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 dispute has also caused a diplomatic blow-up between President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government and the center-right 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 said it is tackling gangs on the border who wreak violence and drain Venezuela’s recession-hit economy by trafficking subsidized goods from flour to fuel. Two presumed Colombian paramilitaries were shot dead by Venezuelan security forces on Tuesday, a governor on the Venezuelan side said.
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 Wayuu and Guajiro indigenous inhabitants would, however, be exempt from the measure, which was intended to “maintain progress 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 Zulia municipalities. There is a similar situation in five Tachira municipalities, meaning constitutional guarantees are 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, according to United Nations figures.
Some of the Colombians’ homes were marked “D” for demolition before security forces knocked them down, and many people left with all they could carry across a river.
Maduro has smarted at accusations of abuses, pointing out 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.
Tachira Governor Jose Vielma said a Venezuelan unit of combined security forces clashed with presumed members of an armed Colombian gang known as “Los Rastrojos,” killing two, a few meters on the Venezuelan side of the border.
With Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina offering to mediate, Santos and Maduro have both expressed willingness to meet though no concrete plan has been made yet.
Additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta in Bogota; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Paul Simao and Richard Chang