Venezuela-Colombia border crisis

Venezuela-Colombia border crisis

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Venezuela closed two border crossings with Colombia last week and deported over a thousand Colombians as part of measures the government says are designed to control smuggling and paramilitary activity. Many deportees said they were legal residents being unfairly targeted.

With Venezuela suffering soaring prices, shortages of basics and unchecked crime, critics say the border crisis is a smokescreen. Women carrying their babies queued outside a supermarket on Wednesday to try to buy milk near the border with Colombia.

. Villa Del Rosario, Colombia. Reuters/Jose Miguel Gomez

Opponents say Venezuela's socialist leader Nicolas Maduro has concocted a border dispute to distract people from a steep economic downturn in the run-up to parliamentary elections.

Shaken by the deportations, Venezuela's roughly 5 million Colombians are grappling with whether or not to stay on in the crisis-hit country that has become increasingly unliveable.

. San Antonio, Venezuela. Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
In the border town of San Antonio a child rests on a mattress on the ground in the front yard of his house, which has been earmarked for demolition.

For many years, Venezuela stood as the rich neighbour to a poorer Colombia and a haven for Colombians fleeing a decades-long guerrilla conflict. So Maduro is smarting at accusations of abuses against the deportees and says only criminals are being targeted.

Venezuela and Colombia each recalled their ambassadors to the other country on Thursday.

. Cucuta, Colombia. Reuters/Jose Miguel Gomez
Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos speaks to a woman, who was deported from Venezuela with her family, during a visit to a temporary shelter.

"I have favoured dialogue and diplomacy and I will keep doing so, but I cannot allow Venezuela to treat Colombia and Colombians this way," the centre-right Santos said in Bogota.

"These families aren't paramilitaries, they are humble families," Santos said. "And they were thrown out, as they said to me, like dogs."

Many of those deported said their houses had been destroyed. Hundreds have waded across the river on the border carrying refrigerators, animals and mattresses.

. San Antonio, Venezuela. Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Maduro says the deportations are part of a crackdown on Colombian paramilitaries who smuggle fixed-price goods and traffic drugs on the porous 2,219-km border.

Speaking on Thursday, the Venezuelan leader said he hoped the Colombian government would "regain its sanity" and do more to protect the border. "Until that happens, I won't open the border," he said at a rally.

. San Antonio, Venezuela. Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
A woman cries while embracing her son, meeting him again for the first time after they were separated during the closure of the border.

Nearly 1,100 Colombians living in Venezuela have been deported since the border closure. Santos said between 5,000 and 6,000 more have fled voluntarily.

The spat recalls the frequent disputes between Venezuela and Colombia during the 14-year rule of Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chavez. Critics say Maduro is copying his late mentor by stoking a crisis to distract Venezuelans from economic problems ahead of a parliamentary election in December.

. San Antonio, Venezuela. Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
A man carries his son as they cross into Colombia.

Santos has also faced criticism for his handling of the crisis. Ex-president and current opposition Senator Alvaro Uribe visited the border this week and decried what he said was government inaction.

Santos's ruling coalition will compete with Uribe's right-wing opposition party, among others, in local and regional elections in October.