Deadly clashes between Venezuelan security forces and illegal armed groups have caused thousands of civilians to flee for security across the border into Colombia.
More than 3,100 Venezuelans have been “forced” to cross the border since fighting broke out this week, Colombia’s Foreign Ministry said in a Twitter message on Wednesday.
The violence, in the Venezuelan border state of Apure, continued on Wednesday with explosions at a tax office there and a National Guard checkpoint, human rights organization Fundaredes said. According to Fundaredes, the military fired at the militias from helicopters, while local media reported that a state-owned Corpoelec truck had been attacked.
Venezuela accused Colombia in a statement of support for the illegal activities of “criminal groups” at the border, including drug trafficking and illegal mining. President Nicolas Maduro’s government said these armed groups have attacked civilians, electrical and oil installations and have even placed landmines in the area.
Several illegal armed groups operate along stretches of the 2,250-kilometer border, often fighting to control human and cocaine trafficking routes. Disturbances and shortages caused by Venezuela’s socialist model often make for a lucrative trade in smuggling basic goods in both directions.
At least three people had died in the fighting Monday, Venezuelan defense minister Vladimir Padrino said. Two were soldiers and one was the leader of an illegal group, he said. The military has destroyed six camps used by the groups and detained 32 people, Padrino said Monday.
Marxist guerrillas from the Colombian National Liberation Army, or ELN, and several factions of FARC rebels who rejected the 2016 peace process with their government, are present on both sides of the border, according to Jeremy McDermott, co-founder of Insight Crime. tank that studies organized crime.
Several other organized crime groups, including the so-called Gulf Clan, are also active in the area, he said.
The authorities are not protecting the tradesmen who have lost “their crops, their livestock and their homes,” Luis Lippa, an opposition lawmaker in Apure, said in a telephone interview.
Nearly 2 million Venezuelans have moved to Colombia in recent years to escape hunger and chaos at home.
Updates with Venezuela’s statement in the fourth paragraph