Colombians flee Venezuela amid crackdown on border
Scores of Colombians packed their belongings into suitcases and prepared for an army escort out of Venezuela on Wednesday, fleeing a crackdown on undocumented migrants and smugglers that is fueling an angry dispute between the South American neighbors.
The exodus came as the two nations’ foreign ministers met in Colombia to try to cool tensions roused when Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro closed a major border crossing, declared a state of emergency in six western cities and deported more than 1,000 Colombian migrants.
While some 5 million Colombians live in Venezuela, the crackdown has focused on a few towns near the border where Maduro blames migrant gangs for rampant crime and smuggling that has caused widespread shortages.
More than 100 Colombians fled the border town of San Antonio del Tachira on Tuesday by wading across a knee-deep river with their possessions — even including some doors — on their backs.
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.
Across the border, the stream of returning immigrants was beginning to overrun available emergency housing, and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was stepping up his denunciations of Venezuela’s actions.
“Raiding homes, removing people by force, separating families, not letting them remove the few goods they own and marking their homes for demolition are totally unacceptable practices,” Santos said Tuesday. “They recall the bitterest episodes in history that can’t be repeated.”
Maduro fired back by saying that Venezuelans are unfairly paying the price for Colombia’s disregard of its poor and he denied mistreatment of the migrants.
“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.
The crisis along the border was triggered a week ago when gun- men 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, 2,200-kilometer border.
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, and all Venezuelans who live there will be moved to government housing.
With makeshift pedestrian bridges between the two countries destroyed as part of a weeklong security offensive, police from Colombia helped migrants, including children and the elderly, ford the 10-meter-wide Tachira River with mattresses, TVs and kitchen appliances slung across their backs and shoulders. Left behind were homes spray-painted in blue by security forces with the letter “R,” for reviewed, while those marked with a “D” are believed to be slated for demolition.
“People are carrying everything they can,” said a weeping Virgelida Serrano, a 60-year-old seamstress who has lived in Venezuela for more than a decade. “We’re going to Colombia to see what help the government gives us.”
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, although officials say they are using the powers sparingly.
“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.”