John Otis

Venezuela's worst economic meltdown in history has had a huge impact on neighboring Colombia, where hospitals, schools and welfare agencies are dealing with 2 million Venezuelan refugees. But the crisis has produced at least one silver lining for Colombia: the curtailing of gasoline smuggling.

It's been a rough two days for former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, one of the country's most influential politicians.

Uribe has gone from kingmaker to detainee after the country's Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered that he be placed under house arrest. Then, on Wednesday, Colombian media reported that he had tested positive for the coronavirus.

It wasn't long ago that Nicolás Maduro's days as the Venezuelan president appeared to be numbered.

The authoritarian leader had overseen his country's worst economic meltdown in history and was facing crippling U.S. sanctions targeting the vital oil industry. Amid chronic food shortages, millions of Venezuelans fled the country.

In Colombia, a spike in coronavirus cases has forced many towns and cities that had been reopening — including Bogotá and Medellín — to issue new lockdown orders. That's making life especially difficult for poor people who need to work in order to eat.

After imposing one of the tightest coronavirus lockdowns in Latin America, Colombia is now searching for ways to jump-start its economy. One experiment is a series of tax-free shopping days, but critics fear they could turn out to be super-spreader events.

At a time when the country is facing a spike in COVID-19 cases, urging Colombians to flock to stores and malls "sends an erroneous message," said Bogotá Mayor Claudia López.

With nearly 40,000 deaths, Brazil has registered the world's third-highest COVID-19 death toll and the second-highest confirmed caseload. Its neighbors fear the disease is spilling across Brazil's borders.

With COVID-19 deaths spiking in many Latin American countries, Colombia — which has confirmed more than 23,000 cases and 776 deaths — is extending its nationwide lockdown until the end of this month. That has meant more hardship for people living hand to mouth.

So some desperate Colombians have been sending out an eye-catching SOS — with encouragement from local politicians.

It didn't take long for Huber, a former Marxist guerrilla, to give up on peace.

A former member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, Huber disarmed under the country's 2016 peace treaty. But he says the government failed to help former fighters transition to civilian life and that many have been killed.

All this prompted Huber, who asked to be identified only by his first name, and other disgruntled ex-rebels to take up arms once again.

Nearly 2 million Venezuelans fled to Colombia in recent years to escape their country's devastating economic crisis and rebuild their lives. But Colombia's coronavirus lockdown has thrown many of these newcomers out of work, and some are now trying to get home — by any means necessary.

Among them is Yordelis García. Unlike some of the returning migrants, she and her family can't afford bus fare. So they've started walking from Bogotá, the Colombian capital, to the Venezuelan border some 450 miles away.

Ecuador has one of the highest rates of COVID-19 in all of Latin America – with 10,128 cases and 507 deaths in a country of just 17 million people.

But the situation may be far worse than what the official numbers show. In fact, one Ecuadorian official says it appears that thousands more people may have died of the disease than his government is reporting.

An acoustic folk music developed by his enslaved ancestors along Colombia's Pacific coast helped to keep John Jairo Cortez on the straight and narrow.

While growing up in the crime-ridden town of Tumaco, cocaine smugglers killed his father and Cortez says he was "tempted" to join a rival gang to avenge the murder. Instead, he was lured into another local industry: currulao.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Before the country of Colombia largely shut down due to the coronavirus, reporter John Otis visited a town there notorious as a shipping point for cocaine. As John discovered, though, it's also home to a hidden treasure.

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Ecuador is one of the smallest countries in South America but it is dealing with one of the region's worst outbreaks of COVID-19, with more than 3,100 identified infections and 120 deaths.

The epicenter of the country's outbreak is the Pacific port city of Guayaquil, where bodies are lying in the streets.

Guayaquil has registered about half of all Ecuador's coronavirus cases and patients have overwhelmed the city's hospitals. In addition, a nationwide curfew and bureaucratic red tape have hindered the work of undertakers.

Álvaro Callama is struggling to survive an economic double whammy.

A Venezuelan electrician, he fled his homeland two years ago amid a devastating economic crisis that left him too poor to buy food. He moved to neighboring Colombia, where Callama — nothing if not resourceful — worked three jobs: picking fruit, laying bricks and guiding tourists on horseback rides.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It wasn't a coup attempt.

But when soldiers briefly occupied El Salvador's congress this month to intimidate lawmakers into passing an anti-crime bill, the scene recalled one of Latin America's darkest eras: In the 1970s and 1980s, much of the region was ruled by abusive military dictators.

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Wearing headphones and speaking into a microphone, Mónica Córdoba conducts an interview at a newly opened public radio station in the northern Colombian town of Ituango. It's her first formal job in radio, but she's comfortable in the studio.

On the green slopes of the Andes Mountains in northern Colombia, farmers are raising chickens, goats and cows and tending to corn crops. It's a striking change from their previous occupation: battling government troops as members of a Marxist guerrilla group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC.

Thousands of guerrillas laid down their weapons under an historic 2016 peace agreement that ended 52 years of fighting. Among its many provisions is one requiring that the government provide protection from reprisals to ex-FARC fighters.

Guides hand out knee-high rubber boots before leading visitors on hikes around Gorgona National Park, an island 21 miles off Colombia's Pacific coast. The boots provide traction in the mud — and protection from poisonous snakes.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The latest country shaken by anti-government demonstrations is Colombia. Days of protests have been serious enough that President Ivan Duque says he will meet the protesters today. Reporter John Otis has more.

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Bolivia is better known for snow-capped mountains than sun-drenched vineyards, but the landlocked South American nation is starting to turn heads for award-winning wine.

After he was reelected to a third term in 2014, President Evo Morales attended a symbolic swearing-in ceremony at the ancient ruins of Tiwanaku in western Bolivia, wearing an embroidered gown and headdress of an Incan emperor.

Now, as Bolivia's first president of Indigenous descent attempts to win a fourth consecutive term in the Oct. 20 election, critics contend that Morales is acting more like an emperor than a president.

Six volunteer firefighters use machetes to cut a path through the vines and underbrush of the Chiquitano forest in Bolivia's eastern lowlands. They're approaching the leading edge of a fire that's been burning for hours.

They attempt to smother it with shovelfuls of dirt and water they carry on their backs in tanks normally used to fumigate crops. But the smoke is getting thicker, the heat stronger and swirling winds push the flames forward. Realizing they are overmatched, José Zapata, the only trained firefighter among the group, orders his men to pull out.

Patricia Santiago and her family were forced to flee their home near Colombia's Caribbean coast after complaining about neighborhood dope dealers who, in turn, threatened to kill them. But in an odd twist, Santiago now works in the drug trade — at a medical marijuana facility.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Jesús Parra spent four years as a police officer in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas. He patrolled the streets, provided security at events and even guarded political prisoners. Now, he parks cars at a funeral home for spare change in the Colombian city of Cúcuta.

This is not what Parra, 27, had in mind when he deserted the police force and sneaked across the Colombian border in March.

At a primary school in a middle-class neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, the students' parents play an outsize role.

Gasoline shortages have collapsed public transportation, making it hard for teachers to get to work. Others skip class to scrounge for food and medicine, both of which are in short supply in Venezuela. Due to low salaries, some teachers have quit.

That's why Karen Benini, the mother of a sixth-grader, often steps in to substitute even though she lacks a teacher's certificate.

Auri Chirinos keeps close watch over her 2-year-old twin daughters as she walks with them through La Vela de Coro, a fishing town on Venezuela's Caribbean coast. She's extremely protective of the toddlers — and for good reason.

She recently lost her eldest daughter, who drowned while trying to reach the island of Curaçao.

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