Venezuelans on Mopeds Revolutionize D.C.’s Delivery Scene!

by Renee Koch

It’s 4 p.m., and the corner of 14th and Irving streets NW in D.C. brims with activity. Vendors fervently tout their offerings — “mango, mango, mango fresco” and “tenemos tacos” — against a din of hip-hop, the occasional siren, and a preacher’s voice booming through a loudspeaker. Nearby, some 20 moped drivers sit parked in a line, wedged behind a bike lane and stalls selling coconuts and Ethiopian barbecue. Some sip Chick-fil-A milkshakes or listen to music as they wait for their phones to ping: the welcome sound of a hungry customer ordering delivery.

The drivers have become a fixture on this corner in Columbia Heights, part of a new wave of Venezuelan immigrants who have entered the capital’s food delivery industry and filled the city’s streets with mopeds. Many are among the nearly 8 million people who have fled Venezuela since 2014, as the country faces a political, economic, and humanitarian crisis. While most have set down roots across Latin America, the number of migrants trekking north to the United States has soared in recent years. They’ve also brought a food delivery system that’s helped them survive in other countries.

The Washington Post spoke with more than 15 Venezuelan moped drivers about their growing, not-so-underground economy. Delivering food for companies like DoorDash and Uber has become a lifeline for many of D.C.’s Venezuelans, some of whom were among the more than 13,000 migrants Republican governors have bused to the city since 2022. As they pursue the months-long process of claiming asylum and applying for work permits, many immigrants have leaned on food delivery to stay afloat financially.

For most, food delivery offers far more autonomy over their schedules and pay than other industries. But they acknowledged numerous hurdles — for instance, the lack of access to health insurance, which heightens the financial risks of any accident. Expenses such as “renting” food-delivery accounts and financing mopeds add to their burdens. And while some drivers say that their ability to deliver food quickly has been praised by customers and restaurants, some D.C. residents have publicly expressed frustration at what they say is erratic and unsafe behavior on the mopeds.

Yonatan Colmenarez, a 31-year-old Venezuelan immigrant, has made a living as a moped delivery driver since February. Today, he’s been up since sunrise, but the day has been slow. Around 4:10 p.m., he gets a notification from his Uber Eats account. It takes Colmenarez a little over three minutes to hop on his moped and grab the order at Lou’s City Bar about a block away. By 4:21 p.m., he’s carefully placed the food in front of a resident’s door. Colmenarez has made $3 on the trip, adding to the $90 he has gathered by riding all over Washington. But he’ll be out on the street until midnight — or, at least, until he makes his daily goal of $200.

“I’m working really hard to contribute to this country that opened its doors to us,” Colmenarez said in Spanish. “At the end of the day, it’s a job many Americans don’t want to do, but I do it gladly because I want to show that I appreciate being here and that most of us are good people. After all it took to arrive, being in the United States is truly a blessing from God.”

Though their paths in the United States differ, many of the Venezuelans’ stories begin the same way: Desperation and a hope for a brighter future that propels them to embark on a perilous journey north — one often marked by death. Colmenarez was once a member of the Venezuelan army. Over time, he became disenchanted by the country’s authoritarian government and how years of mismanagement had resulted in families barely scraping by and struggling to feed their children. In 2016, he defected to Colombia. For seven years, he dabbled in taxi driving, food delivery, and document processing — a skill he acquired while working at Venezuela’s civil registry agency. In 2023, Colombia’s low salaries, inflation, and lack of jobs pushed him to venture to the United States.

He left last April with $228 in his pocket, a small backpack, and one big prayer: “I said, ‘Lord, if it’s your will, someday you’ll let me arrive. And if I do, I just ask that you help me save enough to buy a house in my country — whatever else you give me ahead will be blessings.’” Colmenarez said he nearly died after crossing a treacherous swath of jungle between Colombia and Panama, known as the Darién Gap. He ran out of money and resorted to drinking from puddles and rivers, which gave him a severe infection.

By May 1, Colmenarez had crossed — mostly by foot — through Panama, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, where he turned himself in to U.S. officials in Ciudad Juárez. After he was processed and released on parole some 13 days later, a friend helped him pay for a flight to D.C. He spent his first night on the street, perched on a park bench and shivering from the cold.

The moped deliveries in D.C. began about two years ago, according to the drivers, with three Venezuelan immigrants and one Colombian. Since then, the trade has evolved into a cottage industry fostered by word-of-mouth recommendations and mutual trust. The drivers share advice, from navigating the labyrinth of popular eateries to establishing online bank accounts with minimal verification. Many buy their mopeds from Facebook Marketplace, local stores, or from one man who sells them out of a white van near a Panda Express in Columbia Heights.

After arriving in D.C., Colmenarez found himself a home in one of the city’s shelters and eventually gained work authorization. He decided to take up moped deliveries after hearing about them from a friend, figuring that would be a better option than juggling work at a construction company in Virginia during the day and a midnight shift at McDonald’s.

In February, he gathered $300 to pay the first weekly installment for a $1,500 moped from a Colombian man who had imported the vehicles from New York City, where immigrants are similarly working as delivery drivers. He opened an Uber Eats account and set up a schedule: delivering from 7 a.m. to about 3 p.m., resting at 4 p.m., a slow period the drivers call “la hora muerta,” and heading back out from 5 p.m. to midnight, six days a week.

Now, Colmenarez makes about $4,000 each month — $700 of which he sends to his wife and three children, who live in a home he bought for them in Venezuela with his earnings, “just like I asked God for.” Others in the business said they earn about the same amount as Colmenarez, though much depends on the time they put in and the tips they receive. The earnings have allowed many to afford rent in neighborhoods across the region, especially in Maryland, where most of the drivers said they live. Some have also bought cars or higher-quality mopeds. Others help their families and take English lessons at night.

The job comes with challenges: The migrants work rain or shine and in snow, ice, and wind. Their mopeds have occasionally been stolen — but some said that, instead of reporting it to police, they try to gather enough money to buy another bike. And car drivers who aren’t used to mopeds on the streets seemingly “just throw themselves at us,” said Raibi González, 32.

Many migrants without work permits “rent” Uber Eats or DoorDash accounts from relatives or friends, often for a weekly fee of $100 to $150. Spokespeople for Uber and DoorDash said they have safeguards in place to try to ensure that everyone using their platforms is who they say they are. Both said anyone using an account fraudulently will be removed from the app.

Several drivers said D.C. police have mostly left them alone, but they fear that any misstep could cause police to crack down on unregistered mopeds, like they’ve done in New York City. City officials from the Office of Migrant Services and the Highway Safety Office have been meeting with the drivers and their vendors to educate them about local traffic rules.

“Fortunately, we have seen no uptick in crashes involving these devices, and we want it to stay that way,” Deputy Mayor for Operations and Infrastructure Keith Anderson said in a statement.

To avoid confrontations with other residents or police, some drivers are seeking to formalize their work with the city. They’ve proposed having a delimited area where they can park without disturbing traffic; organizing more courses on traffic rules; wearing uniforms that highlight them as delivery drivers; and getting help registering their mopeds — a process that requires identification documents, such as a passport, that are hard to come by in Venezuela and that many migrants don’t have.

D.C. law requires drivers to register mopeds with more than 55 cubic centimeters of motor power. That means many of the delivery workers’ vehicles should be registered, said council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), who represents Columbia Heights and chairs the committee overseeing the regulation of for-hire vehicles. Registrations of motor-driven cycles, a category that includes mopeds, more than doubled last year, from 54 in 2022 to 143 in 2023, according to the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles.

Nadaeu said she supports clarifying the registration rules and educating recent immigrants about the requirements. She added that she arranged for a traffic control officer at 14th and Irving streets NW to designate an area where the mopeds can park without blocking traffic.

“As we continue to redesign our streets, we need to be thinking about how to incorporate these vehicles and their uses,” Nadeau said.

The more the city supports the drivers, the better, said Abel Nuñez, executive director of the local immigration advocacy group CARECEN. More organization, he said, could help new immigrants safely make a living without relying on government subsidies.

“It’s a little messy right now, but it has incredible potential to be a win-win for everyone,” Nuñez said.

Andy Brown, owner of the popular local chain Andy’s Pizza, mostly sees the messiness. He said he has asked delivery apps not to send moped drivers to his restaurants and directs his staff to turn drivers away if they arrive on the bikes anyway.

Many customers have complained about pizzas being cold after arriving via moped, with air rushing into the box during transit, he said. While Brown appreciates that food delivery enables recent immigrants to work, he’s concerned about the impact on his business.

“There are pros and cons,” he said. “There just are.”

Every morning, Colmenarez repeats the same mantra: “Be an eagle.” It’s a phrase he borrowed from an interview with a taxi driver he saw online, which, in essence, means going the extra mile for the job.

For Colmenarez, that means meticulously choosing his outfit, spraying cologne before leaving, and constantly communicating with his customers — something that, he said, has enabled him to achieve Uber’s highest status tier for drivers, Diamond. But it’s not always easy: There’s usually a language barrier. And he grieves the distance from his family.

“I’ve had to cry alone because there are moments when one gets depressed,” he said. “But then, you say, ‘Let’s go, you can find a way’ — that is, instead of doing bad things, always trying to find a way to make a difference.”

Colmenarez returns to the silver linings: The city he gets to explore. The beauty of the sun as it sets over historic monuments. His children’s smiles when they FaceTime. The people he feeds every time his phone pings — whether they’re in the Russell Senate Office Building, the White House, a police station, or a random apartment building.

“I’ve made it this far in the American Dream,” Colmenarez said.

For some, that dream means grinding as delivery drivers for as long as there’s appetite in the city. Others hope to land better jobs or make enough money to have their families join them in the United States.

“Or you know what? Maybe starting a podcast or becoming the owner of the same food franchises we come to every day to pick up orders,” said Julio Bello, 28. “The sky is the limit.”


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