CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelan security forces have deported hundreds of Colombians as part of a security offensive along the border that is ratcheting up tensions between the two neighbors.
Gov. Jose Gregorio Vielma Mora of Tachira state said Sunday that 791 Colombians living in Venezuela illegally had been handed over to Colombian authorities as a result of a now five-day crackdown against smugglers and criminal gangs operating along the 1,400 mile (2,200 kilometer) border.
President Nicolas Maduro last week closed a major crossing between the two countries and declared a state of emergency in several western cities after three army officers were shot and wounded by gunmen he said belonged to paramilitary gangs operating from Colombia. While the assailants have yet to be caught or identified, the incident touched a nerve with supporters of Maduro's socialist administration, who increasingly have placed blame for rampant crime and widespread shortages on Colombians, believed to number 5 million in Venezuela.
As part of the state of emergency, Maduro deployed some 1,500 extra troops to the border to search house by house for smugglers who thrive on purchasing goods in Venezuela at dirt-cheap prices and reselling them across the border for huge profits.
The number deported in recent days is equal to almost half the 1,772 expelled last year from Venezuela, according to Colombian government statistics, and has overwhelmed an assistance center in the border city of Cucuta designed to receiver returning nationals.
Colombian Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo traveled to Cucuta over the weekend to oversee humanitarian efforts. He said authorities are trying to reunite 37 minors who were separated from their families during the dragnet.
Vielma Mora denied reports of abuses, which the AP was unable to verify, saying that not a single family had been broken up and all those deported were treated with respect.
Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a fierce critic of Maduro, said on Twitter that he plans to travel Monday to Cucuta to express "solidarity with those mistreated by the dictator."
A Colombian official closely following the crisis said that while the situation was tense there was little to suggest Venezuelan authorities' treatment of the deportees violated international conventions. The official, who was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said most of the deportees were living without permission in Venezuela and likely involved in contraband activities.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said Maduro's dramatic action would hurt communities on both sides of the border and generate unease. Foreign ministers from both countries are expected to meet Wednesday in a bid to resolve the crisis.
Opponents of Maduro's administration have denounced the mobilization of troops as an attempt to distract attention from a deep economic crisis. The Democratic Unity Alliance called on the international community to take note of what it considers a clear provocation likely to generate economic losses and threaten legislative elections scheduled for December.
Under the state of emergency declared in five 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.
As part of a government crackdown against contraband, the government over the past year had already ordered nighttime closure of the border in Tachira, deployed more troops and toughened jail sentences for smuggling. In total, the government says more than 6,000 people have been arrested for smuggling in the past year.
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