Photo: El País retrieved.

In recent years, the small town of Tumeremo, Sifontes municipality in Bolívar State, has been an icon of organized crime in its most violent streak, with groups vying for the mines’ control. Last October 14, rumors of a new “massacre in Tumeremo” started making the rounds, this time with a twist: Colombian guerrilla groups now have a horse in the race.

And, unlike the first massacre in the area (March 2016), families of the victims didn’t ask for justice: “We just want their bodies for burial.”

According to folks from the area, the clash involved the gang of Jhosue Zurita, AKA “El Coporo,” and members of the Colombian National Liberation Front (ELN). The first six victims, all of them with gunshots, were taken to the Dr. José Gregorio Hernández Hospital in Tumeremo, from the El Candado mine—with more victims on the way. The desperate population started protesting and blocking the Troncal 10 roadway.

Rumors of a new “massacre in Tumeremo” started making the rounds, this time with a twist: Colombian guerrilla groups now have a horse in the race.

“When seen from a distance, it would seem like there’s no good people in Tumeremo wanting to live a normal life free from violence,” says Aiskel Andrade, head of the Research Center for Education, Productivity and Life (CIEPV) of the Andrés Bello Catholic University, Ciudad Guayana. “They’re trapped in the midst of the area’s mining activity.”

Small-scale mining isn’t a new phenomenon in Bolívar, it’s been common in towns like El Callao since the 19th century. What’s new is the State’s abandonment, the anarchy, no regulation from the authorities.

“We gotta be careful with what we say,” says a teacher from the area who chose to remain anonymous. “We even doubt our relatives, it’s better not to talk about these things, getting accustomed to the new normal. Nobody moves a finger without authorization.”

Andrade, a lawyer and political scientist, says that the mines have been going through a process like that in Venezuelan prisons, where a new “administration” imposes its rules through coercion and ends being validated by the authorities, to maintain “order”. To her, “Bolívar today is a space in which the State has no apparent control through the established legal and Constitutional means. The real control lies in the hands of groups that compete with violence.”

A milestone that marked the increase from mining to this chaos, was the decree that created the Orinoco Mining Arc, in February 2016, which sought to “reclaim” the mines for transnational companies.

The effect was almost immediate. The first massacre took place mere weeks after the Arc’s inauguration, carried out (according to the official version) by “El Topo,” in the Atenas mine, leaving 17 dead. According to unofficial figures, 100 people have been killed in the mines, in clashes like these for the last two years alone.

Bolívar today is a space in which the State has no apparent control through the established legal and Constitutional means. The real control lies in the hands of groups that compete with violence.

Meanwhile, environmentalists, human rights organizations and native tribes agree that illegal mining has brought more consequences aside from deaths, including forced displacements, a wave of prostitution and human trafficking, and slavery associated to punishments, all of this worsened by ignorance about the rights of indigenous peoples and the environmental destruction of mostly protected areas.

Lawmaker Américo De Grazia has pointed out that, considering the surveillance of the National Guard and the Army, it’s unthinkable how that much gold could be moved without the authorities’ knowledge. There are checkpoints and security outposts at least every 30 minutes along the national road connecting Bolívar’s mining towns.

Although both Jesús Mantilla, chief of the Strategic Region of Integral Defense (REDI Guayana), and Néstor Reverol, national chief of the Scientific Police (CICPC), denied any presence of Colombian armed groups in Venezuela, just two weeks later it was announced that a paramilitary mafia from Colombia, trafficking gold, had been dismantled, according to Prosecutor General Tarek William Saab.

Saab added that, so far in 2018, the aforementioned organization smuggled 150 kilos of gold, equal to $6,000,000, and there’s an arrest warrant against gang leader Eduardo González, known as “El Callao Gold Czar,” AKA “Comandante el Tati.”

President Nicolás Maduro says that mafias illegally extracting gold also finance opposition parties like La Causa R. He adds that they’ll fight against illegal mining and its negative environmental impact through the National Plan of the Orinoco Mining Arc. Zero comments on how or when, in a late response to citizens whose suffering is several years old.

“It’s normal now to hear of people who left for the mines and disappeared,” says the anonymous teacher. “We already know what that means.”

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