Despite sharing a 1,274-mile frontier, Venezuela and Colombia on Tuesday were virtually cut-off from each other, after the last remaining major border crossing was shuttered amid an escalating dispute.
More than two weeks after closing the border near the Colombian town of Cúcuta, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro late Monday said he was shuttering the Paraguachón border crossing that connects Colombia’s northern Guajira department to Venezuela’s Zulia state, home to Maracaibo, the nation’s second-largest city.
Maduro said the decision was necessary to fight criminal groups and smuggling that have flourished along the border, but the drastic move threatens to disrupt the lives of hundreds of thousands.
On Tuesday, the United Nations said Venezuela had deported 1,467 Colombians since beginning its border crackdown last month, and that an additional 18,619 Colombians had left voluntarily — many fearing reprisals.
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Bogotá has struggled to deal with the influx and accused Venezuela of trampling human rights amid images of families staggering across the border with their possessions on their backs.
While both presidents have said they’re open to face-to-face talks, weeks of heated rhetoric and this week’s new obstacles put the meeting in doubt.
On Monday, before the Paraguachón closing was announced, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said he was willing to accept the mediation of Uruguayan President Tabaré Vásquez and meet with Maduro.
“I’m ready for dialogue but the fundamental rights, the human rights of our compatriots, must never be violated again,” he said.
The tentative olive branch only seemed to provoke the Venezuelan socialist.
“I’m the only one who places conditions,” Maduro said in a televised speech, “because you are the aggressors.”
He also accused Santos of “spreading lies” aimed at undermining his government.
“Do you think you can destroy me, destroy Venezuela and the Bolivarian Revolution?” Maduro asked. “You govern your country and I’ll govern mine.”
Even so, Maduro said he was willing to meet Santos with the intercession of either Brazil or Argentina.
After meeting with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in New York on Tuesday, Colombia Foreign Minister María Ángela Holguín said a meeting between the presidents is not in the works. “For now, the circumstances remain complicated,” she said.
Venezuela’s state-controlled economy has been a boon for smugglers. Tens of thousands of Colombians and Venezuelans make their living selling Venezuela’s subsidized goods — particularly its cheaper-than-water gasoline — on this side of the border.
The smuggling is just one element that makes the frontier chaotic and complex. Powerful criminal gangs — considered the successors of Colombia’s demobilized paramilitary groups — stalk the frontier along with leftist guerrilla groups.
Maduro said he was sending 3,000 additional troops to the region and also declared a state of emergency in three border municipalities that he said are under “attack by Colombian paramilitaries and smugglers.”
“We are going to liberate this area,” he added.
Venezuela maintains Colombia hasn’t gone far enough to fight the scourge along the border, but Santos says it’s a two-nation effort.
“We are acting against the contraband and corruption that occurs on both sides of the border,” Santos said. “It’s a problem of both our countries…We would be more effective if we worked together.”
While the border closings are reportedly making a dent in the illicit trade, they’re also threatening legitimate commerce.
For some Colombian exporters, Paraguachón was the last viable land route, said Giovanni Gómez, the director of economic affairs at Colombia’s National Association of Foreign Trade.
“Now exporters are tying to figure if they can exports by sea or, for the most important items, by air,” he said. “We are very worried about what might happen.”
Trade with Venezuela has been dropping for years amid that nation’s economic crisis and its reputation for not paying its bills. Even so, in 2014, Venezuela bought more Colombian exports than any nation but the United States. Exports to Venezuela through July this year were down 39 percent at $710 million.
The sudden late-night closing left people stranded on both sides of the border. Colombia’s RCN Television said at least three busloads of people got caught in Venezuela, as guards threw up metal barricades.
The crossing cuts through Colombia’s arid and impoverished Guajira region that’s home to the native Wayúu people who have family ties on both sides of the border. The Venezuelan government said the closure would not apply to the indigenous group, which doesn’t recognize the international boundary that divides its ancestral homeland.
The latest crisis began over two weeks ago when three Venezuelan military officers were ambushed along the border in Venezuela’s Táchira state. Maduro blamed Colombian paramilitaries for the attack and shutdown the border. Since then, a half-dozen border crossings have been shuttered, but some smaller immigration points areas are reportedly functioning.
While Caracas insists the move is an effort to fight crime, some see it through the prism of the Dec. 6 legislative election, where polls show the opposition is likely to make dramatic gains.
The tough measures are likely to play well with voters tired of crime and chronic food shortages.
Venezuela has increasingly blamed its neighbor for those problems and more. Maduro recently accused Santos of turning a blind eye to what he said was a Colombian paramilitary campaign to kill him.