Venezuela, Colombia vow more cooperation in border dispute

AP News
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Posted: Aug 26, 2015 10:50 PM
Venezuela, Colombia vow more cooperation in border dispute

CARTAGENA, Colombia (AP) — The foreign ministers of Colombia and Venezuela promised to increase cooperation Wednesday following talks to ease heightened tensions caused by the closure of a major border crossing and a weeklong crackdown on Colombian migrants and smugglers.

Diplomats left the meeting in this Caribbean coastal resort without announcing a decision to re-open the border crossing or end the deportations from Venezuela, only saying that defense officials from the two countries would talk in the coming days to form a joint plan for border security.

Meanwhile, in the Colombian city of Cucuta, residents complained of long gas lines as Venezuela's security offensive cuts off trade, legal and otherwise, between the two nations.

Across the border, scores of Colombians packed their belongings into suitcases and prepared for an army escort out of Venezuela, joining the estimated 1,000 of their compatriots who have already been deported.

Donamaris Ramirez, the mayor of Cucuta, says he plans to order gas stations to remain open 24 hours to attend to demand normally met by curbside smugglers who purchase gasoline in Venezuela at less than a penny a gallon and resell it for huge profits in Colombia.

With two main border crossings closed, the underground economy has come to a halt, satisfying Venezuelan officials who have long blamed transnational mafias for widespread shortages but also jeopardizing the livelihood of tens of thousands of poor Colombians who depend on the black market.

On Tuesday, a group of 100 Colombians fled the border town of San Antonio del Tachira by wading across a knee-deep river with their possession, everything from TVs to doors, slung across their backs.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos offered to help returning Colombians find work during a visit Wednesday to an emergency shelter in Cucuta overrun with deportees, and promised deported citizens a subsidy of about $80 to help them land on their feet.

Earlier, in a speech in Bogota, he ran through a series of economic and crime statistics, everything from projections Venezuela's economy will shrink 7 percent this year to widespread shortages comparable to those found in war zones like Syria, in a sharp retort to the aggressive rhetoric coming from Caracas in recent days

"Venezuela's problems are made in Venezuela, they're not made in Colombia or other parts of the world," Santos told a forum of former presidents from around the world.

While some 5 million Colombians live in Venezuela, the security offensive has focused on a few towns near the border where Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro blames migrant gangs for rampant crime and smuggling that has caused widespread shortages.

The crisis was triggered a week ago when gunmen Maduro claimed were paramilitaries linked to former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe shot and wounded three army officers on an anti-smuggling patrol.

The socialist leader has vowed to keep two normally busy international bridges closed, and possibly extend restrictions to other transit crossings until Colombian authorities help bring order to the porous, 1,400-mile (2,200 kilometer) border. A state of emergency allowing the government to restrict peoples' movement for up to 60 days has been declared in six cities.

Venezuelan soldiers blocked the river crossing on Wednesday morning, but were helping Colombian residents of a slum that is slated for demolition leave Venezuela via a legal bridge crossing.

A group of about 300 Colombians staged a protest Wednesday in front of Venezuela's consulate in Bogota.

Maduro has angrily denied the denunciations of mistreatment, saying that Venezuelans are unfairly paying the price for Colombia's disregard of its poor.

"Santos has the gall today to seek respect for Colombians. Who is treating Colombians with disrespect? Those that expel them from their country, deny them work and housing and don't provide education?" Maduro said on state TV late Tuesday.

The Colombians who abandoned their cinder block homes Tuesday in a riverside shantytown community known as La Invasion — "the Invasion" — said they were given 72 hours to pack up and leave by Venezuela's army. Officials say the slum has become a haven for paramilitaries and contraband traffickers.

In recent decades, many Colombians have moved to Venezuela, either fleeing from conflict or seeking better opportunities in an oil rich country that was long the wealthier of the two.

Critics have accused Maduro of trying to distract Venezuelans from soaring inflation and empty supermarket shelves.

Under the state of emergency, constitutional guarantees such as the right to protest, carry weapons or move freely will be restricted for 60 days.

"I'm sorry if this is creating a humanitarian crisis in Cucuta, but we are only responsible for protecting people who are Venezuelan," National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello said. "Colombia needs to take care of its own problems."

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AP writers Fabiola Sanchez contributed from Caracas, Yhoger Contreras from San Antonio del Tachira and Cesar Garcia and Libardo Cardona from Bogota, Colombia

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This story has been corrected to show that the state of emergency was declared in six cities, not states.