CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan security forces have deported hundreds of Colombians as part of a security offensive along the border that is ratcheting up tensions between the two neighbors.
Gov. Jose Gregorio Vielma Mora of Tachira state said Monday that 1,012 Colombians living in Venezuela illegally had been handed over to Colombian authorities as a result of a now five-day crackdown against smugglers and criminal gangs operating along the border.
President Nicolas Maduro last week closed a major crossing between the two countries and declared a state of emergency in several western cities after three army officers were shot and wounded by gunmen he said belonged to paramilitary gangs operating from Colombia. While the assailants have not been caught, the incident touched a nerve with supporters of Maduro's socialist administration, who increasingly have placed blame for rampant crime and widespread shortages on Colombians.
As part of the state of emergency, Maduro deployed some 1,500 extra troops to the border to search house-by-house for smugglers who thrive on purchasing goods in Venezuela at low prices and reselling them across the border for huge profits.
The number deported in recent days is now more than half the 1,772 people expelled last year from Venezuela, according to Colombian statistics, and has overwhelmed a government-built shelter in the border city of Cucuta designed to provide assistance to returning nationals.
Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin, a former ambassador to Venezuela, traveled to the border Monday to oversee humanitarian efforts amid reports from deportees that families had been broken up and their homes bulldozed as part of the dragnet.
"We're convinced that closing the border isn't how we fight contraband," Holguin said.
Maduro, in a rare press conference Monday, said the normally busy Simon Bolivar international bridge would remain closed and restrictions possibly extended to other transit crossings until both countries re-established "a minimum of coexistence."
He said authorities had identified six men behind the attack on the three army officers last week, two of whom are Venezuelan, and then proceeded to link their alleged crimes to former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a favorite target he called a "nefarious paramilitary boss."
"Venezuela won't tolerate this anymore," said Maduro.
Vielma Mora, the Venezuelan governor, denied reports of abuses, which The Associated Press was unable to verify. He said all those deported were treated with respect.
He also criticized Colombian authorities for not doing enough to bring order to the porous 1,400-mile (2,250-kilometer) border, adding that earlier Monday troops had raided a warehouse containing 50 metric tons of food ready to be smuggled across the border. "If Colombian authorities did their part to contain the contraband and smuggling of products out of Venezuela the reality would be different," he said.
Uribe, a fierce critic of Maduro, traveled Monday to Cucuta to express "solidarity with those mistreated by the dictator."
A Colombian official closely following the crisis said that while the situation was tense there was little to suggest Venezuelan authorities' treatment of the deportees violated international conventions. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly, said most of the deportees were living without permission in Venezuela and likely involved in contraband activities.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said Maduro's dramatic actions would hurt communities on both sides of the border. An estimated 5 million Colombians live in Venezuela, many of them without permission, and the flow of people and goods across the border has been a fixture of daily life for decades, changing direction with the shifting fortunes of each nation's economy.
Foreign ministers from both countries are expected to meet Wednesday in Cartagena, Colombia in a bid to resolve the crisis.
Opponents of Maduro's administration have denounced the mobilization of troops as an attempt to distract attention from a deep economic crisis ahead of key legislative elections in December that they are favored to win by a landslide.
Under the state of emergency declared in five western cities, authorities have ordered a 60-day suspension of constitutionally protected rights to protest, carry weapons and move freely. Authorities also may legally intercept communications. Officials maintain they will only use the extraordinary powers to protect communities and will work to keep disruptions of daily life to a minimum.
As part of a government crackdown against contraband, the government over the past year had already ordered nighttime closure of the border in Tachira, deployed more troops and toughened jail sentences for smuggling.
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