Venezuela creates migration police, new passport payment system

CARACAS, Oct 5 (Reuters) - Venezuela on Friday created a migration police and announced that passport issuance fees would be paid in the government-created petro cryptocurrency starting next month, amid a mass exodus sparked by a deep economic crisis in the oil-rich nation.

Vice-President Delcy Rodriguez did not provide an explanation for the creation of the new force or give details about its structure. National Guard soldiers currently oversee border security.

“The migration police is born to tend to the 72 (ports of entry) that exist at borders, ports and airports,” Rodriguez said in a speech carried on state television.

The Information Ministry did not reply to a request for details.

Some 2.6 million Venezuelans have fled the OPEC nation of 30 million, mostly to other parts of South America, according to the United Nations. Around 1.9 million have fled since 2015 as the crisis worsened under socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

Shortages of food, running water, power, and medicine are common in the country.

Maduro says the emigration figures are inflated to make him look bad. He insists that no more than 600,000 Venezuelans have left in two years, and that 90 percent regret doing so.

With Venezuela’s currency having depreciated more than 99 percent this year and the opposition-led congress estimating annual inflation at 200,000 percent, thousands of impoverished Venezuelans are emigrating by bus or foot every day.

Many leave via illegal border crossings along the chaotic, porous 2,200-kilometer (1,400-mile) border with neighboring Colombia, where almost one million Venezuelan immigrants live.

Rodriguez said the fees for obtaining a passport as of next week would increase to 7,200 bolivars, or around $62 on the black market - roughly four times the monthly minimum wage. Fees are currently the equivalent of just a few U.S. cents.

She added that Venezuela would then start charging for passports in the petro cryptocurrency on Nov. 1.

“The price of a new passport will be 2 petros and (the price) of an extension will be 1 petro,” Rodriguez said.

A recent Reuters special report, however, showed that the petro is not a functional financial instrument, raising questions about how Caracas hopes to implement its use in the economy.

Obtaining a passport in Venezuela is already a headache. The SAIME passport agency’s web page frequently crashes and hundreds of Venezuelans line up in front of government buildings waiting to submit documents. Many Venezuelans say they wait for months for a new passport, often in vain. (Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer and Vivian Sequera Writing by Alexandra Ulmer Editing by Paul Simao)