LIMA – Adriana Marero dropped out of college in her native Venezuela in 2017 as anti-government protests turned violent amid worsening economic problems and she fled to Peru looking for a place where she could earn a decent living. She delivered food on her bike, played hostess at a casino and worked at various restaurants.
Then the coronavirus pandemic came, hitting Peru particularly hard, and Marero found herself out of work as did countless other migrants. Determined to provide for herself, Marero learned to make natural skincare products and sold her wares at a crafts market with dozens of other Venezuelans who have started their own businesses.
But the efforts of Marero and others like her to make honest livings have increasingly been overshadowed by what immigrant advocates describe as excessive attention by police and local media to the crimes of a few Venezuelans. That, the advocates say, is fueling xenophobia among Peruvians.
“It really is a small group that comes here to make us look bad,” said Janny Contreras, another Venezuelan, who sold jewelry at the crafts market.
Migrants caught up in illegal activities, Contreras said, are far outnumbered by the "enterprising and daring Venezuelan people who came to this country to work. ... That group, hopefully, God will one day give them the wisdom that we had so that they can start a business.”
Peru is hosting roughly 1 million displaced Venezuelans, an influx that began around 2014 as inflation, unemployment, crime and shortages of food and medicine soared in their homeland. The migrants, many with advanced or multiple degrees, have entered Peru’s primarily informal economy, working as taxi, bus and food delivery drivers, cooks and, during the pandemic, gravediggers.
As the coronavirus continues to sicken and kill people by the hundreds every day across this country, prompting new lockdowns and sinking the economy further, Peruvians are looking ahead to local and presidential elections less than three months away. And some politicians are focusing on immigrants, accusing them of being disproportionately involved in crimes.
Álex Gonzáles Castillo, mayor of San Juan de Lurigancho in municipal Lima, has said the most violent crimes in his jurisdiction of 1.2 million people are committed by foreigners, whom he accuses of organizing attacks on people at bus stops. Yet the only concrete data he offers involve minor traffic violations.
He said that about 70% of police actions against conduct that violates “the proper order of the district" involves foreigners.
Gonzáles jumps from that to say Venezuelans are involved in “a lot of crime.” Public attention often turns to such cases, such as a Venezuelan bus driver who ran over and killed a woman last month. He lacked a driver’s license and is now considered a fugitive.
Others challenge the perception.
A report by the Washington-based think tanks Brookings Institution and Migration Policy Institute in September concluded that Venezuelan immigrants in Colombia, Peru and Chile commit far fewer crimes per capita than the native population, based on 2019 data. Using imprisonment data in Peru as a proxy for crime rates, researchers said 1.3% of inmates were foreign born. Venezuelans comprised 2.9% of Peru’s population at the time.
Peru has the second highest number of displaced Venezuelans, after Colombia. Nearly a half million are seeking refugee status in Peru, and about 280,000 have been granted residency. Of those working, about 94% are part of the informal economy, which includes delivery workers, street vendors and motorcycle taxi drivers, according to estimates from the United Nations.
Federico Agusti, the representative in Peru of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, challenged officials' assertions that Venezuelan immigrants are increasingly involved in crime. He said data that the government has shared with the U.N. body show that only 1.8% of all complaints in Peru are against Venezuelans.
“When we really look at the data, our concern is that the focus of insecurity is put on the foreign population when it should not be the focus,” Agusti said, adding that can "have an impact on the Venezuelan population because they can increase discrimination and rejection.”
He said the discrimination can translate into a Venezuelan being denied a job or the lease of a room because the owners might fear that the person could be violent or a criminal.
Initially welcoming to immigrants, Peru's government has changed its stance in recent years. It has put soldiers, some in armored vehicles, at the border to guard against migrants entering the country.
It also has added more requirements for a migrant to get permission to work. That has forced immigrants to seek out low-paying jobs that don't match their skills. The jewelry maker, Contreras, and her husband, for instance, each have two advanced degrees.
A policy paper from the Center for Global Development and Refugees International published in December proposed ways in which the government could eliminate some of the obstacles that Venezuelans face. But the researchers warned that perceptions of immigrants have worsened since 2018 and said that xenophobia is expected to increase due to the deep economic slump caused by the pandemic and could deter the government from making changes.
“Besides, the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections of April 2021 increase the risk of Venezuelans becoming scapegoats for politicians aspiring to office,” the paper said.
Marero, the immigrant selling skincare products, deeply misses family and friends who remain in Venezuela, but she said her small business is doing well and has given her a respite from working daily nine-hour shifts at the various jobs she had before the pandemic.
So far, she also has avoided the negative feelings aimed at immigrants.
“Thank God I have not had bad experiences. I have not suffered xenophobia,” she said beside her booth with handmade soaps. “Thank God, since I have been in Peru, I have not lacked work.”
Garcia Cano reported from Mexico City.