Hundreds of Colombians have been fleeing Venezuela, wading across the River Tachira with fridges, mattresses and bed on their backs. Venezuela says it is cracking down on paramilitary and smuggling gangs active along the border but the families fleeing said they had nothing to do with crime.

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Jose Miguel Gomez/Reuters
Venezuela Colombia
Jose Miguel Gomez/Reuters
Venezuela Colombia
Jose Miguel Gomez/Reuters
Venezuela Colombia
Jose Miguel Gomez/Reuters

The Colombians, many of whom have lived in Venezuela for years, said they were abandoning their homes after they said they were given 72 hours to pack up and leave by Venezuelan security forces.

Most of the refugees have lived for years in Ernesto Guevara, an extremely poor Venezuelan border village, or other nearby settlements, but they were forced to leave after Venezuelan authorities marked their homes with a 'D' for 'demolition' over the weekend.

"This is like when the Jews' houses were marked with stars in Germany," said Maria Velazco as she helped Colombian friends living in Ernesto Guevara pack up their things.

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A young man poses for a picture at the door of his house, which has been marked with the letter D for demolitionCarlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters
Venezuela Colombia
A man sleeps on a mattress on the floor of his partially dismantled house which has been marked with a letter D for demolitionCarlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters
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A Venezuelan soldier walks past rubble after the houses of illegal Colombian immigrants were destroyed in San Antonio, Tachira State, VenezuelaGeorge Castellanos/AFP
Venezuela Colombia
Venezuelan troops serch for illegal immigrants in San Antonio, Tachira State, VenezuelaGeorge Castellanos/AFP

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has blamed many of recession-hit Venezuela's problems on Colombians.

He said he was forced to act to protect communities from violent mafias who he says smuggle goods purchased in Venezuela at ultra-low prices and resell them for huge profits across the border, further emptying already barren supermarket shelves.

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A baby carried by his mother cries while they queue outside a supermarket to try to buy milk near the border with Colombia at Urena in Tachira state, VenezuelaCarlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters
Venezuela Colombia
A woman walks past empty refrigerator shelves at a Makro supermarket in Caracas, VenezuelaCarlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters
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A vendor fills up the tank of a car in Cucuta, Colombia, with petrol smuggled from VenezuelaLuis Acosta/AFP

The socialist leader also said he was acting to defend residents along the border after gunmen he claimed were paramilitaries linked to former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe shot and wounded three army officers on an anti-smuggling patrol.

Uribe has repeatedly denied links to paramilitaries or killings in Venezuela, saying such allegations are attempts by Maduro, who he calls a dictator, to distract attention from that country's deepening economic crisis as elections loom in December.

Tensions between the South American countries spiked to their highest level in years after Maduro closed a major border crossing and declared a state of emergency in six western cities. Maduro said the normally busy Simon Bolivar international bridge would remain closed until Colombian authorities do their part to bring order to the porous border, an area long plagued by violence and drug-trafficking.

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An aerial view of the Simon Bolivar international bridge on the border between Venezuela and ColombiaReuters
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Venezuelan national guards deny a man and his son in the Tachira River permission to enter VenezuelaJose Miguel Gomez/Reuters
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Members of the Venezuelan police stand guard on the borderLuis Acosta/AFP
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Colombians deported from Venezuela carry their belongings across the Tachira RiverLuis Acosta/AFP
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A Colombian woman cries as she arrives with her daughter in Cucuta after crossing the border from VenezuelaLuis Acosta/AFP
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A woman cries after being reunited with her son following their separation during the closure of the border at the Simon Bolivar bridgeCarlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters
Venezuela Colombia
Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters
Venezuela Colombia
A woman cries while embracing her daughter before sending her across the river to ColombiaCarlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters
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A Colombian woman deported from Venezuela rests with her belongings alongside the Tachira RiverJose Miguel Gomez/Reuters
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Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos talks with a woman at a shelter in CucutaLuis Acosta/AFP

Venezuela's roughly five million Colombians are grappling with whether to stay on in the crisis-hit country. Many were economic migrants lured by an oil-fuel boomed that earned the Opec country the nickname 'Saudi Venezuela' in the 1970s, while others fled Colombia's guerrilla war.

As the socialist-led Venezuelan economy deteriorates, however, thousands have already packed their bags to return to Colombia and leave behind severe shortages of medicines and meat, unchecked crime and economic inflation.