CARACAS/SAN FRANCISCO, July 14 (Reuters) - When Antonio joined anti-government demonstrations in Venezuela five years ago to protest against daily power outages and long lines for food, he hoped to be part of a movement to unseat President Nicolas Maduro.
Instead, Maduro has remained in power and Antonio suffered years of threats and extortion from police in retaliation, he said. In April, after a sixth extortion attempt, he joined a growing number of Venezuelans fleeing north to the United States.
"After years of death threats and living in constant fear, I had to leave," Antonio said by phone from his brother's home in Miami, Florida, asking to not use his real name because he feared his family in Venezuela could be threatened. "It also kept getting harder to get food. My parents were suffering and you get to a breaking point, especially with constant (electricity) blackouts."
Record numbers of Venezuelans have been attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexican border in recent months, some facilitated by rapidly-adapting smuggling networks.
Driven out of their homeland by a deep economic crisis and what many have described as political repression, often they initially settled elsewhere in Latin America. But as the coronavirus pandemic has caused increasing economic instability in the region, and resentment of Venezuelan migrants has risen, some have decided to try their luck in the United States instead.
Over 17,000 Venezuelans arrived at the southern U.S. border in the last eight months - more than in the previous 14 years combined - according to data from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency. Many hope to claim asylum.
That forms a small, but growing, part of the 900,000 migrants arrested or expelled by U.S. officials at the southern border since October - the majority of them from Central America or Mexico.
Antonio says he crossed the U.S. border in May, after paying $4,000 in travel costs and fees to smugglers. He raised the money - a fortune in Venezuela - with help from family in other countries.
Antonio caught a bus to the Colombian capital Bogota, from where he flew to the Mexican resort town of Cancun. A Venezuelan smuggler from Antonio's hometown of Maracaibo helped him pass Mexican authorities.
In Mexicali, he paid the smuggler $800 to ferry him into Arizona, where he turned himself over to border patrol and was held in a migrant detention center for six weeks before being released to await his asylum hearing.
"At the border crossings right now there are a lot of Venezuelans, but there are also a lot of Venezuelan smugglers, so it wasn't hard to find one," said Antonio.
Reuters was unable to independently verify Antonio's account.
Since 2013, when Maduro took office, more than 6 million Venezuelans have fled an economic crisis that resulted in chronic shortages of gasoline, water and medicine. Protests in 2014 and 2017 also led to a backlash by authorities against perceived opponents.
The vast majority of Venezuelan migrants resettled in nearby nations, including Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, and Mexico.
But after coronavirus-related lockdowns crippled these countries' economies, thousands are heading to the United States - in many cases, after being fed misinformation from smugglers and others about what awaits them there.
In March, U.S. President Joe Biden granted temporary protected status (TPS) to Venezuelan migrants living in the United States, allowing them access to work visas and relief from deportation.
The measure only benefits Venezuelans in the United States as of March 8.
But immigration experts say the decision has caused confusion around who it applies to and may be one of several factors fueling migration.
Maria Antonietta Diaz, president of the Florida-based Venezuelan American Alliance, said in early July that her office had received about 50 messages from Venezuelans in the last month who believed they would be eligible for TPS if they arrived by August.
"There is misinformation," she said. There was also "a false expectation that somehow they will be able to ask for asylum and it's very easy."
In a half-dozen audio recordings and posts on Instagram reviewed by Reuters, people purported to offer "guide services" to Venezuelans seeking to reach the United States.
"Here in the United States news came out that Joe Biden authorized the entry of 500 Venezuelan citizens who come in through the border illegally," said one audio recording posted on the Instagram account of Venezuelan blogger Sergio Vitanza Belgrave on May 18. "They will be let in, will receive TPS, a work permit and humanitarian asylum."
Vitanza, who says he lives in Chile and has over 12,000 followers, told Reuters that he had posted recordings from a "friend" and that "many people" had told him his posts had helped them reach the United States.
Brian Fincheltub, head of consular affairs at the opposition-run Venezuelan embassy in Washington, said there were growing smuggling networks out of Venezuela, some taking advantage of desperate Venezuelans.
Even those who normally shuttle clients from Central America are getting a piece of the new business.
Antonio, a smuggler from El Salvador, said in early July that he had taken more Venezuelan clients in the past five months than ever before. From southern Mexico he charges $3,000 to take them to the U.S. border, where he instructs them to turn themselves in to U.S. border agents to request asylum.
For the more complex illegal crossing into southern Texas, he charges $14,000.
"Once we get to northern Mexico, I tell them not to talk, because the cartel I deal with charges more for Venezuelans," he told Reuters by telephone. "They tend to have more money (than Central American migrants) or at least have families with money if they are going to the U.S."
Some Venezuelans have made multiple moves as they seek a better life.
Miguel Sanchez, a 39-year-old oil technician from the eastern Venezuelan city of Puerto Ordaz, said he fled to Colombia in 2016 after being sacked from his job for voting for the opposition.
After realizing pay was better in Panama, he moved to Panama City, where he met his boyfriend, another Venezuelan.
But once salaries for undocumented Venezuelans dropped during the pandemic and the couple became the targets of xenophobic and homophobic attacks, they say, the two decided to try the United States.
Last month they flew from Panama to Cancun, a place that Venezuelan migrants told Reuters has a reputation of having less stringent border controls than Mexico City. Mexico's immigration authority did not respond to a request for comment.
Now the couple are in the northern city of Reynosa - across the border from McAllen, Texas - where they are waiting at a shelter to apply for asylum.
"Because Latin America's economies have taken a hit, everyone is looking to go to the States for some stability," said Sanchez.
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