Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has declared a “state of exception” — a state of emergency — in one of his country’s western border regions after an attack there left three soldiers and one civilian wounded.
“The constitution and the law give me the power to declare this state of exception for 60 days, extendable for 60 days,” Maduro said during a Friday night television broadcast, according to Bloomberg.
Venezuela’s western border with Colombia has been a hotbed for instability for years, and, at the moment, the state of emergency applies only to municipalities within the state of Tachira.
“I have decided to extend beyond 72 hours the closure of the border, until further notice, until we capture the assassins,” Maduro said on Friday, referring to the suspected smugglers who attacked soldiers in the border city of San Antonio in the Bolívar district of Tachira state on Wednesday.
And the potentially four-month-long state of emergency raises the possibility, noted by political analyst Dimitris Pantoulas, that the country’s legislative elections, slated for December 6, could be held under, and perhaps be affected by, such circumstances.
The opposition coalition, Democratic Unity Roundtable, has called the move a “trial balloon” for further interference by the Maduro’s ruling Socialist Party.
And in a protest to the international community, the group said “this unusual and disproportionate decree could be the escape route used by the ruling party to avoid imminent defeat, which would place the country and the entire region at very grave risk of instability and violence.”
According to Venezuela’s constitution, under a state of exception, “guarantees enshrined in the constitution, except for those referring to the right to life, prohibitions of isolation and torture, the right to due process, the right to information, and other intangible human rights, may be temporarily suspended.”
The December 6 elections could spell the end of Maduro’s Socialist Party’s reign in the National Assembly. The president’s approval rating has fallen below 25% and widespread shortages, unrelenting inflation, and persistent violence have aroused popular frustration with the current political order.
Currently, one of the Tachira’s busiest crossings is closed, and the municipalities of Bolívar, Ureña, Junín, Capacho Libertad, and Capacho Independencia are under the state of exception. On Monday, Tachira state governor Jose Vielma Mora added the Rafael Urdaneta municipality to the list.
However, border crossings in Zulia state, north of Tachira, and Apure state, south of Tachira, reportedly remain open, and Tachira’s northern municipalities, where clashes involving Los Urabeños — Colombia’s most powerful criminal group — have reportedly occurred, are not under restrictions.
It is worth noting that Tachira, and its capital, San Cristobal, are strongholds of Venezuela’s political opposition.
Maduro also said a contingent of 1,500 soldiers would be deployed to the area to join the 500 permanently stationed there.
Troops in the area reportedly started “house to house” searches on Saturday, targeting people suspected of being in the country illegally. In recent days, Maduro has also railed against alleged illegal immigration from Colombia, though data does not support his claims of a massive influx of unauthorised immigrants.
As of Monday night, 1,188 Colombians living in Venezuela had reportedly been deported, adding to the thousands who have already been deported this year. (Allegations of mistreatment of deportees continues, as well.)
Venezuela is now demolishing homes, leaving hundreds of Colombians scrambling with their belongings.
“I feel impotent. I want to cry. I lost everything overnight,” a 26-year-old Colombian told Reuters as he and his Venezuelan wife dragged their possessions in a wheelbarrow across the River Tachira and back into Colombia.
The nearly 1,400-mile border between the two countries is crossed frequently by smugglers transporting price-controlled goods, including high-demand consumer products and gasoline, from Venezuela to Colombia for resale at much higher prices.
“We have reached the limit of the aggression by armed groups, of the speculators and smugglers,” Maduro said on August 19.
Moreover, dozens of civilians from both countries who cross the border for work, medical treatment, or to take advantage of price and supply differences have been caught up in the closures. Humanitarian missions have been allowed to cross in some places, however.
The border area has been the scene of more dramatic incidents that have reverberated around the region.
Colombia has accused Venezuela of harboring guerrillas and drug smugglers in the past. In 2008, Venezuela mobilized troops along the border in response to a Colombian raid into Ecuador against left-wing guerrillas. In 2010, Venezuela broke off diplomatic relations after Colombia again claimed Venezuela was providing a safe haven to guerrillas.
In August 2014, Maduro deployed 17,000 troops to the border and ordered crossings closed during nighttime hours to disrupt smuggling. Those mandates have remained in place, and Venezuela claims to have arrested 6,000 people for smuggling and captured thousands of tons of contraband food over the last year.
On Monday, Maduro said the border would remain closed until “a minimum of coexistence and respect for legality is reestablished.”
“I do not see in the short term these conditions being met,” he added.
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