Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has vowed to extend a crackdown on illegal migrants from neighbouring Colombia he blames for rampant crime and widespread shortages.
With migrants topping the news agenda in the UK and France, tensions between the South American countries reached 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 Mr 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.
Mr Maduro said the normally busy Simon Bolivar 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 Mr Maduro, who dedicated a large share of a two-hour press conference to upbraiding Mr Uribe, calling him a “nefarious paramilitary boss” and “assassin”.
As Mr Maduro stepped up his verbal attacks, authorities across the border struggled 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 Cucuta designed to provide assistance to returning nationals.
Colombian foreign minister Maria Angela Holguin oversaw humanitarian efforts in Cucuta amid reports from deportees that families had been broken up and the circulation of videos on social media showing homes being bulldozed.
Her boss, President Juan Manuel Santos, has criticised the border closure, saying it hurts communities on both sides, and vowed to spare no effort to stand up for the rights of Colombians wherever they reside.
Ms Holguin and her Venezuelan counterpart are scheduled to meet today 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.
As part of the state of emergency, Mr Maduro deployed some 1,500 extra troops to Tachira state to search door-to-door for paramilitaries he blames for the shooting of the army officers while they were patrolling for smugglers. In San Antonio del Tachira, on the river separating the two countries, searched homes were spray painted in blue with the letter “R,” for reviewed.
Mr Maduro said those expelled were treated with respect, adding that he is a good friend of Colombians. An estimated five million Colombians live in Venezuela and the flow of people and goods across the border has been a fixture of daily life for decades.