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Border Crisis Escalates in South America as Over 1,000 Colombians Are Deported

At least 1,000 people were deported and many more have fled from Venezuela into Colombia over the past week, as a diplomatic and political crisis between the countries grows.
September 1, 2015, 10:50am
Imagen por David González

Thousands of Colombians living in Venezuela have been deported or have fled in the past week, as political crisis grows between the two governments.

Many Colombians settled in the border region of Venezuela more than a decade ago, pushed out of their home country by guerrilla and drug violence. Now, Venezuelan authorities argue that this population has turned to smuggling, threatening the country's economy by purchasing heavily subsidized products there, and making a profit by selling them for higher prices across the border in Colombia.

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Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has repeatedly accused people in the border regions of being responsible for dire shortages in Venezuela, even of basic products like toilet paper, tampons, and condoms.

So-called "anti-smuggling" military operations have been launched in the porous northern border between the two countries in the in the past year, but deportations are a new measure after the government in Caracas said three soldiers were shot and wounded on August 19. Telesur, the state-run media outlet, blamed Colombian paramilitary groups for the attack.

Related: A Contraband Crackdown Is Rattling the Border Between Colombia and Venezuela

Later on August 21, Maduro declared a state of emergency in the northern border state of Tachira, home of one of the major crossings between the two countries. Since then, access to the border has been closed off and 3,000 Venezuelan soldiers were deployed to search for Colombian citizens in the slums throughout nine municipalities in Tachira. On Monday, authorities started taking a census in towns along the border.

"Paramilitarism has widely affected our state, but identifying paramilitaries among a slum of immigrants, children, and old people is simply ridiculous," Cristobal Acosta, a human rights defender in the Colombian municipality of Cucuta, told VICE News.

The conflict has escalated in the past week and both the Colombian and Venezuelan governments have consulted their ambassadors, but their diplomatic missions remain ongoing. Meanwhile, the Organization of American States (OAS) held an extraordinary session on Monday and rejected Colombia's proposal to convene a meeting of foreign ministers to deal with the controversy.

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A women shows a Venezuelan residency permit while she seeks shelter in Colombia. (All photos by David González)

After the state of emergency started, 1,100 Colombian citizens have been deported, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). More than 200 of them are children and teenagers, according to the UN bureau.

Additionally, more than 10,000 Colombian people have fled voluntarily from Venezuela, according to OCHA estimates given to VICE News on Monday. However, as there are many border access points many more people may be crossing unnoticed.

"Our records have historically shown approximately 2,000 deportations a year," Mauricio Redondo, the local ombudsman, told VICE News. But he added that recently there has been an "avalanche" of people crossing the border.

Related: Venezuela Faces Looming Beer Shortage in Dispute with Nation's Biggest Brewer

Hundreds of people cross the Tachira river everyday to their native Colombia, carrying their belongings on their back.

"They yelled through the streets that Colombians had to leave," Dinaes Morales, a 35-year-old Colombian man who fled from Tachira with his family last week, told VICE News. Morales claimed that a week ago Venezuelan soldiers went to his home, reviewed his identity documents, and painted a big, blue, letter "D" on his house — to denote that he and his family were going to be deported.

According to Omar Chacón, the mayor of the Colombian border municipality of Villa del Rosario, more people are coming from non-border regions and even from the Venezuelan capital of Caracas. "We've registered mistreatment, humiliation, beaten people, some others whose residency documents were seized and destroyed," he told VICE News.

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A 51-year-old man apparently beaten by the Venezuelan army after he tried to cross the river back for the rest of his belongings.

Children separated from their families, disabled elderly people, and women who earned the main family income are among the displaced people, according to a UN High Commissioner for Refugees representative, Francesca Fontanini.

At least five shelters operating in Colombian municipalities of Cucuta and Villa del Rosario are now packed with people who fled Venezuela. Morales and his family took refuge in one of the shelters in Villa del Rosario.

"It's all over," said Morales of his life in Venezuela. "I built a ranch… but everything was left there."

Related: Colombian Guerrillas and Government Vow to De-Escalate — But No Ceasefire Yet