The Colombian city of Cucuta, located on the border with Venezuela, is struggling to deal with its share of more than 1,000 Colombian nationals deported by Venezuelan authorities over the past week.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro over the weekend closed the border near the city, while deporting hundreds of Colombians accused of being illegal or involved in contraband activities.
“They are treating us Colombians as criminals which we are not,” a crying Sandra Patricia Carreño told Cucuta newspaper La Opinion after having been deported from San Antonio where she had worked as a maid for the past eight years.
Carreño was arrested by police at a roadblock and deported. Her husband and two children are still in Venezuela, hiding from authorities hoping the mass arrest raids will end and they can resume their lives.
The 72-year-old Fanny Godoy, originally from the Colombian city of Bucaramanga, had lived in the small Venezuelan town of Bolivar for the past 40 years until Saturday when a group of 20 heavily armed National Guardsmen carried out a razzia, knocking on each door and arresting every Colombian they encountered.
“I was the first they found. They showed no compassion whatsoever even though I am an old lady, said Godoy, her face covered in tears.
“I have nothing here in Colombia. Everything stayed in Venezuela, my daughters, my stuff. They wouldn’t let me take anything with me,” the woman said.
According to some reports, Venezuelan authorities have gone as far as demolishing the homes of Colombians.
Of the deported Colombians, at least 500 have been displaced to Cucuta, where they are being held in just four shelters. Many of the deportees were forced to leave their belongings behind, arriving in their native country with nothing but the clothes they wear.
Other Colombians decided to voluntarily leave Venezuela out of fear of police brutality and forced deportation.
“We are overwhelmed on all sides,” Cucuta Mayor Donamaris Ramirez told radio station La FM, claiming that 203 of the deportees are being held in the municipal bullring.
“We prepared a school to receive the Colombians … for 100 people, but Migrations brought us 200,” Ramirez told local newspaper La Opinion.
In order to release funds necessary to help the expelled Colombians, the mayor declared a state of emergency.
Ramirez also met with Norte de Santander Governor Edgar Diaz, Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo, and Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin to seek national government support for the sudden influx of Colombian Venezuelans and a quick diplomatic response.
“There are serious complaints of attacks against Colombian citizens we will discuss with the Venezuelan government,” Colombia’s interior minister told reporters.
The Red Cross has been reported present on the border to provide medical checks to Colombians coming from Venezuela.
The national and local governments agreed to coordinate efforts by forming a coalition called “The Unified Humanitarian Table” to serve the displaced Colombians.
On Monday, the provisional humanitarian agency delivered 120 mattress pads to the shelters in Villa del Rosario and 137 for those in Cucuta. On Tuesday, the government plans to deliver 500 hygiene kits, 500 blankets, and 500 additional mattress pads to the shelters.
Just ten minutes from Venezuela, Cucuta’s own residents are also facing hardship.
Many on the Colombian side of the border depend on contraband, especially cheap gasoline, coming from Venezuela.
“There is food,” Cucuta resident Bruno Madrid told Colombia Reports, but “there’s no gasoline anymore, or it’s very expensive.”
The sudden absence of Venezuelan gasoline are causing massive queues at gas stations.
“The most affected are those that live here and work there,” said Madrid.
Where is Santos?
The Colombian president received fierce criticism for not visiting the border amid one of the biggest humanitarian crises in recent history.
“When he was candidate he did show up,” one Cucuta resident said on the website of La Opinion.
“The Colombian government is ignoring the border and its citizens. The few politicians that do come are vultures looking for votes,” another said.
Santos issued a statement announcing plans to convene the foreign ministries of both countries on Wednesday to address the problems caused by Venezuela’s unilateral actions.
Santos affirmed his commitment to diplomacy in reaction to the crisis: “We do not lack, nor will we lack firmness in defending all of our compatriots, wherever their safety is threatened or their fundamental rights violated, but this firmness requires the wisdom and prudence of diplomacy.”