By Anggy Polanco
LA PARADA, Colombia (Reuters) - Women from crisis-hit Venezuela are crossing the border in droves and selling their hair in a Colombian border town in order to afford scarce basic necessities such as food, diapers or medicines.
The trend, which has taken off in recent weeks, is another sign of the oil-rich country's deepening crisis amid shortages and spiraling inflation that have millions skipping meals and forgoing costly medical treatment.
Dozens of middlemen, known as "draggers," stand on a bridge linking San Antonio, Venezuela, to Colombia's La Parada, calling out: "We buy hair!"
Some 200 women a day are taking up their offer at one of seven makeshift stands dotting La Parada, according to estimates from five middlemen. The locks are then sold as extensions in the western Colombian city of Cali.
Celina Gonzales, a 45-year-old street vendor, stood in line for an hour to sell her mid-length brown hair for 60,000 Colombian pesos, or about $20 - the equivalent of a monthly minimum wage and food tickets back home.
"I suffer arthritis and I need to buy medicine. This won't be much, but at least I can buy painkillers," said Gonzales, who had not told her family what she was doing.
Venezuela's leftist government blames the crisis on businessmen waging an "economic war" to sabotage it. The Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
'THEY GO BUY FOOD'
As the economy teeters under a third year of recession, Venezuelans are increasingly ending up empty-handed despite long lines for heavily-subsidized food. Non-subsidized food is far too expensive, with a bag of rice sometimes costing around a tenth of monthly earnings.
Many are forced to survive on starches or forage through garbage for scraps. In recent months, hundreds have drifted across to Colombia to buy groceries.
In the border towns, the hair business is booming.
"I can take off volume, cut strands here and there or make a ponytail and cut all the hair," explained Jenifer Nino, 31, a so-called dragger, as she stood next to informal hair salons housed on street corners, sidewalks and even a tire store.
"Most of the women come here with little kids and after cutting their hair they go buy food," Nino added.
Some women complain the haircuts are sloppy and end up regretting the decision, while others are turned away.
Maribel, a poor woman from Venezuela's Tachira state traveled to Colombia after her brother told her about the hair business.
"I'm here because I have nothing to eat," she said, but was later rebuffed because her hair was too short and thin.
(Writing by Alexandra Ulmer, editing by G Crosse)