Photo: The New York Times, retrieved.
Residents of Venezuela’s southern Bolívar State are suffering amputations and other horrific abuses at the hands of armed groups, including Venezuelan criminal gangs (aka “syndicates”) and Colombian paramilitary groups FARC and ELN, which take control over gold mines. This is all in a report by Human Rights Watch released on February 4th; the irregular groups seem to operate largely with Maduro’s regime acquiescence and, in some cases, the government participates to maintain control over local populations.
“Poor Venezuelans driven to work in gold mining by the ongoing economic crisis and humanitarian emergency have become victims of macabre crimes by armed groups that control illegal mines in southern Venezuela,” said José Miguel Vivanco, America’s director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s critical for gold buyers and refineries to ensure that any Venezuelan gold in their supply chains is not stained with the blood of Venezuelan victims.”
The illegal exploitation of these resources is still the rule, becoming attractive to local criminal bands that not only take the goods, they also impose terror—inside and outside the mines.
Venezuela is well known for its reserves of gold, diamonds, nickel, even coltan and uranium. Although Maduro’s regime has announced efforts to attract legal mining companies, the illegal exploitation of these resources is still the rule, becoming attractive to local criminal bands that not only take the goods, they also impose terror—inside and outside the mines.
They set unfair working conditions—including 12-hour shifts, and no meds or security equipment—and other inhuman treatments that include, in the worst cases, murder and dismemberment in front of other workers.
The Horror of Irregular Armed Groups
Numerous sources confirmed to HRW not only the wide control of local gangs in mines and towns, but also the presence of paramilitary groups; as the International Crisis Group has reported, both FARC and ELN operate in the area. People interviewed also said that Maduro’s regime authorities are well aware of the situation.
“Two people working in the mines and an indigenous leader, interviewed by Human Rights Watch separately, claimed they saw a top official from the Nicolás Maduro government visit the mines in different incidents,” the HRW’s report says.
“Everyone knows the rules,” one resident said. “If you steal or mix gold with another product, the pran [the syndicate leader] will beat or kill you.”
“They’re the government there,” another source says. “If you steal, they ‘disappear’ you.”
People interviewed also said that Maduro’s regime authorities are well aware of the situation.
Miners are forced to pay large portions of the gold they get—up to 80%—to the syndicate. Residents working in shops or restaurants in mining towns must pay a set amount of gold to operate each week.
But local gang control is far from harmonious. Each mine is ruled by a local gang that not only fights other groups, they also fight FARC and ELN forces, all for control of the mines.
From 2012 to 2019, at least 50 people have been reported missing only in Bolívar, according to local sources. The real number is most likely higher, but there are no official figures available.
Even though Maduro’s regime has announced operations to detain people (including some public officials), no information has been released about investigations for crimes that constitute human rights violations, committed with the acquiescence or participation of security forces.
For example: Maduro announced, in June 2018, the operation “Metal Hands” to crack down on illegal gold trafficking. The authorities claim to have issued arrest warrants for 39 people involved in sales of gold abroad, and the detention of Doarwin Alan Evans, vice-president of the only state-ruled mining company, Minerven. Beyond that, efforts haven’t been enough to tackle neither gold trafficking nor inherent violence.
The Malaria Disaster
The HRW’s report also focuses on the dwindling health conditions around the illegal gold mining in the south of Venezuela. Deforestation, mining pits, enormous use of water, and also rainwater provide an ideal environment for mosquitoes carrying malaria.
In the eight years from 2010 to 2018, malaria cases in Venezuela increased by 797%, rising swiftly from 136,402 in 2015 to 240,613 in 2016; and 404,924 confirmed cases in 2018. Moreover, 323,392 malaria cases were reported in Venezuela between January and October 13th, 2019, according to Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and World Health Organization (WHO).“Nearly every person interviewed who had worked in mines or mining towns had had malaria, many of them multiple times. The public health system, amid the humanitarian emergency, has not been able to provide treatment to everyone. Several interviewees said they sometimes had to purchase antimalarial drugs, which could cost up to two grams of gold, currently about $100 on the international market,” the report says.
Maduro’s Blood Gold
The HRW’s report, consistent with testimony gathered on the field and according to international and local groups, states that the vast majority of gold mined in Venezuela is reported to be illegal.
Some of the gold is sold to Venezuela’s Central Bank, but most of it is smuggled through the borders, reportedly reaching countries like Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Switzerland.
Some of the gold is sold to Venezuela’s Central Bank, but most of it is smuggled through the borders, reportedly reaching countries like Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Switzerland. The total amount is difficult to determine, precisely due to its illegality.
Former President Hugo Chávez announced the “Orinoco Mining Arc” in 2011, with the purpose of nationalizing the exploitation and export of metals and non-metals. This area includes the Canaima National Park, a Unesco Heritage Site, and indigenous territories.
On February 24th, 2016, President Nicolás Maduro created the “National Strategic Zone of Development of Orinoco Mining Arc,” to further develop this area of 111,843 square kilometers (12% of the country) in several states, including Bolívar, for mining, with the stated purpose of extracting thousands of tons of gold, diamonds, and other minerals.
Environmental impact studies were never performed.