The foreign ministers of Colombia and Venezuela have promised to increase cooperation following the closure of two major border crossings and a crackdown on migrants and smugglers by Venezuela.
Even as the diplomats talked in the Caribbean coastal resort of Cartagena on Wednesday, motorists in the Colombian city of Cucuta complained of long queues for petrol as Venezuela’s security offensive cuts off trade between the two nations.
The foreign ministers announced after an hours-long meeting that high-level defence officials from the two countries would speak in the coming days to form a joint plan for border security
Across the border, scores of Colombians packed their belongings into suitcases and prepared for an army escort out of Venezuela, joining the estimated 1,000 of their compatriots who have already been deported.
Donamaris Ramirez, the mayor of Cucuta, says he plans to order petrol stations to remain open 24 hours to attend to demand met normally by curbside smugglers who purchase petrol in Venezuela at less than a penny a gallon and resell it for huge profits in Colombia.
With two main border crossings closed, the underground economy has come to a halt, satisfying Venezuelan officials who have long blamed transnational mafias for widespread shortages but also jeopardising the livelihood of tens of thousands of poor Colombians who depend on the black market.
On Tuesday, a group of 100 Colombians fled the border town of San Antonio del Tachira by wading across a knee-deep river with their possessions, everything from TVs to doors, slung across their backs.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who has stepped up his criticism of Venezuela’s actions in the past 24 hours, offered to help returning Colombians find work during a visit on Wednesday to an emergency shelter in Cucuta overrun with deportees.
Earlier, in a speech in Bogota, he ran through a series of economic and crime statistics, everything from projections that Venezuela’s economy will shrink seven percent this year to widespread shortages comparable to those found in war zones like Syria, in a sharp retort to the aggressive rhetoric coming from Caracas in recent days.
“Venezuela’s problems are made in Venezuela, they’re not made in Colombia or other parts of the world,” Santos told a forum of former presidents from around the world.
While about five million Colombians live in Venezuela, the security offensive has focused on a few towns near the border where Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro blames migrant gangs for rampant crime and smuggling that has caused widespread shortages.
The crisis began a week ago when Maduro claimed armed paramilitaries linked to former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe shot and wounded three army officers on an anti-smuggling patrol.
State of emergency
Maduro has promised to keep two normally busy international bridges closed, and possibly extend restrictions to other transit crossings until Colombian authorities help bring order to the porous, 2,200km border.
A state of emergency allowing the government to restrict peoples’ movement for up to 60 days has been declared in six states.
Venezuelan soldiers blocked the river crossing on Wednesday morning, but were helping Colombian residents of a slum that is slated for demolition leave Venezuela via a legal bridge crossing.
Maduro has angrily denied Colombian denunciations of mistreatment, saying that Venezuelans are unfairly paying the price for Colombia’s disregard of its poor.
The Colombians who abandoned their cinder block homes on Tuesday in a riverside shantytown community known as La Invasion – “The Invasion” – said they were given 72 hours by Venezuela’s army to pack up and leave.
Officials say the slum has become a haven for paramilitaries and contraband traffickers, and all Venezuelans who live there will be moved to government housing.
In recent decades, many Colombians have moved to Venezuela, either fleeing from conflict or seeking better opportunities in an oil-rich country that was long the wealthier of the two.