CUCUTA, Colombia— Juan Carlos Perez boarded a bus for the Colombia border as the sun set. Twelve hours later, he arrived at the border and crossed into Colombia on foot, with 10 pieces of gold jewelry stashed in his socks.
Like many Venezuelans, Perez went to the Colombian town of Cucuta to buy basic goods that have become almost impossible to find at home, including rice, flour, and toilet paper.
But as his family—and country—run out of cash, the computer technician was forced to gather up his family’s jewelry and hawk it at a Cucuta pawnshop in December, in hopes of scraping together enough money to survive for the next few months.
“That jewelry was the only thing of value that we had left,” Perez told me when I met him at a pawnshop on the border. “Food is our priority right now.”
Perez isn’t the only Venezuelan rummaging through his drawers to survive Venezuela’s worsening economic crisis.
Every day in Cucuta, a 15-minute drive from the Venezuelan border, pawnshops swarm with hundreds of desperate Venezuelans trying to sell gold earrings, wedding rings, watches, graduation rings, and even old silverware.
Local jewelers and pawn shop owners in Cucuta say the frenzy started in October, when gold prices were high and Venezuela’s currency started to nose-dive. Within three months, the price of the U.S. dollar skyrocketed in Venezuela from 1,200 bolivares to 4,200, as the government printed millions of bills to cover its budget gaps and pay its debts.
The failed monetary policy, which has led to the worst inflation in the world, has decimated Venezuelans’ savings accounts and made their currency worthless. It’s also forced families to scavenge their homes for any remaining valuables so they can get foreign currency and buy food supplies to bring back home.
And the first place struggling middle class families seem to be turning to is their jewelry box. Eighteen carat gold currently sells in Cucuta for $21 a gram, which means a small ring can net $50, while a necklace can bring in over $150. That money is then sent back to Venezuela via wire transfers, or used to buy bulk loads of rice, toilet paper, beans and flour.
“You can’t wear your jewelry in Venezuela anyways; there’s too much crime,” said Gloria Martinez, a Venezuelan retiree who visited a pawn shop in downtown Cucuta last week. Martinez sold a gold medallion that she’s had since she was 18 for $10. It didn’t have the value she had hoped, but she tried to remain optimistic. “Instead of keeping this in a drawer, I can at least buy some groceries now,” she said.
Ramon Rodriguez, a Cucuta jeweler who buys gold, says Venezuelans have come to him with tears in their eyes to sell wedding rings and other pieces of jewelry that have been in their family for years.
He says he melts down most of the gold to make custom jewelry for affluent, Colombian clients, but suspects the gold rush could come to an end once Venezuelans have sold everything in their closets. Traffic is already starting to slow, he says.
“Back in October I was getting about 15 Venezuelans selling me jewelry each day,” Rodriguez said. “In December it was down to about eight people per day.”
But the lines outside some pawnshops remain as some Venezuelans who have already sold off their gold come back to Cucuta to hawk whatever else they could find around the house.
Cucuta jeweler Francisco Chacin says many Venezuelans have tried to sell him expensive watches that they bought in the U.S. back in the days when they could travel abroad on government-subsidized dollars. He says one man even offered him a bronze bust of independence hero Simon Bolivar, and a legal text book published in 1837.
“I told him to hold on to that and take it to a city where there are antique collectors,” Chacin said. “No one in Cucuta will offer him much for that.”
Marisabel Paolini, from the nearby Venezuelan town of San Cristobal, lined up at a pawnshop counter in late December with two heavy metal cups in her purse. One of the cups had been given to her grandmother in the 1950s and Paolini suspected it was made of silver.
“It’s the third time I have come here to sell things,” she told me as a jeweler scratched her cup with a lime to see what it was really made of. Paolini said she has already sold her earrings, rings and bracelets to pay for food and repairs for her home.
The jeweler informed Paolini that her cups aren’t made of silver, and refused to pay anything for them. But he offered Paolini’s daughter $2 for a silver bracelet adorned with tiny hearts—a gift she got for her 15th birthday.
The girl took the money without much hesitation, and showed me a 12-inch long lock of her hair that she initially chopped off to donate to a cancer charity, but now hopes to sell to a local wigmaker.
“We are living through critical times,” Mrs. Paolini said. “I always try to be positive, but 2017 is going to be very tough on lots of people.”