BOGOTA – Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said on Monday that he has accepted an offer from Uruguay to mediate the dispute arising from Venezuelan head of state Nicolas Maduro’s decision to close a strategic stretch of his country’s border with Colombia.
“I received a telephone call last week from the president of Uruguay, Tabare Vazquez, who offered his good offices to facilitate the dialogue with Venezuela,” Santos told reporters after a Cabinet meeting.
“I accepted his offer and told him I was even prepared for this meeting (between Santos and Maduro) to be in Montevideo if he thought it necessary,” the Colombian president said.
Maduro ordered the border crossing between San Antonio, Venezuela, and Cucuta, Colombia, sealed after suspected smugglers opened fire on Venezuelan troops in the area on Aug. 19.
Contraband has long been an issue on the 2,219-kilometer (1,378-mile) border, as the Venezuelan government uses subsidies and price controls to hold down the cost of fuel and staple foods, making it possible for Colombian smugglers to profit by reselling cheap goods from Venezuela.
Caracas says that Los Urabeños and Los Rastrojos, two of the largest gangs comprising former members of Colombia’s right-wing AUC paramilitary federation, have largely taken over the smuggling business in the border area.
“I reiterate my readiness to meet with President Maduro so that through a serious and respectful dialogue ... can resolve the border problems that so much affect Colombians as well as Venezuelans,” Santos said Monday.
Since the border closure, more than 1,000 Colombians have been deported and around 15,000 others have fled Venezuela to avoid deportation, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
“I am ready for dialogue, but if they never again violate the fundamental rights, the human rights of our compatriots,” Santos said Monday.