Armed men, wearing a red star and the face of Che Guevara, were on the move near Venezuela's border with Guyana. Well-armed and well-trained, they claimed not to be but almost certainly were from the ELN, the strongest guerrilla group in the region. They soon took on entrenched local gangs, seeking to take control of illegal gold mines. For themselves and for their government backers.
On October 14, 2018, armed men ambushed a group of gold miners near the Corre Gente mine in the municipality of Sifontes, near Venezuela's border with Guyana. Seven were shot execution-style, with a single bullet to the head. Sixteen more disappeared.
The massacre was shrouded in mystery. Publicly, authorities in the state of Bolívar blamed this massacre on a conflict between local mining gangs, especially that led that by local gangster Jhosué Zurita, alias "El Coporo." But survivors and relatives of the victims who spoke to local journalists and representatives of Venezuela's political opposition voiced a different story: the Corre Gente mine had been taken over by a Colombian guerrilla group a long way from home – the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN).
A year later, Lieutenant Colonel Ernesto Solís, then-commander of the nearby Tarabay military base, granted a rare interview to InSight Crime. His account of the events leading up to the massacre, while ambiguous, acknowledged that the group that committed the massacre was no ordinary gang but a guerrilla group calling itself the Che Guevara Movement.
*This investigation exposes how the Maduro regime’s attempts to control Venezuela’s mining heartland in the state of Bolívar has led to criminal chaos, as guerrilla groups, heavily armed gangs and corrupt state elements battle over the country’s gold. Read the full investigation here.
"Coporo sent an invitation to those Che Guevara people: 'Let's have a meeting to divide up territories'… Five went, and they killed four, and one escaped," Solís told InSight Crime. "What did the group do? They went to the crossroads and blocked the road… [Coporo] tried to infiltrate the people entering [the mining zone], but the guerrillas knew who they were. They killed those seven (people): two women and five men."
The Corre Gente massacre brought widespread attention to a rumor that was already rapidly gaining pace in Bolívar: The ELN was advancing on Venezuela's mining heartland and had been invited to do so by the government. Their goal: to bring order to Venezuela's anarchic mining region and channel its riches to the Chavista elite.
But three years on, it appears that the region's most powerful guerrilla group has not come close to taming Bolívar.
Arrival of the Guerrillas
Colombia's guerrillas may have been a long way from home in eastern Venezuela, but they were in familiar economic territory.
In the neighboring state of Amazonas, which borders Colombia, indigenous communities reported incursions into illegal gold mines by dissidents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) for at least five years. When the FARC demobilized after signing peace accords with the Colombian government in 2016, it created an opening for Colombia's second-largest guerrilla army – the ELN.
According to the newspaper El Tiempo, in a report corroborated by a former Colombian government official in the border region who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity, the ELN's push into Amazonas was negotiated with dissidents from the FARC peace process who had refused to demobilize. InSight Crime has referred to these dissident elements as the ex-FARC Mafia.
But the FARC dissidents were not the ELN's only allies. In recordings published by Venezuelan investigative media outlet ArmandoInfo in 2021, which were recorded in early 2020, an ELN commander explained to an indigenous assembly about the guerrillas' agenda in the region.
SEE ALSO: Southern Venezuela: A ‘Gold Mine’ for Organized Crime
"Is there a commitment to the Venezuelan state? Yes, there is," he declared. "This country faces a threat of possible invasion. The country needs friends, allies, collaborators, servants and neighbors; that's why the ELN and the FARC are here."
The audio recordings also hinted at the nature of the relationship between the guerrillas and the Venezuelan state. In 2016, the government of President Nicolás Maduro had opened large swathes of Bolívar to the exploitation of gold, coltan and other minerals in a drive to prop up Venezuela's flagging finances. The project was known as the Orinoco Mining Arc (Arco Minero del Orinoco – AMO).
"We've had meetings with 75 leaders of indigenous mining communities in Caicara, Manapiare, Parguaza and El Burro," a guerrilla commander said. "Who leads these meetings? The government. Who is invited? The ELN and the FARC...What does the Mining Arc need? Security in the territory. Security can't be provided by thugs or paramilitaries. It's provided by the security forces, the government, indigenous people and friendly revolutionary organizations."
The areas the commander mentioned are remote indigenous regions in the border region between Amazonas and Bolívar, far removed from Venezuela's historic mining heartland in eastern Bolívar. But by mid-2018, very similar reports were emerging some 800 kilometers from the Colombian border, in the far east of one of Bolívar's most gold-rich municipalities, Sifontes.
“You can see them at the entrance to the Hoja de Lata sector, in Anacoco and San Martín de Turumbán. They wear camouflage trousers, boots and a black shirt. There are not only people with Colombian accents [but] also indigenous people. They are already recruiting," El Universal quoted a local resident saying in May 2018.
The mysterious Colombians did not identify publicly with any known guerrilla group, but their rhetoric was familiar.
"They told me that they were here to defend the nation against any foreign invasion. They rule over specific places where the government has granted them a share of mining," a religious leader in Sifontes told InSight Crime, under condition of anonymity.
"They have good weapons and are very well-trained. They are better prepared for war than the army itself," he added.
The affiliations and origins of the guerrillas were veiled in confusion, and on the ground, only a small number of miners, opposition representatives and journalists who spoke to InSight Crime named the ELN. But numerous local miners and residents confirmed that new criminal actors were moving in on Bolívar's mining zones: mysterious guerrillas whose waterproof boots earned them the nickname patas de goma (rubber feet).
In the interview with Solís, the lieutenant colonel also pointed to two distinct and previously unheard-of groups: the Che Guevara Movement and the Hugo Chávez Frías Revolutionary Group. InSight Crime corroborated these names with local social leaders and researchers.
"To me, they are not guerrillas, but thugs," Solís told InSight Crime in early 2020 when he was commander of the Tarabay military base. "If the ELN was here, no other group would last a week."
But an indigenous representative from San Martín de Turumbán in eastern Sifontes, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, told a different story.
"They identified as ELN," she insisted to InSight Crime. "They didn't say the name, but they had ELN on their clothes. They had a cap with a red star and the face of Che Guevara."
The representative described how the guerrillas convinced indigenous leaders to allow them in, telling them bad elements were operating within the community.
"We gave them permission to enter, unarmed, to keep an eye on security," she said. "But then, they started to take on other roles. They started to control the fuel going to Guyana, charge extortions, and go into the mines. They wanted to control the mines, and they succeeded."
Once in control, the guerrillas set about imposing order in the previously chaotic gold mines.
"They have a hut where they register you, check your pockets to see you're not carrying any weapons or drugs," a former worker from a guerrilla-controlled mine, who did not want to be identified for security reasons, explained. "You can only drink on Saturday and Sunday, and after midnight on Sunday, you can't drink. If someone is drunk on Monday, they punish them."
Although the guerrillas' rule was strict, local miners, social leaders and researchers agreed that it was fairer than the gang rule of the past. Punishments were forced labor, not mutilation. Protection payments were standardized, not capricious. Recruitment was voluntary, not coerced.
The Guerrillas, the Military and the Sindicatos
From the beginning, there were signs that the guerrillas' interests in eastern Bolívar went beyond controlling local mines.
"They talk [of politics] when there are meetings," the miner told InSight Crime. "The meetings are every week, sometimes every 15 days. They say it's all for the Mining Arc. That a company will come to bring machines to do open cast mining."
The political opposition also echoed the notion that the guerrilla advance was intertwined with Maduro's plans to revive the mining sector by attracting investment to the AMO.
"Big multinationals have demanded more security in the area to invest," opposition representative Américo de Grazia told El Nuevo Herald in 2018. "And the state is trying to guarantee that security by using the ELN, who they believe is more reliable than the gangs.
"The ELN has launched an all-out offensive to eliminate the gangs, allowing the armed forces not to get their hands dirty," de Grazia added.
The arrival of the guerrillas coincided with a major shift in the state's approach to the mining gangs that had long controlled the regional gold trade - the sindicatos (unions).
In June 2018, the government announced a massive security crackdown on the gold sector, issuing a list of targets that included many of the illegal gold traffickers who had been allowed to flourish under Bolívar's allegedly corrupt former governor, General Francisco Rangel Gómez. It was dubbed Operación Manos de Metal (Operation Metal Hands).
Many of Bolívar's homegrown sindicatos abruptly went from criminal allies to enemies of the state. There was a proliferation of bloody clashes as military units sought to drive out the powerful gangs that had long controlled Bolívar's illegal gold mines. Many of the incidents showed a similar pattern.
"Local people denounced that ELN guerrillas worked in tandem with state security forces," local journalist Germán Dam reported on Twitter after 100 security forces agents raided the El Salto mine in the municipality of El Callao. "The former attacked in the early morning, and later the army and police units did likewise."
The pattern of apparently coordinated assaults continued into 2019 and 2020. Several of Bolívar's once-powerful gang leaders fled the onslaught, only to be brought down by security forces in distant states of Venezuela.
The epicenter of activity remained Sifontes, where Solís, who had become notorious for allegedly ordering forced disappearances and extrajudicial executions, faced accusations he was using the Tarabay military base as a hub for coordinating with the guerrillas.
In December 2019, miners gathered in Sifontes' municipal capital of Tumeremo, shouting and bearing placards. Their demand: the immediate departure of Solís from the Tarabay military base on the outskirts of the town.
"Solís is the head of the guerrillas," one sign read.
Since the massacre in Corre Gente, the protesters claimed, the army had taken control of over 30 mines between Tumeremo and the Guyana border, blocking entry to local miners.
"[The military] said December 20 was an ultimatum for the whole mining population to get out, and anybody who was in the mines after that would be killed," a community leader in Tumeremo, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, told InSight Crime in early 2020. "The commander [Solís] said to me: 'I have a presidential order to close the mines because currently, the government doesn't depend on oil, but on gold."
"Now, access to artisanal mining is closed, but priority is given to the machines the government has put in there," he added.
A Vanishing Army
The Tumeremo blockade and the military takeover of mines appeared to confirm that the ELN had marched on Bolívar to help the government wrest control of the state's riches from the sindicatos and prepare the ground for Maduro's Orinoco Mining Arc.
But the mining machines and multinational investors did not appear. Instead, concessions were handed out to anyone with political and military connections in "strategic alliances" with authorities. And the guerrilla presence began to dissipate, while many of the sindicatos remained as firmly entrenched as ever.
In some regions of Bolívar, the guerrillas had simply been unable to break the mining gangs' resistance.
"In El Callao, they tried to take [the sector] El Perú, but the El Perú gang has been there for years. They know their area well, and they are very, very well-armed," a local journalist, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity, explained. "There have been clashes, firefights, but the guerrillas have not been able to enter El Callao."
In others, though, the guerrillas seemed to relinquish control of the mines they had seized.
SEE ALSO: How Many Colombian Fighters are Really Inside Venezuela?
The mine of Cicapra, in the Guasipati region, was one of the first to be reportedly taken over by the ELN-military alliance. But when InSight Crime visited the area in early 2020, local miners, gold traders, engineers and government officials all confirmed that the mine was not in the hands of the guerrillas but one of the most powerful local sindicatos, Tren de Guayana.
At most, there were tentative suggestions that the ELN may have been working alongside the group.
"When I was in Cicapra, there were some people in military dress there as well," one miner, who did not want to be identified over security fears, said. "Colombian people. I don't know who they were. They had a weapon that was like a mini-machine gun."
"You have to cross the river to enter the mine, they check you there, they ask you about everything," the miner added.
Other sources also suggested the guerrillas had been taking on a supporting role with allied sindicatos.
"Some [gangs] are enemies [of the guerrillas], and some are allies," said a retired Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB) officer who served in Bolívar. "There are systems [gangs] under training from the guerrillas. There are other systems who are training against the guerrillas."
The guerrillas even began to disappear from the more distant areas near the Guyana border, where they had invested in controlling mines and establishing bases in communities.
"[The guerrillas] are not here anymore," said the indigenous woman in San Martín de Turumbán. "They told me they kicked them out."
Many of the sindicatos, however, remain. Some of them are led by gang bosses whose names appeared on the list of targets for Operation Manos de Metal but were never truly targeted. Others had leaders who had been left off the list altogether. A handful of holdouts continue to resist the security forces' pressure.
In this light, many in the region believe, Manos de Metal and the guerrilla assault was not a serious move to remove Bolívar's sindicatos but a strategic ploy to force them to collaborate with the government.
"The goal was to displace groups who wouldn't fit into the system. They would simply take one out if it wasn't producing or wasn't investing," said the Venezuelan mining economist. "It was about consolidating power, rather than a system to improve gold mining."
The guerrillas appear to have played a role as shock troops or enforcers as part of this strategy. But spread thin and hundreds of kilometers from their core units on the Colombian border, they were always going to struggle to control such fiercely-contested territory.
However, the ELN has not disappeared from Bolívar completely. In addition to the sporadic reports of checkpoints or mysterious men in camouflage and rubber boots supporting sindicatos, there are signs the guerrillas have been seeking opportunities to profit from Bolívar's gold in less hostile terrain.
In mid-2020, the government announced a new legal initiative declaring six rivers in central and western Bolívar open for gold extraction. In the weeks after it passed, indigenous communities in the Caura River basin denounced the appearance of new mining dredges – rafts that suck up the river bed to filter out the gold it contains.
The protests were met with violence, and indigenous representatives reported that an armed group linked to the new mining operations had attacked one of the communities, killing three people. Although the statement did not name the group responsible, local opposition representative Américo de Grazia claimed the ELN was behind the violence once again.
Sources with knowledge of dynamics in the Caura basin confirmed the ELN presence, saying they were dividing up the territory with FARC dissidents.
"It's the guerrillas who have control in the mines of Caura," an environmental researcher, who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons, told InSight Crime. His account was corroborated by a miner from the region, who also asked to remain anonymous.
The Caura basin is remote and relatively uncontested, home to marginalized indigenous groups, with whom the ELN has long sought to foster relations of collaboration and submission and hundreds of kilometers closer to the guerrillas' core units. For now, it seems, the guerrillas are back in their comfort zone.
Back in Bolívar's mining heartland, in the municipality of Sifontes, the ELN's alleged military collaborator Solís has been murdered, and there is barely a trace left of the Colombian guerrillas.
"For me, it's a myth," was a typical reply from a resident of Tumeremo, who asked to remain anonymous out of security fears when pressed about the guerrillas. "Maybe at one time there were some dissidents, or guerrillas or Colombians. A small group, over in the area of Bochinche [Corre Gente]. But now, no. Absolutely not."
Instead, a new sindicato has risen up to control Tumeremo. Known only as the R Organization (Organización R – OR), the group's rhetoric has included a now-familiar pledge: to bring order to the chaos. But this time, the group claims, it will not be for the benefit of corrupt elites and predatory gangs but for the miners themselves.
*This investigation exposes how the Maduro regime's attempts to control Venezuela's mining heartland in the state of Bolívar has led to criminal chaos, as guerrilla groups, heavily armed gangs and corrupt state elements battle over the country's gold. Read the full investigation here.