Caracas (AFP) – Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro has ordered more of his country’s vast border with Colombia closed amid a diplomatic crisis over deportations and smuggling.
“I have decided to close the border crossing at Paraguachon, Zulia state,” Maduro said in a televised address. He said he would send an additional 3,000 troops to the area.
In addition, Maduro said he would accept mediation by Brazil and Argentina, with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.
Paraguachon is one of the region’s largest trade hubs. The Venezuelan president said the closure would affect the Zulia towns of Mara and Almirante Padilla.
The countries have been locked in a row since Maduro on August 19 closed part of the border after unidentified assailants attacked a Venezuelan anti-smuggling patrol, wounding three soldiers and a civilian.
Maduro blamed the attack on right-wing paramilitaries from Colombia.
He has accused the neighboring country of waging an attack on Venezuela’s economy — a reference to the rampant smuggling of heavily subsidized food and other goods out of Venezuela, where more than five million Colombians live.
Maduro had already dispatched 5,000 troops to the area since mid-August.
– Row deepens –
The bilateral diplomatic row grew angrier and both countries recalled their ambassadors, swapping charges that the human rights of deportees had not been respected.
Colombia maintains that since the border crisis started, 14,000 Colombians living in Venezuela had been displaced including at least 1,443 Venezuela deported. The rest fled in fear, often with just a backpack or the clothes on their backs.
Venezuela has long used its oil wealth to subsidize basic goods like rice and toilet paper, which are sold at about a tenth of the price they command in Colombia.
But Maduro has said that Colombians, more than five million of whom live in Venezuela, are smuggling those heavily subsidized goods over the border.
He blames the rampant smuggling for shortages in Venezuela, which are being exacerbated by tumbling oil prices.
The two countries recalled their respective ambassadors as tensions rose.
The porous, 2,200-kilometer (1,400-mile) border has long been rife with guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN), as well as drug gangs and smugglers.
Colombian gangs include the remnants of right-wing paramilitary groups that once fought the guerrillas but were disbanded a decade ago.
– Help from Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay –
Yet there were some signs of hope as both Santos and Maduro on Monday said they were open to mediation by nations from the region.
“I reaffirm my willingness to meet with President Maduro so that with a serious and respectful dialogue, we are able to solve the problems along the border, which affect Colombians as well as Venezuelans,” Santos said at a meeting of cabinet ministers.
Santos said he had spoken with Uruguay’s President Tabare Vasquez, who offered to mediate
“I accepted his offer, and let him know I would take him up on it even if the meeting were held in Montevideo if he thought that best,” Santos added.
Maduro said he had accepted mediation by Brazil and Argentina, mentioning possible venues as Manaus and Buenos Aires.
Venezuela imports the vast majority of the basic goods it consumes with oil money, which accounts for 96 percent of its foreign currency.
But that cash has dried up as crude prices have slid by more than 50 percent since mid-2014.
With Venezuela’s economy in recession, oil revenues plunging, crime soaring and consumers facing chronic shortages of basic goods, Maduro’s approval rating has sunk in recent months.