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Mass Deportations Fuel Tension Along Venezuela-Colombia Border


Now to another part of the world and another border in turmoil. Venezuela closed its border with Colombia three weeks ago. Venezuela's president blames Colombian smugglers for food shortages. His police are arresting and deporting Colombians, and thousands have fled. Reporter John Otis brings us the story from the borderlands.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: With the main border bridge closed, these Colombians are crossing the knee-deep Tachira River to get back to their homeland. The rock bottom is slippery, so Colombian police officers wade in to lend a hand.

One new arrival is Jorge Zalamea, a carpenter who lived in Venezuela for 37 years. He says the growing backlash against Colombians convinced him to leave.

JORGE ZALAMEA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "There's a lot of persecution," he says. The crisis began after unknown gunmen wounded three Venezuelan border police. The police were looking for smugglers who buy subsidized rice, milk and other staples in Venezuela then resell them in Columbia for huge profits. President Nicolas Maduro claims it's part of a larger economic war that's creating food shortages.


NICOLAS MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "The border has turned rotten, and we are the victims," Maduro told a recent news conference. Critics claim Maduro's socialist policies are to blame for the shortages. Price controls, for example, make it unprofitable for many Venezuelan farmers to produce food. But Venezuelan officials have deported about 1,100 Colombians. Venezuela has also bulldozed some homes belonging to Colombians. Many Colombians insist they have nothing to do with smuggling, but fearing arrest, about 14,000 have voluntarily left Venezuela.

Some have no place to go and are hold up in temporary shelters on the Colombian side of the border. They sleep in rows of tents set up on school playgrounds.

EUSTOQUIO RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In one of the tents, farmer Eustoquio Rivera tells me he moved to Venezuela in 2011 after Colombian rebels forced him off his land. Now Venezuelan police have deported him, leaving behind his wife and infant son.

RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "I'm going back to Venezuelan no matter what," he says. "I can't lose my family again." Meanwhile, commerce has ground to a halt. The Colombian outpost of Villa del Rosario normally hums with shoppers and moneychangers. Now it's a ghost town.

CARLOS SOCHA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "We should live together as brothers. We all have the same blood," says Carlos Socha, who is mayor of the Colombian town that is married to a Venezuelan.

SOCHA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Colombians aren't the only ones hurt in the standoff. This man is one of the many Venezuelans who are trapped in Colombia when the frontier was sealed. On the border bridge, he pleads with a Venezuelan guard to let him through. Finally, on Friday, some of the stranded Venezuelans are allowed to return home. One by one, they drag suitcases, boxes and duffel bags past a barbed wire fence to the Venezuelan side. For NPR News, I'm John Otis, Villa del Rosario, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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