CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela has extended a partial border shutdown with Colombia and sent another 3,000 troops to the area in a crime crackdown that has sent thousands of Colombians fleeing their adopted homeland and led to accusations of rights abuses.
The border dispute has also created a diplomatic blow-up between President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government and the conservative administration of Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia.
Critics say Maduro is creating a distraction and playing the nationalist card before a December parliamentary election in which polls show his ruling Socialist Party in trouble.
The government says it is tackling organized crime gangs on the border who are wreaking violence on locals and draining Venezuela’s recession-hit economy by trafficking subsidized goods from flour to gasoline.
Having shut main frontier points in Tachira state last month, Maduro also ordered the closing of the Paraguachon crossing in Zulia state to the north late on Monday.
Local Wayu and Guajiro indigenous inhabitants would, however, be exempt from the measure, which was intended to “keep advancing against crime, criminals, paramilitaries and smugglers,” Maduro added at a cabinet meeting.
He ordered another 3,000 soldiers to the porous 2,219-kilometer (1,379-mile) border, adding to 2,000 already there.
Maduro also decreed a “state of exception” in three municipalities of Zulia. There is a similar situation in five municipalities of Tachira, meaning constitutional guarantees are temporarily suspended.
Rights groups say that has led to abuses by security forces, as some 1,400 Colombians have been deported and another 15,000 have fled home, according to the U.N. figures.
Some of the Colombians’ homes were marked “D” for demolition before security forces knocked them down, and many people fled with all they could carry across a local river.
Maduro has smarted at accusations of abuses, pointing out that Venezuela was only chasing criminals and was gladly providing a home to 5.6 million Colombians - in a total population of 29 million - who had fled war and economic hardship in past decades.
Santos said on Monday that Uruguay’s President Tabare Vazquez had offered to mediate. “I reiterate my disposition to meet President Maduro so that through a serious and respectful dialogue we can resolve the border problems affecting both Colombians and Venezuelans,” he said.
Maduro, whose predecessor Hugo Chavez also had frequent spats with neighboring Colombia, has said likewise that he wants to meet Santos. But no concrete plan has been made yet.
Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Paul Simao