Migrant Lives

Venezuela Exodus: Migrants Now Crossing Into Northern Brazil

An estimated 40,000 Venezuelans have taken up residence in Boa Vista, the capital of Brazil's Roraima state. Many are roughing it in the city's 53 public squares. And their numbers are rising.

BR-174, on the way to border
BR-174, on the way to border
Giacomo Tognini

BOA VISTA — While Venezuelans fleeing their country's debilitating economic crisis have been crossing by the droves into Colombia, another migrant route has emerged. A growing number of Venezuelans have begun heading south, into the Brazilian state of Roraima, with reports of more than 8,000 entereing the northernmost and least populated state of Brazil in the first four weeks of 2018.

From there, some continue on to Brazil's more populous southeastern cities. But a surprising large number are settling in Boa Vista, the Roraima state capital, where Venezuelans (about 40,000 of them) now make up approximately 10% of the population, the Rio de Janeiro-based daily O Globo reports.

After crossing over from the small Venezuelan city of Santa Elena de Uairen, Venezuelan migrants must endure an arduous two-day journey along a 218-kilometer highway that links the border region of Paracaima with Boa Vista. Along the BR-174 highway and in Boa Vista's streets, locals and migrants speak a mix of Portuguese and Spanish to communicate.

"Life on the streets of Brazil is better than life in Venezuela, because at least here we have food," Luiz Gonzalez, 36, tells O Globo. Like many other recent arrivals, he sleeps in a city square — along with about 300 other Venezuelans.

While Brazil registered only 280 asylum requests from Venezuelan nationals in 2015, that figure skyrocketed to 17,130 last year. None of the petitions were accepted by Brazil's National Committee for Refugees, largely because most Venezuelans in Brazil fled their home country to escape hunger and poverty, not political persecution.

With an average age of 25, many Venezuelan emigrants in Brazil are eager to work and seek temporary residence, a status that allows them to apply for jobs in the country. From August to December 2017, 3,350 Venezuelans submitted applications for temporary residence permits.

He is here to protect us.

Boa Vista is bearing the brunt of the recent wave of arrivals. The number of Venezuelan children enrolled in local schools shot up by more than 1,000% between 2015 and 2017, and the city's three migrant welcome centers only have space for 2,000 people — wildly inadequate for the Venezuelan population of 40,000.

Late last year, after the governments of Roraima and Boa Vista declared they did not have the resources to keep up with the pace of arrivals, the federal government declared a state of emergency to tackle the immigration crisis. With an increase in petty crime and prostitution on the city's outskirts that some locals attribute to Venezuelans, intolerance and xenophobia are also on the rise.

Rather than attempting a life in one of the dangerous and overcrowded centers, many Venezuelans rough it out in one of the city's 53 squares. At Simón Bolívar square in southern Boa Vista, 300 migrants camp out beside a bust dedicated to Venezuela's founding father.

"For us, Simón Bolívar represents liberty and social equality," says recently arrived 29-year-old Kelly Gomez to O Globo. "This is our Venezuelan territory in Brazil. We feel (Bolívar) is here to protect us'

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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