World

Desperation mounts as 1,000 Colombians flee Venezuela amid border dispute

Colombians carrying their possessions on their backs waded across a knee-deep river back into their homeland, fleeing a Venezuelan crackdown on illegal migrants and smugglers that has generated an increasingly angry dispute between the South American neighbors.

The dramatic scene came ahead of a meeting Wednesday between the nations' foreign ministers to cool tensions that spiked after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government closed a major border crossing last week, declared a state of emergency in six western cities and deported more than 1,000 Colombian migrants it blamed for rampant crime and widespread shortages.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on Tuesday delivered his strongest rebuke yet of Maduro's actions since the crisis began.

"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. "They recall the bitterest episodes in history that can't be repeated."

Maduro said he was acting to defend residents along the border after gunmen he 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 the normally busy Simon Bolivar international bridge closed, and possibly extend restrictions to other transit crossings, until Colombian authorities do their part to bring order to the porous, 1,400-mile (2,200 kilometer) border, an area long plagued by violence and drug-trafficking.

On Tuesday, more than 100 Colombians, many of whom have lived in Venezuela for years, said they were abandoning their cinder block homes in a riverside shantytown community known as "La Invasion" — the Invasion — after they said they were given 72 hours to pack up and leave by Venezuela's army.

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."

According to some reports, those who have crossed the border a living in makeshift tents.

An estimated 5 million Colombians live in Venezuela, many of them displaced years ago by Colombia's half-century civil conflict. Although their homeland is much safer now, deep roots and the higher cost of living in Colombia has dissuaded many among the poor from returning despite mounting economic woes such as widespread shortages and triple-digit inflation.

Venezuela says more than 1,000 people have been deported in the past week, more than half the 1,772 people expelled last year, according to Colombian statistics. Those returning with no place to go have overwhelmed five government-run shelters in and around the border city of Cucuta to provide temporary sleeping quarters and channel donations of clothes and food to returning nationals.

Colombia's Ombudsman said it had registered 207 accounts of mistreatment by deportees, the most frequent forced removal from one's homes but also complaints that Venezuelan authorities broke up families and seized their belongings.

Maduro had denied security forces have used excessive force and says that all those expelled are being treated with respect, adding that he is a good friend of Colombians.

He said he was forced to act to protect communities from violent mafias that smuggle goods purchased in Venezuela at ultra-low prices and resell them for huge profits across the border, further emptying already barren supermarket shelves.

Critics in Venezuela and Colombia have said the actions are an attempt by Maduro to distract Venezuelans from the severe economic crises facing his oil-rich country, which is troubled by soaring inflation and empty supermarket shelves.

As mandated by the constitution, the pro-government National Assembly approved the state of emergency decreed by Maduro during a special session Tuesday held near the border. For the next 60 days, constitutional guarantees such as the right to protest, carry weapons or move freely will be restricted, although officials have gone to great lengths to say they are using the extraordinary 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, brushing aside human rights concerns and claims by critics that the closure of the border is a ploy to influence upcoming congressional elections.

"Colombia needs to take care of its own problems," he said.

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