Border Drama (II): Tension and Uncertainty in San Antonio, Venezuela
Border Drama (II): Tension and Uncertainty in San Antonio, Venezuela
Border drama: A first-hand account from Cúcuta, Colombia
Border drama: A first-hand account from Cúcuta, Colombia
Commentary / Latin America & Caribbean 9 minutes

Border Drama (II): Tension and Uncertainty in San Antonio, Venezuela

It’s a month since Venezuela closed the busy border crossing that links San Antonio del Táchira with the nearby Colombian city of Cúcuta. Since then, 1,600 Colombians have been summarily deported and at least 19,000 more have fled Venezuela in fear. Tensions between the two countries soared. On 21 September, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos held talks on the crisis, moderated by their opposite numbers from Uruguay and Ecuador, at which they agreed on a “progressive normalisation” of the situation. But the border will remain closed for “six months to a year”, according to Maduro.

Ahead of the talks, our Senior Andes Analyst Phil Gunson travelled to the Venezuelan side of the border with Colombia to examine the impact of the closure and the atmosphere in San Antonio.

The normally bustling commercial hub has been hard hit by the interruption of trade between the two countries. It was here that Venezuela first sealed the border and declared a state of emergency in four municipalities on 22 August. Since then, the measure has been extended northward from Táchira state into Zulia, east into Apure and (since the Maduro-Santos meeting) south into Amazonas, affecting almost 30 municipalities and around a million people. According to Maduro, these drastic measures were necessary to combat Colombian paramilitaries and smugglers, a version disputed by Bogotá.

For a parallel account of the disruption that Venezuela’s action has caused on the Colombian side of the border, read the field report here by our Latin America & Caribbean Program Director Javier Ciurlizza.

Since the closure of the border, queues at petrol stations have almost disappeared. CRISIS GROUP/Phil Gunson

Life Under a State of Emergency

Long before you reach the border, it is obvious that something is wrong. The narrow highway that winds for 40km through the wooded mountains that separate the state capital of San Cristóbal from San Antonio is almost empty of traffic. National Guard (GNB) checkpoints that formerly added as much as 90 minutes to your journey time now barely interrupt it. In one respect, however, the sealing of the border does appear to have achieved its objective, at least for now. With petrol smuggling out of Venezuela seemingly drastically reduced, supplies have returned to something like normal and it is no longer necessary to queue for hours just to fill your tank.

The same cannot be said of food and other basic supplies. A week after decreeing the “indefinite” closure of the border with Colombia, President Maduro declared that, “there are no more queues (for basic goods) on the Venezuelan side and there have been no murders for a week”. But by 9am on the morning I was there, dozens of people were already queuing for chicken and cooking oil outside the Cosmos supermarket in the centre of town. By midday, the army had cordoned off the block and ten soldiers with automatic rifles were controlling a queue of about 150, which later doubled in size again.

One middle-aged woman in the nearby Plaza Bolívar angrily waved a plastic bag of groceries. “They make you buy these ‘combos’,” she said. “Four items, and I only had money for three. If you don’t buy the sardines then they’ll only sell you one litre of cooking oil instead of two”. The cost of a carton of 30 eggs has now doubled to more than 1,000 bolívars. Before the border closed, it cost 500 or 600 bolívars (under a dollar at the black market rate, or nearly $10 at the highest official rate). Rice, which is almost impossible to find, is up to ten times as expensive as before.

José Rozo, a former president of the Táchira branch of Venezuela’s main employers’ federation, Fedecámaras, says the border closure has been “terrible”. Previously, he says, people had the option of shopping in Colombia for food, medicine, articles of personal hygiene, spare parts for vehicles and other items hard to find in Venezuela. “It was more expensive, but they were available”. Now that avenue has been closed.

Commercial activity on this side of the border has slowed to a trickle. In more normal times, as many as 10,000 Colombians crossed each day to work in Venezuela. Many shops are shuttered and those that open display few goods on sale. Manufacturing industry has been hit hard. At this time of year, says Rozo, “wholesale buyers from the centre (of Venezuela) would come to the border to buy textile products. But the jeans are only half finished. Either there are workers and no zips, or zips and no workers.”

Those workers used to spend part of their salary in San Antonio. Not only did they eat their lunch there – providing work for Venezuelans – but they bought groceries and other goods that are much cheaper here. Without their custom, some retail outlets could go bankrupt. In turn, that means less tax receipts for the local and national governments. Those directly involved in cross-border trade, such as the transport sector and customs agents, are hit even harder. It is estimated that there are as many as 1,600 motorcycle taxis in San Antonio alone, most of which usually rely on being able to shuttle between San Antonio and its sister city of Cúcuta on the Colombian side.

A demolished building said to be a “brothel” by the local authorities, although local people say it had closed some time ago. CRISIS GROUP/Phil Gunson

Elena’s story

One of those motorcycle taxis belongs to Julio(*), who lives in a small, dusty village outside San Antonio called El Saladito. On 22 August, just after President Maduro declared a state of emergency in the border area, Julio and his Colombian wife Elena(*) left home at 7am. They were stopped by a National Guard patrol and she was detained. “They told us not to worry”, Julio says. “They would check her papers and if all was in order she’d be released”. But Elena, who was four months pregnant, was held all day at GNB headquarters without food, water or access to a toilet. She managed to send text messages but when Julio went to complain, a soldier told him that the Red Cross had seen the detainees and everything was fine.

At 7.30pm Elena was told she was to be deported. She was taken to the Colombian border post on the international bridge and handed over with “deportada” stamped in her passport. She had been living in Venezuela for sixteen years. For the next two weeks she lived with a sister-in-law in Cúcuta. “Last week I went over via the trocha (an illegal border crossing nearby) and brought her back,” Julio says. “She had lost seven or eight kilos in weight. Now she has to hide every time the Guard comes by”.

A crudely built barrio house in La Invasión, marked with a “D” for “demolish”. CRISIS GROUP/Phil Gunson

La Invasión

Hardest hit has been the largely Colombian barrio in San Antonio known as La Invasión. There, the GNB rounded up hundreds for mass deportation, marking many of the houses with a “D” for “demolish”. Part of the barrio has already been bulldozed and one of its perimeters is guarded by tough-looking troops in the red berets of the Parachute Regiment, carrying Kalashnikov automatic rifles. “This place was full of [Colombian] paramilitaries”, says the paratrooper who searches our car.

A few minutes after I arrive, the National Guard and the police launch another raid. I count six armoured cars, a score of Landcruisers, over 30 motorcycles and two troop carriers. In all there must be more than 300 men, and some women, all heavily armed. Bringing up the rear is a sinister-looking black pick-up truck carrying members of the elite GAES unit, the GNB’s anti-kidnap and extortion force. The eight men on board wear black ski-masks or black bandanas emblazoned with a white skull.

The precise objective of this show of force is unclear. I am warned by local people not to take photographs and to hide my notebook. “Don’t you know there’s a state of emergency?” is the only response I get from a National Guard soldier when I ask what it is all about.

According to Venezuelan foreign minister Delcy Rodríguez, La Invasión is a “paramilitary settlement located in a security zone”. Nonetheless, there are abundant signs that the government was providing public services for the “paramilitaries”. Electricity poles have been erected by the state-owned Corpoelec. Public sewers were to be installed. And a group of recently-completed buildings – inaugurated last year by state governor José Gregorio Vielma Mora – houses the government’s “missions”, its flagship social welfare programs.

The latter is no more than a block away from a now-demolished building the government says was a brothel and smugglers’ safe-house. In a nearby “street” – more of a narrow dirt track between the houses – a group of Venezuelan residents sit drinking coffee as their children play around them. “What’s going to happen to us?” one quizzes local councilor José Luis Guerrero, from the opposition Popular Will (VP) party. Their houses are marked with a “D” in blue paint and they are indignant and worried. “The governor said the houses with a “D” were where the prostitutes were,” says one woman. “Can you see any prostitutes here?” No one has told them if they are to be resettled.

La Invasión is just a few hundred metres from the Táchira river that marks the border. A couple who appear to be in their 50s have come to attempt the border crossing but are turned back by the National Guard. The man says he needs medicine for an uncle who is hospitalised. He has negotiated one of the special permits needed to cross the international bridge, but it is dated tomorrow, the case is urgent and he can’t find the medicine he needs in Venezuela. “The army is down there,” says the Guard, gesturing over his shoulder. “There’s nothing we can do”.

Evidence that the government was in the process of regularising the situation in La Invasión and providing public services – in this case sewers. CRISIS GROUP/Phil Gunson


More recently, Llanojorge, a barrio that lies on a low hill south of San Antonio, was also raided. But here the expected mass deportations did not take place. Some inhabitants say the deployment of security forces has at least forced the local criminal gangs underground, for now. But they complain of abuses by the National Guard. “Didn’t they steal money from my nephew just the other day?” says 65-year-old José(*) who lives just 20 minutes’ walk from Colombia via an informal border crossing. “You keep quiet about it because if not, they arrest you”.

As for whether the border closure has improved life, as the government claims, José is scornful. “There’s a Mercal (government grocery store) here in Llanojorge”, he says. “But there’s nothing worth buying. If you want a kilo of powdered milk the queue stretches for two blocks”. He says he voted for Maduro in the 2013 presidential elections, but only because he was threatened with being sacked from his job as a garbage collector if he didn’t.

“If this (the border closure) continues”, he says, “there’ll be an uprising. There are already rumours”. Many of the government’s own supporters are unhappy too. Antonio(*), president of a community council, complains that while the government claims to speak in their name, “they never come here to talk to the people”.

Informal border crossing near Llanojorge. Colombia is a 20-minute walk away. CRISIS GROUP/Phil Gunson

Fear for the Future

According to Fedecámaras Táchira, the employers’ group, the border closure is costing $3 million a day. The real figure is surely higher because so much of the local economy is informal. The contraband trade continues, though on a smaller scale for now. It’s true that the smuggling is partly run by former Colombian paramilitaries, locally referred to as “paracos”, who once fought Colombia’s left-wing guerrillas. But they no longer pursue an ideological agenda. Nowadays they are solely interested in money and few observers seriously believe they are seeking Maduro’s overthrow, as the president claims.

This fresh tension between Venezuela and Colombia brings with it the risk of escalation and of an exodus much greater than that already seen. But within Venezuela itself, one of the most immediate threats is to the integrity of the parliamentary elections due on 6 December. Freedom of movement and assembly has been suspended along the border from Zulia to Amazonas. The general in charge of the emergency zone here recently issued a resolution banning open-air “gatherings”.

In theory, such bans do not apply to election meetings, but the actual campaign only lasts three weeks. Outside that period, the government can easily prevent the opposition holding rallies. On its own, the state of emergency will not reverse the twenty-point lead the opposition has in the polls. But it will certainly make it harder to turn that into votes, and hence parliamentary seats. If that is the intention, then San Antonio del Táchira – and the rest of the border – may not see the state of emergency lifted until next year.

This all rubs salt in the wounds of Venezuela’s border states. Had Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chávez not pulled Venezuela out of the Andean Pact in 2006, wrecking the process of integrating the Colombian and Venezuelan economies, it is possible that plans for a Border Integration Zone (ZIF) would have made progress, bringing development and modernisation to an area too long neglected by both governments. A decade later, the consequences of that neglect are more evident than ever before.

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