By Pedro Mendoza and Joshua Goodman, AP
CARTAGENA, Colombia – The foreign ministers of Colombia and Venezuela promised to jointly combat crime along the border following talks to calm a dispute caused by the closure of a major border crossing and a weeklong crackdown on smuggling forced thousands of migrants from their homes.
Diplomats left Wednesday’s meeting in Cartagena, Colombia without announcing a decision to reopen two major checkpoints or end a wave of deportations from Venezuela. They only said that officials from the two countries would talk in the coming days to form a joint plan for border security.
Even as the talks were taking place, 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 and the estimated 5,000 who voluntary left for fear of reprisals.
In the Colombian city of Cucuta, migrants, some of whom crossed a knee-deep river with their life’s possessions on their backs, complained of mistreatment by Venezuelan security forces and anxiety about the future after, in some case, living outside of their homeland for years. Residents of one riverside shantytown reported having their homes raided and being given 72 hours to pack up and leave by Venezuela’s army.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos offered to help those returning find jobs during a visit to one of five emergency shelters in Cucuta overrun with deportees. He also promised a subsidy of about $80 to help them land on their feet.
“Our deported aren’t paramilitaries, they’re poor families,” Santos said in a sharp rebuke of his Venezuelan counterpart, Nicolas Maduro, who has stepped up attacks on migrant gangs he blames for rampant crime and widespread shortages.
While some 5 million Colombians live in Venezuela, the security offensive has focused on a few towns near the volatile border that has long suffered the spillover effects of Colombia’s half-century civil conflict and its status as the top supplier of cocaine to the U.S.
The crisis was triggered a week ago when gunmen Maduro claimed were paramilitaries linked to former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe shot and wounded three army officers on an anti-smuggling patrol.
The socialist leader has vowed 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, 1,400-mile (2,200 kilometer) border. A state of emergency allowing the government to restrict peoples’ movement for up to 60 days has been declared in six cities.
Outside of Venezuela, the crisis being felt most intensely in Cucuta, where thousands of families depend on a thriving black market. On Wednesday long gas lines formed as curbside vendors who openly sell fuel purchased in Venezuela for less than a penny a gallon were nowhere to be found. During his visit Santos ordered gas stations to remain open 24 hours to prevent shortages.