Deadly Venezuelan military operation sends thousands of refugees to Colombia

ARAUQUITA, Colombia – For days, the explosions and shootings were loud enough that people on both sides of the Venezuela-Colombia border could hear them. The violence was part of a Venezuelan military operation that started about two weeks ago.

The military operation prompted thousands of refugees — including children and dozens of pregnant women — to cross the Arauca River, which rises in the Andes Mountains of Colombia and ends at the Orinoco River in Venezuela.

The crowded fishing boats have been arriving from Venezuela’s Apure state where the government runs the Guafita and Victoria oilfields and produces natural gas. Most were from the areas of La Capilla and La Victoria. Some brought farm animals and appliances.

“The region is returning to normality,” Gen. Vladimir Padrino, Venezuela’s defense minister, said on Monday during a televised statement.

The refugees from Venezuela found temporary refuge in more than a dozen shelters in Colombia’s municipality of Arauquita, an area known for producing cacao. The United Nations provided tents and mattresses.

Padrino said the operation dismantled an illegal armed group that was involved in narcotrafficking and recruiting minors, but he did not identify the group. He said 17 people died, including eight Venezuelan soldiers and nine members of the group. He also said 34 soldiers were injured and 33 suspects were detained.

Padrino said Nicolas Maduro approved the creation of a new military unit to protect an area in three of Apure’s municipalities: Páez, Muñoz, and Rómulo Gallegos. He also said soldiers were still removing the armed group’s land mines from the area.

Padrino, who is wanted in the U.S. for narcotrafficking, also said that Colombia and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration were to blame. Venezuela put an end to diplomatic relations with Colombia in 2019. Padrino said Venezuelan diplomats are in communication with the United Nations.

“Colombia neglected the border,” Padrino said, adding the illegal groups from Colombia are crossing over to Venezuela to search for gold, grow coca, and establish cocaine labs and bases for distribution.

Colombian Defense Minister Diego Molano told Colombian reporters with El Tiempo that the Venezuelan military wasn’t protecting sovereignty. Molano said the Venezuelan military is acting selectively and in collusion with certain narcotrafficking groups.

The nongovernmental organization was talking to refugees who were reporting soldiers broke into homes and stole private property.

The U.S. State Department has referred to the collusion as the “Cartel of the Suns,” an alleged Venezuelan drug-trafficking organization comprised of high-ranking Venezuelan officials.

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Torres contributed to this report from Miami.


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