A humanitarian and diplomatic crisis is unfolding on the Colombia-Venezuela border

Stand-off: Colombian and Venezuelan police at the border. Reuters/Jose Gomez

While Europe is absorbed by the refugee crisis, another furious border crisis is unfolding in South America, displacing and endangering thousands of people.

At the end of August 2015, Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro shut the most important crossing points of the Colombia-Venezuela border. He declared a state of emergency, and began to deport Colombians illegally living on the Venezuelan side of the border en masse. An already high level of militarisation in the region was further increased.

This came after three members of the Venezuelan Guardia Nacional were injured in what Maduro called an attack from Colombian paramilitaries. Maduro’s measures were meant to drive Colombian paramilitaries from Venezuelan territory, and to stop the flows of Venezuelan-subsidised goods and gasoline into Colombia.

The consequences have been devastating.

Political circus

The border fracas has triggered a humanitarian crisis. According to OCHA, at least 1,467 Colombians have been deported and another estimated 17,000 have crossed the border informally. Many have waded with their belongings through the hip-deep border river to escape the harsh measures of the Venezuelan state forces.

This is also a diplomatic crisis. Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and Maduro recalled their respective Ambassadors for consultations, and Santos called for the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Organization of American States (OAS) to step in.

In both countries, the affair has started a “politiquería” (political circus). Venezuela’s opposition, the church and human rights organisations have all criticised what they consider xenophobic measures, and yet Maduro has used the situation to rally his supporters behind him in Caracas.

In Colombia, meanwhile, former president Álvaro Uribe and Santos travelled to Cúcuta. They shook hands with Colombians, expelled by Venezuela.

Venezuela’s National Guards at the closed international bridge La Union. Reuters

Yet the bigger tragedy is that these people went to Venezuela because they fled Colombia’s civil war. Today in Cúcuta, also poor Colombians who never left the country turn to the makeshift shelters for recent returnees. They try to get a share of the benefits that were never offered to them.

Suspicious minds

Many question marks hover. Why does Maduro claim that Colombian paramilitaries attacked Venezuelans? Already, there are reports that the killing resulted from a turf war among elements of the Venezuelan armed forces.

Why did Maduro only shut the border in the state of Táchira, and then in Zulia? Contraband is booming along the entire 2,219km-long Colombia-Venezuela border. Staple goods, gasoline and ammunition are smuggled from Venezuela to Colombia, while cocaine is trafficked in the other direction and then shipped to the US and Europe.

Why does Maduro “only” reject the presence of paramilitaries? He’s certainly right that the successors of right-wing Colombian paramilitary groups do operate in Venezuela. They have introduced practices not seen before, among them killing people on one side of the border and dumping their bodies on the other side to escape the attention of human rights defenders.

Yet these cobbled-together right-wing groups are not the only armed actors involved. It’s an open secret that the Colombian guerrillas FARC and ELN are active in Venezuela’s border zone. They control territory in Zulia, and share territory with the FBL, a Venezuelan leftist armed group, in Apure.

Caracas’ supposed links with these groups, and its not dissimilar ideological orientation, may explain why Maduro tolerates their presence while kicking out right-wing groups. But cities such as Maracaibo are host to other groups, including the Mexican Sinaloa cartel. Should Venezuela deport all Mexicans in Maracaibo? Certainly not.

Making sense of the crisis is extremely difficult. In Venezuela, it is seen as a politically motivated action; with parliamentary elections coming up in December, deporting Colombians – who are portrayed as smugglers, criminals and troublemakers – is an all-too-convenient way to attract votes. The state of emergency in Táchira may even become a pretext to postpone the election, giving Maduro time to remedy his abysmally low popularity.

In Colombia, rumours relate the crisis to the peace talks between FARC and the Colombian government. For many, Venezuela has lost credibility to act as a guarantor for the ongoing negotiations. If Venezuela’s out of the game, FARC will probably leave the negotiation table, leading the talks into a disaster.

Reuters

And then there’s the drug business. Colombia recently extradited two important traffickers to the US, even though Venezuela rejected the move. The traffickers supposedly had links to high-ranking Venezuelan military officials, well-connected with government circles. If they speak out once in US custody, that may be uncomfortable to say the least for the Caracas government.

Within the borderlands, locals point to the intense military operations against Megateo, the wanted narco-broker of Colombia’s Norte de Santander state.

Megateo controls the region’s cocaine business, and deals with traffickers in Venezuela to ship the drug across the border. There have long been unconfirmed claims that Caracas protects officials who are involved in this business; Megateo apparently flew to Venezuela. The turmoil of the deportations and state of emergency may be a Venezuelan smokescreen to protect him - or, probably less likely, a Colombian means to carry out their operations undisturbed.

Pull together

Despite differing perceptions, all the issues behind these hypotheses have one thing in common: they can only be tackled by both countries working together.

By managing and regulating the border rather than “fence” it, Caracas can promote legal cross-border trade. This would contribute to tackle its severe economic crisis, which in turn could help shore up Maduro’s support in time for the December election.

Bogotá stands to gain too. If the two governments can come up with a way to support Colombians who fled violence and to tackle the multiple violent non-state groups across the border rather than reacting after mass deportations, the Colombian government’s peacemaking credibility could be dramatically boosted.

Some of the most entrenched root causes of Colombia’s armed conflict lie in these border areas. If Bogotá really wants to end the conflict, it must account for those and for the fact that the violence committed by Colombia’s violent groups extends well beyond the Venezuelan border.

On top of all this, managing the border jointly is a vital part of tackling the drug trade. Jointly caring for the borderlands, not only the borderline that limits their national territory, is the only way to stop the huge financial flows that are diverted from the legal economy into the illicit industry.

And after all, who wouldn’t want a bit of extra money in their economy?