According to The New York Times, an estimated 5,000 Venezuelan citizens have fled the country as its military tries to root out what the government says is a criminal group operating near the Columbian border that some reports suggest has been involved in multiple shootouts.
It is the largest military campaign in decades for the struggling country, which adopted socialist policies and saw dangerous levels of hyperinflation under current leader Nicolas Maduro.
There have been several days of airstrikes in the area of La Victoria, a town of about 10,000 people that is said to be home to “a faction of FARC dissidents known as the Tenth Front,” as The New York Times notes.
Never before seen
Maduro’s government had reportedly tolerated the group and others like it previously and even allowed it to move drugs in and out of the country freely, but it is believed that the group may have broken an unwritten rule of Maduro and incurred his wrath.
“We’ve never seen something like this on this scale,” Bogota-based nonprofit Conflict Responses founder Kyle Johnson said, according to the Times.
Since March 21, when the campaign began, nine people believed to be guerrillas and two Venezuelan military personnel are known to have died in the attacks, the Times reports.
The refugees are living in makeshift tent encampments across the Columbian border as they fear being caught in the crossfire if they stay in La Victoria. Some refugees say the military is rounding up civilian men they believe may be part of the group and beating or detaining them.
Most of the refugees are Venezuelan, but some are Columbian nationals who had settled across the border. Forty percent of them are children, The Washington Post reported.
Ongoing relief efforts
The U.N. Refugee Agency is reportedly providing tents, mattresses, hygiene kits, and masks to those who flee across the border. “We are working with local partners and authorities to respond to the needs of the civilians that are being displaced,” spokesperson Olga Sarrado said, according to The Washington Post.
In the meantime, explosions and sounds of fighting can be heard from the camps.
“It’s hard, especially with the children,” Anna Maria Vásquez told the Post. She has reportedly been living in the camp with her five children after her husband was beaten and detained.
According to the Post, Americas director for Human Rights Watch José Miguel Vivanco said there is “credible evidence” that members of the Venezuelan military executed three men and a woman during the fighting without going through any judicial process, but Maduro defense minister Vladimir Padrino López has insisted that those killed were terrorists.