Sao Paulo―Brazilian tycoon Carlos Wizard Martins has never set foot in Venezuela. But the Mormon businessman is on a mission from God to help thousands of desperate migrants crossing the border to restart their lives.
At 62 and nearing retirement from businesses including Taco Bell and Mundo Verde that have turned him into a self-described billionaire, Martins is living on the Brazil-Venezuela border where he runs a volunteer network assisting migrants settle in other parts of Brazil.
“I often feel like an employee in a call center,” Martins tells AFP during a recent business trip to Sao Paulo, smiling as he shows the WhatsApp chat group he uses to coordinate with other volunteers.
Martins and his wife arrived in Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima state, in August 2018 on a mission from the Mormon Church to help Venezuelan migrants start over in Brazil.
So far, Martins and his team have helped relocate 3,000 migrants from Roraima to other states offering more job opportunities.
“We did it without spending a cent,” he says.
A similar government-run program has helped more than 8,700 migrants since February 2018.
Like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, Martins studies the profile of new arrivals to match them with the most suitable location in Brazil.
Migrants receive assistance such as food, clothing and a place to stay until they find work. In 90 percent of cases this happens within two months, he says.
The eldest of seven children of a driver and a seamstress, Martins knows what it is like to arrive in another country with nothing -- at 17 he went to live in the United States for two years.
He says he is often criticized for helping Venezuelan migrants instead of impoverished Brazilians.
To critics, he says: “You can’t lose perspective. The poor have always existed and will always exist, but a refugee arriving here with only the clothes on their back, it’s a situation of high vulnerability.”
More than 120,000 Venezuelan migrants are estimated to be living in Brazil. Many more have crossed the border and moved to other countries since 2016 when Venezuela’s economic crisis deepened.
The influx has transformed Pacaraima and Boa Vista, which are the nearest cities to the border and have a combined population of nearly 300,000. Some 7,000 migrants are staying in 13 shelters, while thousands more sleep on the street.
To accelerate the relocation process, Martins has struck agreements with three airlines to fill unsold seats on domestic flights from Boa Vista with migrants.
Martins, who made a chunk of his fortune from the sale of his language schools business, says he has received a lesson in humility during his mission, which ends in June 2020.
Unknown to many Brazilians in Boa Vista, Martins is often recognized by Venezuelan migrants who call him “Brother Carlos.”
“He is a very generous man, it’s impressive how he is able to make you feel that everything will be ok,” says Alfredo Munoz, a former security guard in the Venezuelan capital Caracas who now lives in Sao Paulo with his wife and two children thanks to Martins’ network.
Martins insists the relocation program cannot be based on handouts, a mindset he says is rooted in the Venezuelans he helps.
“They never turn off the lights because in Venezuela they didn’t pay for it and they don’t see how much it cost,” he explains.
“It’s the same for water or gas ... Venezuela is a welfare state.”
Martins says he feels “satisfied” with what he and his volunteers have achieved so far, but he hopes the recent involvement of other religious faiths will help expand the network.
“If one church housed 3,000 people, with 10 we would empty the shelters,” he says.