Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro this week mandated a 72-hour deadline for hundreds of families living along the border with Colombia to vacate their homes, deepening an ongoing crackdown on Colombians living in Venezuela’s border communities. The move came ahead of a highly anticipated meeting Wednesday between Venezuelan and Colombian officials over the border crisis that has already seen more than 1,000 Colombians ejected from Venezuela.
The looming Friday deadline applies to some 500 families living in a shantytown community known as La Invasion. Venezuelan officials have already been marking some homes in the area to be demolished after the evacuations to ensure they won’t be reoccupied if the families return, Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional reported. Around 100 Colombians living in the area began abandoning their homes Tuesday after hearing of the order to leave, the Associated Press reported.
The move is the latest development in a border crackdown that began last week after gunmen attacked three Venezuelan soldiers in the western state of Táchira. Maduro closed the border following the incident and declared martial law in several municipalities, saying the attackers were affiliated with Colombian paramilitary groups. Since then, Venezuela has deported 1,113 Colombians living illegally in its border communities, Colombia’s migration office said. Hundreds more have packed up their belongings and left on their own accord for fear of being expelled.
Foreign ministers and other government officials from both countries are due to meet in Cartagena, Colombia, on Wednesday to discuss the ongoing crisis. Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos has criticized the deportations, saying Venezuelans’ treatment of Colombians was “unacceptable,” but he also called for diplomacy rather than an escalation of tensions.
“It’s time for firefighters, not arsonists,” he said in a statement Tuesday.
The Venezuela-Colombia border area has long been a source of tension between the countries as Maduro has accused smugglers of sneaking contraband in and out of Venezuela. Maduro’s critics accuse the president of ramping up rhetoric against Colombia to distract Venezuelans from the country’s own economic crisis, which has seen increasing unrest over chronic shortages of goods, rising inflation and high crime rates. Opposition leaders, including Henrique Capriles, who ran against Maduro for president in 2013, have compared Maduro to U.S. presidential hopeful Donald Trump, who has spoken out forcefully against illegal migration from Mexico into the United States.