CUCUTA, Colombia — Lilibeth Villafaña, a Colombian hairdresser living in Venezuela, locked herself in her home for several days as National Guardsmen patrolled the streets of her shantytown near the Colombian border and rounded up anyone who didn’t have a Venezuelan ID.
But the guardsmen eventually knocked on her door. And the only identification Villafaña could show was an unofficial ID issued to her by the local town council.
“We were told to pack our bags immediately,” Villafaña said. “All I could take with me were some old clothes and a hair straightener.”
Now, Villafaña and her 15-year-old son Miguel sleep in a basketball stadium in this bustling Colombian border city, that has been turned into a shelter for deportees.
Since the weekend, the Venezuelan government has deported more than 1,000 Colombians who were living in border towns in Venezuela. The mass deportation came after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered a crackdown on rampant smuggling of Venezuelan goods into Colombia. It also followed a shootout last week between smugglers and Venezuelan soldiers that left three officers wounded.
In Cucuta, officials are struggling to cope with the sudden wave of deportees. Local authorities are scrambling to house people, and shelters are asking local residents to donate clothes, canned food, and water, as if the city were just recovering from a natural disaster.
“We have space for 100 people here, but are currently accommodating 170,” said Willington Muñoz, director of a shelter run by the Catholic Church where people are sleeping on thin mattresses crowded into the building’s hallways.
“If we take any more people, this will be chaos,” Muñoz said.
Venezuela‘s government said the deportations are intended to reduce crime and lawlessness along its western border with Colombia. In other moves, Venezuela has shut down vehicle traffic along two key border crossings, and is demolishing the shantytowns recently inhabited by Colombian immigrants.
Maduro says that the drastic measures are necessary because undocumented Colombians were helping to smuggle price-controlled Venezuelan goods like corn flour, shampoo, and gasoline into Colombia, exacerbating food and other shortages in Venezuela. Maduro also said the shantytowns had become safe havens for Colombian paramilitary groups bent on toppling his socialist government.
But critics say the president is simply trying to find a scapegoat for Venezuela’s economic crisis. With inflation skyrocketing, and Venezuelans enduring long lines at grocery stores, Maduro’s approval ratings have plummeted ahead of congressional elections scheduled for December. Opposition leaders say Maduro is trying deflect attention from the economic woes.
“This is an irresponsible, unilateral and improvised move, and it will do nothing to stop smuggling or insecurity,” opposition leader Carlos Vecchio said.
Provea, a Venezuelan human rights group, said the deportations violate local laws that prohibit security forces from randomly detaining undocumented immigrants and deporting them immediately.
The group called Maduro a “Caribbean Donald Trump.”
“His policies are xenophobic and they break with Venezuela’s tradition of welcoming immigrants,” Inti Rodriguez, a Provea spokesman told Fusion. “These deportations also resemble strategies implemented by governments in the 1980’s where police tried to stop crime by massively detaining people in the slums.”
In Cucuta, deportees at the city’s shelters denied any involvement in paramilitary groups or illegal smuggling activity.
Aide Plata, a campesino woman in her 50s said she owned a street food stall in Venezuela, and had initially moved there to escape Colombia’s political violence.
“We had to leave because my father was murdered,” Plata said.
Like many low-income immigrants who have no access to medical insurance, she and her husband, Jesus Guerrero, said they had better access to medical care in Venezuela, where he received a free eye operation at a military hospital.
“In Venezuela, services were cheaper and we didn’t have to pay for water or electricity,” Guerrero said.
Plata and her husband now hope the Colombian government will help them rebuild their lives. Without a Venezuelan visa and little hope of returning to their hometown in Colombia, they now plan to call Cucuta home.
“We went to Venezuela in search of a better life, but look what’s happened to us,” Plata said. “At the very least we would like to go back to get our things.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.