CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro vowed to extend a crackdown on illegal migrants from neighboring Colombia he blames for rampant crime and widespread shortages, while authorities across the border struggled to attend to droves of returning deportees.
Tensions between the South American countries spiked to their highest level in years after Venezuela closed a major border crossing last week and declared a state of emergency in several western cities. The dramatic action was triggered by the shooting of three army officers by gunmen Maduro claimed belonged to paramilitary gangs beholden to former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
While the assailants have not been caught, the incident led Maduro to order the deportation of some 1,000 Colombians living illegally in Venezuela.
In a press conference on Monday, Maduro said the normally busy Simón Bolívar international bridge would remain closed, and restrictions possibly extended to other transit crossings, until Colombian authorities do their part to bring order to the porous, 1,400-mile border.
"Venezuela won't tolerate this anymore," said a visibly angry Maduro, who dedicated a large share of the two-hour press conference to upbraiding Uribe, calling him a "nefarious paramilitary boss" and "assassin."
Even as Maduro stepped up his verbal attacks, authorities across the border were struggling to help the Colombians driven from their homes in Venezuela.
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 Cúcuta designed to provide assistance to returning nationals.
Colombian Foreign Minister María Angela Holguín oversaw humanitarian efforts in Cúcuta on Monday amid reports from deportees that families had been broken up and videos circulated on social media showing homes being bulldozed as part of the dragnet.
Her boss, President Juan Manuel Santos, has criticized the border closing, saying it hurts communities on both sides, and vowed to spare no effort to stand up for the rights of Colombians wherever in the world they reside.
Holguín and her Venezuelan counterpart are scheduled to meet Wednesday in Cartagena, Colombia, in a bid to end the crisis.
Violence stemming from Colombia's civil conflict and the presence of drug-trafficking gangs has long plagued the border between the two countries. But as the distortions in Venezuela's troubled economy have worsened, smuggling of goods purchased in Venezuela at ultra-low prices and resold for huge profits across the border has become rampant, further emptying already barren supermarket shelves.
As part of the state of emergency, Maduro deployed some 1,500 extra troops to Táchira state to search door-by-door for paramilitaries he blames for the shooting of the army officers while they were patrolling for smugglers.
In San Antonio del Táchira, a town straddling the river separating the two countries, searched homes were spray painted in blue with the letter "R," for reviewed.
Maduro said those expelled were treated with respect, adding that he is a good friend of Colombians.
An estimated 5 million Colombians live in Venezuela 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.
Opponents of Maduro's administration have denounced the security offensive 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.
They were joined in their criticism by Uribe, who addressed a rally Monday night of supporters at the border in Cucuta to express "solidarity with those mistreated by the dictator."
Under the state of emergency declared in six 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.
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