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Venezuela Expands Anti-smuggling Crackdown with New Closure

FILE - People stand next to a closed gate as they wait to try to cross La Union international bridge, on the border with Colombia at Boca de Grita in Tachira state, Venezuela, Aug. 29, 2015.
FILE - People stand next to a closed gate as they wait to try to cross La Union international bridge, on the border with Colombia at Boca de Grita in Tachira state, Venezuela, Aug. 29, 2015.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has expanded an anti-smuggling offensive along the country's frontier with Colombia and ordered the closure of the main border crossing in the country's biggest state.

The announcement late Monday night is bound to deepen an ongoing diplomatic crisis with Colombia, which is struggling to absorb thousands of migrants who've fled the socialist government's crackdown.

In little more than two weeks Maduro has closed six border crossings and deported more than 1,000 Colombian illegal immigrants he blames for a surge in crime and contraband along Venezuela's western edge.

Another 12,000 Colombians, some of whom have lived in Venezuela for years, have returned voluntarily, fearing reprisals as reports spread about migrants being forced by security forces to uproot and their homes earmarked for demolition.

Humanitarian crisis

The return of so many migrants has overwhelmed emergency shelters, leading Colombia's government to denounce a humanitarian crisis it warns could worsen if more of its estimated 5 million nationals living in Venezuela follow suit.

Until now, Maduro's offensive has been targeted on Tachira state across the border from the Cucuta, a Boston-sized city in Colombia that has long relied on smuggled gas, food and other goods purchased in Venezuela at bargain-basement, subsidized prices.

In moving his focus north, to Zulia state, he's encroaching on a more vital economic hub around the thriving oil metropolis of Maracaibo, Venezuela's second-largest city.

He could also face resistance from hundreds of thousands of Wayuu Indians settled on either side of the border who don't recognize the international division. The feared tribe has long dominated economic life in the isolated Guajira peninsula shared by both countries on South America's northern tip and are heavily involved in smuggling, which they don't consider an illicit act.

Additional troops deployed

Maduro, acknowledging the risks, said that authorities will respect the Wayuu's traditional nomadism even as an additional 3,000 troops are deployed to Zulia. As part of Monday's actions, he declared a state of emergency in three frontier towns in the state and said more border crossings could be closed in the coming days.

Colombia's government has yet to respond to the latest move by Venezuela, but in recent days has stepped up a diplomatic campaign to rein in Maduro and denounce mistreatment.

On Monday, Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin met with the United Nations' High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva to reiterate what she said was a deliberate campaign of scapegoating Colombians for Venezuela's deep-seated economic problems, such as widespread shortages and triple-digit inflation.

On Wednesday, she travels to New York to meet UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, who last week discussed the crisis with Maduro while both were in China.

Maduro says he's being unfairly targeted by U.S.-backed conservatives in Colombia eager to topple his 16-year-old revolution while turning a blind eye to decades of political and drug-fueled violence in Colombia that has made Venezuela a haven for so many of its neighbor's poor.

Even while further clamping down on the border Maduro on Monday repeated an offer to meet with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to resolve the crisis.

Santos, who had patched up relations with Venezuela since a dangerous round of saber rattling along the border in 2008 by his hardline predecessor and the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, said Monday he's open to direct dialogue if certain conditions are met.

"I'm ready for dialogue but the fundamental rights, the human rights of our compatriots, must never be violated again,'' Santos said.

That provoked an angry retort from Maduro: "I'm the only one who places conditions, because you are the aggressors.''