling him. “He’s helping people.”
As Rafael listened, the man, who spoke Spanish with a Venezuelan accent, said that he could provide migrants with plane tickets, housing, and financial assistance. Rafael chimed in. He and his “cousin” were out of money, he said. “Can you help us?”
The next day, a white SUV pulled up to the shelter. As Rafael and José climbed in, the driver turned to them and said, “I’m Perla.”
She had come to take them to a hotel. In a few days, she said, she would fly them to Massachusetts. Skeptical, Rafael grilled her for details. She said she worked for a new organization that helped migrants. Had she done this before? he asked. She said Rafael and José were part of the group’s first cohort.
At the hotel, a La Quinta Inn on San Antonio’s outskirts, Perla gave them clothes and three meals a day, and she made more promises. When they arrived in Massachusetts, she said, they would receive jobs, free housing, and immigration assistance.
The turnaround in their fortunes was disorienting. A few hours earlier, they’d been broke and 24 hours from being homeless. Now they had a hotel room, a free ride north, and a strange but apparently benevolent new friend they couldn’t quite figure out. Perla, who never told them her last name, looked Latina but spoke Spanish like a gringa, they noticed.
Something seemed off to Rafael, but he also desperately wanted to believe Perla was on the level.
He was able to suspend disbelief until the morning that Perla loaded Rafael, José, and dozens of other migrants into vans, which drove them straight onto a nearby airstrip. There was no airport security, no one checked their IDs, and a private jet with a uniformed pilot stood waiting for them.
It made no sense. As they lined up to board, Rafael turned to José. “Are we going to be slaves?” he asked.
They flew all day, touching down once in Florida, and again in North Carolina, before passing over the New York City skyline in the afternoon. Not long after, a woman who had worked with Perla in Texas and who had accompanied them on their flight said they would land soon.
Rafael and José, sitting next to each other, looked out the window. All they could see to the horizon was water. “Where are we going?” Rafael recalled thinking.
To a place they’d never heard of — Martha’s Vineyard, chosen by DeSantis’ schemers because of its reputation for wealth and liberal politics. After landing at the island’s airport, Perla’s helper led them to vans waiting by the terminal. Ten minutes later, at the end of a dirt road, the driver of Rafael and José's van used a translation app on his phone to tell them to get out and walk.
They reached a gravel parking lot and waited as the whole group amassed. Soon, a woman approached asking questions in English. She fetched a Spanish-speaking colleague who asked where they’d come from. On an airplane, one of the migrants said. “Perla sent us,” said another. The women stared back at them blankly.
During the next two days, it sometimes seemed as if the world had descended upon Rafael, José, and the rest of the Martha’s Vineyard migrants.
At an island church, where the pastor hosted the whole group in a cafeteria and a parish house, a constant stream of Good Samaritans showed up with clothes, food, even cellphones. Droves of journalists came, too. Some interviewed Rafael and José, pressing them for details about the mystery woman Perla. (It later emerged that she was Perla Huerta, a former Army counterintelligence agent who was working with the DeSantis administration.)
Meanwhile, Rafael and José tried to piece together what had happened. On his phone, Rafael watched Spanish-language news reports, he recalled. He heard translations of a DeSantis press conference, in which the governor claimed credit for the flights. He was starting to understand what had happened, that he’d become a pawn in the US’s political games.
It was a demoralizing realization — the first person in the United States to help him had been using him for her own purposes — but not one he could dwell on.
Amid the flurry of activity at the church, Rafael was trying to address some more pressing concerns. He needed a place to live and a job. In a quiet moment, he pulled aside an islander and asked, “Can I stay here?” The answer was no. There was work, to be sure, but no housing, the islander said. He’d be better off looking elsewhere.
After two days at the church, Massachusetts officials loaded Rafael, José, and the rest of the group onto a ferry to the mainland and then drove them to a Cape Cod military base.
They would spend two weeks there, passing the days in meetings with pro-bono immigration lawyers, interviews with Texas investigators (they were probing whether Huerta and her helpers had committed crimes), and sessions with Massachusetts caseworkers.
Then, in early October, the migrants were told that it was time to move on and that they would be scattered to various shelters, state homes, and host families.
Migrants started disappearing, a family of three one day, a group of single men a few days later. Then it was Rafael and José's turn. A woman named Judy — they understood her to be some kind of volunteer — picked them up in an SUV and drove them to the South Yarmouth home of a pastor.
The house was a handsome Colonial with a two-car garage and Adirondack chairs on the front deck. The pastor, Johnny Agurkis, of the Cape Cod Covenant Church, led Rafael and José into an open-plan ground floor and then showed them to a bedroom upstairs. There were two twin beds and a window looking onto a quiet, residential street.
There was a distressing echo, in the day’s events, of their recruitment in Texas for the flights. The pastor, like Huerta, had told them, through an interpreter at the base, that he was here to help. Now they didn’t know what to believe. Rafael wondered if they were going to become the pastor’s house servants.
In the days that followed, the Agurkis family tried to put Rafael and José at ease. Ann, Johnny’s wife, beckoned them into the kitchen. She opened a cabinet, gestured inside, and said, through a translator app on her phone, “It’s OK to eat our food.”
The Agurkises’ 16-year-old son, Tanner, led Rafael and José to the finished basement where he booted up FIFA on his Xbox, set the announcers’ language to Spanish, and invited them to play.
As the weeks passed, Rafael and José came to accept that the family actually meant them well. The Agurkises never asked them to pay rent or do chores. Ann, in particular, treated them like two more doted-upon sons.
On Thanksgiving, while a turkey roasted in a slow cooker and indie rock from Johnny and Ann’s youth played through the sound system, Ann’s father quietly slipped Rafael and José envelopes full of cash. They said thank you and, unable to say much more in English, held his gaze for a moment trying to express their gratitude.
Four months after leaving home, Rafael and José finally felt safe. But they also felt stuck in a sort of limbo.
Legally, they are allowed to remain in the country while their immigration cases proceed. They say their lawyers told them that work authorizations could be months away and final resolutions of their cases could take years.
And living in a Cape Cod suburb where almost no one else speaks Spanish, they felt isolated and a bit lost. When they went to English classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, a volunteer picked them up and dropped them off; they didn’t know the address, or even the town, where the class was held or how they would get home afterward if the volunteer driver didn’t show.
“I feel stagnant,” Rafael said in early December at the Agurkises’ kitchen table. “I’m not complaining. But I would rather be somewhere else, producing and creating a better life for my son.”
The Agurkises have offered to serve as sponsors to bring Rafael’s wife and son to the US legally. Their help is a godsend; for Venezuelans trying to come to the United States under a new Biden administration program, lining up a sponsor is the most crucial and most challenging step. Still the outcome is uncertain and there is little Rafael can do to move the process along.
“From time to time,” Johnny Agurkis said, “we see the anguish of not having his wife and son here weighing on him.”
There is also the matter of Perla Huerta. Months after the flights, Rafael and José say they still fear her. “For her to be able to do what she did with us,” Rafael said, “she has to have power.”
On Dec. 13, the stress and sense of helplessness seemed to come to a head. After returning from English class, Rafael felt his arm go numb. Then his heart started racing and he felt short of breath. Holding his hand over his heart, he told José, “Something’s wrong with my motor.”
Ann, a nurse, drove him to the hospital. But a few hours later — while Rafael was in bed wearing a hospital gown and hooked up to IVs — a doctor told him there was nothing wrong, at least nothing a battery of medical tests could detect.
What caused it? Rafael tried to laugh it off, but it looked like a panic attack, as if the weight of his ceaseless anxiety about the future was pulling him down.
During interviews — at the Agurkises’ kitchen table, on a sofa watching the World Cup, in a booth at a Cape pub — the conversation often circled back to Rafael’s and José's arrival at the Rio Grande. Throughout the journey, the river had served as a kind of beacon, pulling them northward across a jungle and along desert highways, sustaining them when they were hungry and broke.
Finally reaching it, they said, was “una emoción total,” an overwhelming surge of feeling — anxiety, elation, adrenaline, relief.
It was a time when they believed that simply setting foot in the United States would solve all their problems, when they believed that they had, in every sense of the word, arrived.
For Rafael, the Rio Grande marked a bright dividing line in his life. “Crossing the river,” he said, “you are reborn.”
Damiano reported from South Yarmouth, Martha’s Vineyard, Piedras Negras, Eagle Pass, and San Antonio. Jessica Rinaldi of the Globe staff contributed reporting from South Yarmouth. Correspondent Lorena Bornacelly contributed reporting from Venezuela. Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed research.
Mike Damiano can be reached at email@example.com.