A deportation spree triggered by alleged “paramilitary” vandals has forced 20,000 Colombians to leave their homes in Venezuela or be forcefully deported.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which has been monitoring the crisis on Venezuela’s western border, released these numbers on Tuesday, explaining that 1,467 Colombians had been forcibly removed from Colombian land, and another 18,000, fearing the fate of their compatriots, had fled the country altogether as of September 7. Those who have left ostensibly of their own volition did so, the statement explains, after “being forced to return on their own account because of current conditions and the fear of being deported.”
Venezuela closed off its border in western Táchira state—a hotbed of anti-socialist protests—in late August. President Nicolás Maduro insisted that Colombian “paramilitary” groups had established organized crime syndicates on the border and that deporting all Colombian nationals in the area was the answer. This week, Maduro announced that he would close the border in Zulia state, as well, and send 3,000 troops to the region, affecting an entirely different community of locals.
Many, NBC News notes, tourists and visitors were stuck on the wrong side of the border when the order was issued. Closing Zulia off from Colombia isolates Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second largest city, in a move that could bring even more economic devastation to a nation ravaged by a tightly-controlled market and hyperinflation.
Venezuela’s ambassador to the UN, Rafael Ramírez, told the New York Times on Wednesday that these measures were necessary to fight smugglers he described as “worse than the Mafia,” pushing the official government line that center-right countries like Colombia are fighting an economic war to topple Venezuela’s woefully mismanaged socialist regime.
President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia has replied to the border closings and deportations by describing Venezuela’s “Nazi Ghetto” deportation tactics in a speech strongly condemning them: Venezuelan soldiers marking Colombian homes for destruction, dividing mixed families, and beating Colombian nationals.
Colombian authorities say they have recorded multiple instances of underaged Colombian women “sexually abused” by Venezuelan soldiers while being forced out of the country. At least one Colombian man has alleged a Venezuelan soldier sexually abused him, before dropping him on the Colombian side of the border. Hundreds of mixed Venezuelan-Colombian children have been left without one or both parents.
In response to the Zulia border closing, the Colombian government has responded that the move makes it increasingly difficult to bring Colombia to the negotiating table with the rogue regime. “With declarations and decisions like those made last night by President Maduro, which offend the dignity of the Colombian people, it becomes more difficult to engage in dialogue and there does not appear to be a real interest on the part of the Venezuelan government to solve the crisis,” said Juan Fernando Cristo, Colombia’s Minister of the Interior.