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Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro at the United Nations headquarters on July 28, 2015 in New York City.
Spencer Platt—Getty Images

This Colombian frontier outpost normally hums with shoppers, money-changers and lines of vehicles snaking across the international bridge to Venezuela. But now the border is closed, stores are shuttered, and local officials are scurrying to build temporary shelters for a flood of Colombian migrants fleeing Venezuela.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the border closed on Aug. 19. He said drastic measures were required to stop Colombian smugglers whom he blames for causing acute food shortages in his country. Maduro has dispatched thousands of soldiers and declared a state of emergency along Venezuela’s western border with Colombia. Police and National Guard troops have carried out mass arrests, deported 1,400 Colombians and have bulldozed some of their homes on the Venezuelan side of the border.

Amid the rising xenophobia, another 17,000 Colombians living in Venezuela have fled back to their homeland voluntarily. With the normal land crossings sealed, many returnees have opted to wade across the knee-deep Táchira River that forms the border, carrying children, duffle bags, sofas and refrigerators. The exodus prompted Fabrizio Hothschild, who heads the United Nations mission in Colombia, to describe the situation as a “humanitarian crisis.”

“We are neighbors but there is a lot of persecution coming from a brother country,” says Jorge Zalamea, a Colombian carpenter who lived in Venezuela for 37 years. He crossed the river last week and now resides in a shelter here made up of rows of tents on an outdoor basketball court.

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In another tent, farmer Eustoquio Rivera said that this is the second time he’s been uprooted. He fled to Venezuela in 2011 after Colombian rebels forced him off his land at gunpoint. At the time, the Venezuelan economy was healthier and Rivera found work as a farm hand. But he lacked residency papers and was deported last week. Rivera left behind his wife and infant son, so he plans to sneak back into Venezuela. “I can’t lose my family again,” he says as tears rolled down his cheek.

The crisis began last month after unknown gunmen shot and wounded three Venezuelan border police. The agents were looking for smugglers who buy subsidized rice, milk and other staples at dirt-cheap prices in Venezuela then resell them in Colombia for huge profits. President Maduro claims Colombian smuggling rings are part of a larger “economic war” that is being waged against his socialist government and is creating the food shortages.

Referring last week to his draconian border policy, Maduro said: “First you apply the tourniquet to stop the bleeding and then you cure the wound. This will protect our people from the attacks of paramilitaries, smugglers and drug traffickers.”

Critics claim Maduro ginned up the border crisis to distract attention from his failed socialist economic policies. Price controls, for example, make food more affordable for poor Venezuelans. But they also make it unprofitable for many farmers and factory owners to produce food and some have gone out of business. Plummeting prices for oil, Venezuela’s main export, mean the Maduro government has less cash to import food.

Carlos Socha, the mayor of Villa del Rosario, points out that smuggling has always been a fact of life along the frontier. However, with sugar, flour and pasta costing just pennies a kilogram in Venezuela, the potential profits for contrabandistas are at an all-time high. Because smugglers often use clandestine routes, closing official border crossings will not stop this flow. Neither will expelling Colombian migrants – many of whom are women and children – since the lion’s share of the smuggling is widely believed to be carried out by criminal gangs and corrupt law enforcement officials on both sides of the border.

“It’s not right that Maduro calls all Colombians terrorists, criminals and paramilitaries,” Socha says. “The problem is unproductive socialism in Venezuela. They have to reactivate their economy.”

That seems unlikely to happen before Venezuela’s legislative elections scheduled for Dec. 6, an event that may help explain Maduro’s actions.

His ruling Socialist Party currently controls the National Assembly and all other branches of government. But amid the economic meltdown polls indicate that the opposition could win a majority of the assembly seats which would weaken the President’s grip on power. In desperation, Maduro is scapegoating Colombia, says Caracas political analyst Luis Vicente León. He calls this “an outlandish electoral strategy” — but one that may work.

Yet Venezuelans are also being hurt in the standoff. Some found themselves trapped in Colombia when the frontier was sealed. Yaneth Galvis, a high school teacher from Caracas, learned about the closure while at a doctor’s appointment in Colombia. She hasn’t seen her husband in three weeks.

On a recent afternoon, Galvis and scores of other stranded Venezuelans marched across the bridge at Villa del Rosario to plead with Venezuelan guards to let them through. Finally, they relented and the weary travelers dragged roller suitcases and duffle bags past a barbed wire fence to Venezuela.

So far, there’s been no progress in negotiating a broader opening. Caracas and Bogotá have withdrawn their ambassadors while Maduro and Colombian Juan Manuel Santos have been exchanging threats and insults. In a speech Monday night, a defiant Maduro announced he was closing another key border crossing in northwestern Zulia state. He also accused Santos of plotting against him.

“Do you think you can destroy me, President Santos?” Maduro said. “Do you think you can destroy Venezuela and the (socialist) revolution? There is still time to correct your errors.”

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