Sao Paulo — Brazil will send troops to its border with Venezuela on Monday after residents of the Brazilian border town of Pacaraima drove out Venezuelan immigrants from their improvised camps, amid growing regional tension.
Tens of thousands of Venezuelans have crossed into Brazil over the past three years as they seek to escape the economic, political and social crisis gripping their country.
The latest show of tension began early on Saturday, hours after a local merchant was robbed and severely beaten in an incident blamed on Venezuelan suspects, in Pacaraima, where about 1,000 immigrants are living on the street.
Dozens of locals then attacked the two main immigrant makeshift camps and burned their belongings, leading Venezuelans to cross the border back into Venezuela. Shots were fired, stores were closed and debris littered the streets.
"It was terrible, they burned the tents and everything that was inside," said Carol Marcano, a Venezuelan who works in Boa Vista and was on the border returning from Venezuela. "There were shots, they burned rubber tyres."
Marcano said that some Venezuelans reacted to the attack by destroying a car. She and her companions were among many who took refuge at checkpoints on the Venezuelan side of the border. Three Brazilians were hurt in the clashes, a spokesperson for the military police said. No information is available on their condition.
The merchant who was attacked "is known, he is a neighbour, and there was indignation when it was learned that he had been robbed," a local told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"People began to expel Venezuelans who were in the centre of the city, forcing them to return to their country."
Roraima state governor Suely Campos made a plea to temporarily close the border and asked Brazilia to send security reinforcements to "face the increase in crime" she links to Venezuelans in the region.
The public security ministry vowed to send a contingent of 60 troops due to arrive Monday.
Tension is rising in Latin America over migration triggered by the crises in Venezuela and in Nicaragua, where President Daniel Ortega has led a brutal crackdown on antigovernment protesters.
Peru and Ecuador are halting immigrants at the border by requiring would-be border-crossers to show their passports — which many lack — instead of simple identity cards. Last week 20,000 Venezuelans entered Peru, authorities say. The restrictive measures there will go into effect on August 25.
Colombia has said it fears that Ecuador’s border controls, which went into effect on Saturday after the country declared a migration emergency, will leave thousands of Venezuelans stranded in Colombia. An estimated 3,000 people cross every day from Colombia to Ecuador in the border town of Rumichaca. The UN estimates 2.3-million Venezuelans have fled the crisis looking for work and to escape poverty, while Colombia has given temporary residence to more than 800,000.
Many Venezuelans are looking further afield, aiming to settle in Peru, Chile, Argentina or even Uruguay. Peru said 5,100 Venezuelans entered on August 11, a record for a single day.
In Costa Rica, hundreds of people took part in sometimes violent protests on Saturday using Nazi symbols to repudiate Nicaraguan migrants.
Some demonstrators, carrying swastikas and shouting anti-immigrant slogans, tried to attack Nicaraguans gathered in the central La Merced park in San Jose and clashed with police who tried to contain them, security minister Michael Soto said, adding that there were only some minor injuries.
The clashes in Brazil took place amid an increase in robberies and violent incidents in the city of 12,000 people that locals blame on immigrants, while the government points to a lack of resources to address the situation.
In response to the violence, the Venezuelan foreign ministry urged Brazil to "guarantee the safety of Venezuelan nationals and take measures to protect and safeguard their families and belongings".
By nighttime, the streets were quiet, authorities said. Brazilian federal police estimate that 500 Venezuelans cross into Brazil daily.