John Otis

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.

Amid the worst economic meltdown in Venezuela's history — a crisis that has forced thousands of businesses to shut their doors — one unlikely product is flying off the shelves: the equivalent of Venezuelan tequila.

Called cocuy, the alcoholic beverage was first produced by indigenous groups 500 years ago. It has long been stigmatized as moonshine for drunks and poor people. But with hyperinflation driving up the cost of beer, wine and conventional spirits, many Venezuelans are turning to this drink of their ancestors, which is easier on the pocketbook.

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.

At a soup kitchen in the western Venezuelan city of Maracaibo, hungry and bedraggled men, women and children line up for free lunch. But it's meager fare: They each get a bottle of milk and a few scoops of rice mixed with eggs and vegetables.

Just a few years ago, the lunch program, which is run by the Catholic Church, provided full meals with meat and chicken, as well as fruit juice and even dessert. But amid a deep economic depression and an outbreak of looting in the city, dozens of Maracaibo businesses that used to donate food have closed down.

In the northeast corner of Colombia, a few miles from the Venezuelan border, rows of khaki-colored tents rise from the desert sand. Filled with Venezuelans escaping economic disaster back home, the tents make up Colombia's first refugee camp near the border.

The tunnel leading to Colombia's most famous church feels more like a byway into the bowels of the earth. It's dark and dank, with a faint smell of sulfur in the air. But after a few hundred yards, the shaft gradually widens to reveal Roman Catholic icons, like the Stations of the Cross and Archangel Gabriel.

And they're all carved out of salt.