SAN ANTONIO DEL TACHIRA, Venezuela — Dozens of Colombians began fleeing their homes in Venezuela on Tuesday, wading knee-deep through a river separating the two countries, as President Nicolas Maduro vowed to extend a crackdown on illegal migrants living along the border.
The Colombians said they chose to abandon their modest, cinder block homes in a shantytown known as "La Invasion" — the Invasion — amid concerns for their safety and wellbeing if they opted to stay. With pedestrian bridges between the two countries destroyed as a result of a week-long security offensive along the border, police from Colombia helped residents ford the 10-meter wide Tachira River with mattresses, TVs and kitchen appliances in tow.
"People are carrying everything they can along the path," Virgelida Serrano, a 60-year-old seamstress who has lived in Venezuela for more than a decade, said between tears. "We're going to Colombia to see what help the government gives us."
The dramatic scene comes as tensions between the South American countries spiked to their highest level in years after Maduro closed a major border crossing last week and declared a state of emergency in several western cities. The socialist leader said he was acting to defend communities along the border after gunmen he said were aligned with former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe shot and wounded three army officers on an anti-smuggling patrol.
In a press conference on Monday, Maduro said the normally busy Simon Bolivar international bridge would remain closed, and restrictions would possibly be extended to other transit crossings, until Colombian authorities do their part to bring order to the porous, 1,400-mile (2,200 kilometer) border.
Later Monday night, authorities announced the capture near the border of a 27-year-old Venezuelan who they said is connected to the attacks on the army officers.
"Venezuela won't tolerate this anymore," said a visibly angry Maduro, who dedicated a large share of the two-hour press conference to upbraiding Uribe, calling him a "nefarious paramilitary boss" and "assassin." Uribe has repeatedly denied links to paramilitaries or killings in Venezuela, saying such allegations are attempts to distract attention from that country's economic crisis.
Even as Maduro stepped up his verbal attacks, authorities across the border struggled to help the Colombians driven from their homes in Venezuela.
The number deported in recent days is now more than half the 1,772 people expelled last year from Venezuela, according to Colombian statistics, and has overwhelmed a government-built shelter in the border city of Cucuta designed to provide assistance to returning nationals.
Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin oversaw humanitarian efforts in Cucuta amid reports from deportees that families had been broken up and videos circulated on social media showing homes being bulldozed as part of the dragnet.
Her boss, President Juan Manuel Santos has said the border closure hurts communities on both sides and vowed to stand up for the rights of Colombians.
Violence stemming from Colombia's civil conflict and the presence of drug-trafficking gangs have long plagued the border between the two countries. But as the distortions in Venezuela's troubled economy have worsened, smuggling of goods purchased in Venezuela at ultra-low prices and resold for huge profits across the border has become rampant, further emptying already barren supermarket shelves.
As part of the state of emergency declared in six western cities, Maduro deployed some 1,500 extra troops to Tachira state to search door-by-door for paramilitaries he blames for shooting the army officers while they were patrolling for smugglers.
Authorities have ordered a 60-day suspension of constitutional rights to protest, carry weapons and move freely, although officials maintain they are using the extraordinary powers cautiously so as not to disrupt daily life.
In San Antonio del Tachira, a town straddling the river separating the two countries, homes that had been searched were spray painted in blue with the letter "R," for reviewed.
Maduro said those expelled were treated with respect, adding that he is a good friend of Colombians.
An estimated 5 million Colombians live in Venezuela and the flow of people and goods across the border has been a fixture of daily life for decades, changing direction with the shifting fortunes of each nation's economy.
Opponents of Maduro's administration have denounced the security offensive as an attempt to distract attention from a deep economic crisis ahead of key legislative elections in December that they are favored to win by a landslide.
They were joined in their criticism by Uribe, who lashed out at Maduro's "dictatorship" at a rally Monday night at the barbed-wire border checkpoint in Cucuta.
"Venezuela is devoted to fueling hatred against the Colombian people, calling our women prostitutes and our patriots paramilitaries," Uribe said.
Amid the heated rhetoric, Holguin appealed for calm ahead of talks Wednesday with her Venezuelan counterpart in a bid to end the crisis.
"The aggression we hear on each side of the border doesn't help at all in resolving the difficult situation," the foreign ministry said in a statement Tuesday.
Sanchez reported from Caracas. AP writers Cesar Garcia and Libardo Cardona contributed from Bogota, Colombia.