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.”

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