HomeInvestigations‘The Rebel of the South’: Rise of the R Organization
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‘The Rebel of the South’: Rise of the R Organization

ELITES AND CRIME / 17 NOV 2021 BY VENEZUELA INVESTIGATIVE UNIT EN

The sindicatos of Bolívar, gangs that control illegal gold mining, are ruthless. Running operations with an iron fist, they force miners, adults and children alike, to work long hours in unsafe conditions and for little reward. But facing a campaign of violence from Venezuelan armed forces seeking to take over the gold trade, one sindicato stood out. Organization R has become part criminal group, part community organization and part political force.

At around 11 p.m. on April 6, 2020, Lieutenant Colonel Ernesto Solís was returning to the military base he commanded near the town of Tumeremo in the eastern Venezuela state of Bolívar. There he was intercepted by gunmen on motorbikes who riddled his car with bullets. The attack left Solís and the sergeant that accompanied him dead.

Solís' death had an air of inevitability to it. In his role directing military operations in one of Venezuela's most fiercely contested gold mining regions, he had faced numerous accusations of abuses and alliances with armed groups. He had already survived previous attacks on his life, according to his own account. He had many enemies.

The police quickly made it clear which of those enemies they believed to be responsible for the ambush: the R Organization (Organización R – OR) and its leader, Eduardo José Natera Balboa, alias "Run" or "Pelón Natera."

*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.

At the time, few outside of Bolívar had heard of the OR. Reports from the region were more concerned with the military's efforts to seize control of the region's gold trade from criminal gangs in a campaign directed by the inner circle of President Nicolás Maduro and, media investigations and local sources alleged, coordinated with Colombian guerrillas.

Today, though, the OR has skillfully blended armed force with social work and political action to position itself as one of the leading powers in Bolívar's mining heartland. In doing so, it has exposed the failures of the Maduro regime's strategy to turn Bolívar's lawless mining sector into an economic powerhouse that could both prop up Venezuela's spiraling economy and line the pockets of its corrupt elites.

From the Soccer Field to the Battlefield

For more than a decade, the riches of Venezuela's gold mining heartland in Bolívar have been fought over by criminal gangs – known locally as sindicatos (unions). But from the start, the OR was different.

The group's founder, Run, was better known as a player for the local soccer team. But he had a criminal history stretching for more than a decade. In 2009, he was convicted of a series of petty crimes, but he escaped from the local El Dorado prison.

Run formed the OR, also known as the 3Rs, from the remnants of mining gangs that had previously run the trade in Tumeremo, according to Américo de Grazia, a local leader of the political opposition. He strengthened the group by recruiting deserters from the Venezuelan military, a senior Bolívar state government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told InSight Crime.

"Of all the gangs operating in Bolívar, for me, OR is the best organized because they have a tremendous logistical capacity and Colombian-style training," the official said.

Run also sought to win the support of the local community in Tumeremo by handing out food and children's toys; organizing sporting events and activities for the local youth; carrying out or helping improve public services, and even funding a local ambulance service.

SEE ALSO: Gold and Chaos: Gang Lords Rule Venezuela's Orinoco Mining Arc

This social work was carried out under the banner of a charitable organization, the 3Rs Foundation. Although both the foundation and the armed group fiercely deny any links publicly, an OR member, who InSight Crime interviewed via WhatsApp on condition of anonymity, confirmed what in Bolívar is common knowledge, and something that the OR has in the past recognized: They are two faces of the same organization.

"Everything that the town needs, we make it appear through the Foundation," he said.

The OR also took a different approach to mining. Whereas most sindicatos focus on squeezing every last drop of profits from the trade at gunpoint, the OR has positioned itself as a defender of the miners and mining communities.

"We are youths who are worried about the lack of order in the mines and the disrespect for other people," said a 3Rs leader, who agreed to answer InSight Crime's questions by email on condition of anonymity. "We have proposed to bring order, based on respect for others, respect for women and children, respect for the work, the need to honor debts, respect for people's religion, for children's right to education and recreation, and the respect for the health of the mining population."

However, the OR's version of "order" comes at a price. According to the OR member contacted via WhatsApp, that price is 15 percent of gold production. The OR also tightly regulates the commercial activity down to the price. One communique issued to the community obtained by InSight Crime begins with: "We are updating gold prices in dollars, cash and transfers." After listing the new prices, the statement concludes: "The prices established by the OR must be respected. In the case that they are not, corrective measures will be applied as necessary."

For those living in OR territory, "corrective measures" reads as a barely concealed threat as the rules are brutally enforced. In one OR video that circulated around Bolívar, a half-naked man is shown clutching his head with a sign around his neck reading: "Do not hit women." Prompted by a voice behind the camera, he confesses to beating his partner. "There will be no next time," the voice warns him.

However, compared to the "justice" meted out by other mining gangs, which includes mutilation and dismemberment, according to evidence collected by human rights groups, such punishments seem relatively humane to many in Bolívar. Despite the financial cost and the harshness of the group's extrajudicial justice, many of the residents and miners interviewed by InSight Crime welcomed the security the group has provided.

"There is no more extortion, no more kidnappings, all these things that we had to live with, the harassment, the persecution, that has ended," said one Tumeremo resident, who did not want to be identified for security reasons.

When InSight Crime interviewed Solís three months before his murder, he described how the OR had become a formidable enemy by mixing armed power with social outreach. A supportive local population was acting as an intelligence network for the group, giving it a vital advantage over the security forces and criminal rivals.

But it was his description of the time he visited the local offices of the political party, the Venezuelan Popular Unity (Unidad Popular Venezolana – UPV) – a member of the coalition of leftist parties supportive of the Chavista government – that revealed just how far their reach extended.

"On the outside, the office was UPV, but inside it was all OR. The documents said ‘Organización R,’” he said. "On the computer, they had a census of all the people involved in gold sales. Everything, absolutely everything was accounted for."

The coopting of the local branch of UPV – confirmed in the OR's own public statements – was not the limit of the group's political aspirations. The 3Rs Foundation has also worked closely with the Movement for Peace and Life (Movimiento por la Paz y la Vida), a national government program that promotes cultural and sport programs in disadvantaged communities.

The program head is a former professional basketball player and ex-vice minister for sport, Alexander Vargas, who was appointed to the role directly by the Office of the President. The social media feeds of both Vargas and the 3Rs Foundation feature videos of him inaugurating sports facilities and health programs in the company of 3Rs Foundation representatives.

Maduro’s Mirage

The OR's offer to bring order and security was perfectly timed to appeal to Bolívar's mining communities, exhausted by years of violence and turmoil at the hands of criminal groups and security forces.

When the group began its expansion in 2019, it was becoming clear the Maduro government's grand plans to build a thriving gold mining sector in what the government called the Orinoco Mining Arc (Arco Minero del Orinoco – AMO) were little more than a mirage.

The government had failed to bring in either the capital or the technical expertise needed to turn an unregulated, low-tech mining sector into a modern industry. Instead, it had brought in an ever-growing number of actors from the Chavista elite, granting access to the region's wealth to everyone from the president's family to state governors.

"[The Maduro regime has been] dividing up the state as if it were their territory. Everyone receives part of the loot," said a former military official who occupied a senior command position in Bolívar before retiring and who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity.

Bolívar's gold also began to fund a shadow payroll for security forces. Rank-and-file security officials are paid a poverty wage by the near-bankrupt Venezuelan state, so many instead make a living by taking a cut of criminal economies in the areas where they are posted. A constant rotation of personnel sees these opportunities distributed throughout the forces. Bolívar's mining region is now one of the most coveted postings in the country, according to the retired military official.

"When I first came to the south of Bolívar, it was as a punishment," he said. "Now, people fight over it as if it were a prize."

The region was soon flooded with different branches of the security forces, including the military, the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB), police and intelligence services. There is strong evidence the military initially worked with Colombia guerrillas to combat the sindicatos. But as the guerrilla presence began to dissipate, security force units struck up alliances with the sindicatos, turning their guns only on those who would not cooperate or pay them off.

SEE ALSO: Human Trafficking Accompanies Illegal Mining in Venezuela’s Orinoco

InSight Crime spoke to numerous sources in Bolívar who did not wish to be named, among them active and retired military and police service personnel, who described how each branch of the security forces has found its own way of profiting from the trade through the deals they make with sindicatos and other actors behind the mining operations.

Some work directly with criminal groups to control or extort mines, while others protect the interests of political and military elites. Others take on more specialist roles, such as charging those moving contraband gasoline into the region or gold out of the region or by squashing ongoing investigations into murders and other crimes.

Even those who are not corrupt when they arrive in Bolivar soon are enticed by the system, according to an active military official recently stationed in Bolívar, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity.

"We all have a price. It might be money, or it might be family, but we have a price," he said. "Not everyone is bought with gold. With others, they say, 'You pass me information, or I will kill you and your family, and I will chop you into pieces."

But now, a new problem is arising. There may not be enough riches to go around. Informal miners have been exhausting easily accessible gold deposits near the surface, mining experts in the region told InSight Crime, and the promised technologically advanced operations that could dig deeper have failed to appear.

As a result, the Chavista elites and the numerous branches of the security forces have found themselves in competition over dwindling resources, not only with sindicatos but also with each other.

"It is total chaos, a conflict in which the winner is the person who has the most power, who is closest to those at the top," said the retired military official.

War and Peace

In Sifontes, Solís came to embody these tensions. Local communities accused him of being responsible for extrajudicial killings and disappearances and alleged he was collaborating with the Colombian guerrillas. The situation reached a crisis point when in December 2019, the military took over local mines and blockaded access routes to them.

For the OR, he had become the main obstacle to their takeover of Tumeremo.

"Solís made our lives impossible, he didn't let us work," said the OR member. "He killed too many innocent people, which is something Run does not do."

Solís' murder not only paved the way for the OR to seize control of Tumeremo. It also marked the start of their expansion into new regions, as they advanced into the north of Sifontes and pushed into the neighboring municipality of El Callao.

This advance soon earned them new enemies as they moved into territories controlled by one of the region's oldest and most powerful sindicatos: Tren de Guayana.

In the past, Tren de Guayana had received support from former Bolívar governor Francisco Rangel Gómez, according to testimonies of whistleblowers from within the security forces. Media investigations and miners in the region allege that the gang continues to count on the support of allies in power today. There have even been accusations that Tren de Guayana has coordinated operations with a faction of the military and employs current and former soldiers as mercenaries.

Despite having to confront both an armed criminal group and the military, the OR drove their new enemies from at least three mines in months of clashes. Yet while they displayed their military prowess, high-powered arsenal and willingness to use deadly violence, the OR again painted its expansion as a righteous campaign to protect miners from the predatory Tren de Guayana and their military allies.

“The Tren de Guayana rob people. They disrespect women and children. They don't respect public spaces, and they abuse the workers," the OR leader said.

Once again, their rhetoric has been echoed by the miners themselves. After the OR had ended Tren de Guayana's control of a mine located between Tumeremo and the Tren de Guayana stronghold of Guasipati, the miners staged a press conference.

"Thanks to the R Organization, who freed us from the slavery of Tren de Guayana!" said one of the spokespeople. The event ended with the gathered miners chanting "R! R! R!" in unison.

After months of bitter fighting, the conflict came to an abrupt end in September – or at least a pause. The OR released a statement declaring they had reached a peace agreement with Tren de Guayana and the government. According to the statement, the areas around the mines they had fought over would now be "peace zones," free from armed groups.

The rivals remain enemies, Run told InSight Crime, responding by WhatsApp to written questions. But the fight, for the moment, was over.

"Everyone wants peace," he said. "[But] the relationship hasn't changed. Each side will stay in its area. We're not friends. We're not anything."

A New Partnership?

The announcement of the truce came as a surprise, as the OR appeared to have the upper hand in the conflict. The most striking aspect, though, was the role of the Venezuelan Mining Corporation (Corporación Venezolana de Minería – CVM), which, according to Run, helped broker the agreement and will administer the disputed mines.

As Maduro's vision of the Orinoco Mining Arc reviving Venezuela's fortunes has given way to the stark reality of corrupt elites and criminal groups looting natural resources, the CVM is now responsible for ensuring Venezuelan officials continue to get their cut.

The body claims a percentage of the production of every state-authorized mining concession. But according to multiple sources in the region who all spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity, it has similar arrangements with the illegal operations run by sindicatos.

The CVM, though, sources say, is getting frustrated as many of the actors behind the mines – above all the military – are not delivering on their side of the bargain.

"There is a strong clash [between the CVM and the military] because the CVM is not collecting what it is due, and the majority of the owners [of the mining operations] are generals," said the senior Bolívar government official.

The OR, in contrast, has built its reputation on being a reliable partner who can keep the gold flowing. The group appears to have helped deliver control of three mines directly to the CVM's hands - at least for the time being.

The OR becoming a better ally for the CVM than the military would represent a change for an organization that has cultivated a Robin-Hood image of being righteous outlaws, refusing to play the power games with distant elites and local thugs while standing up for the workers those power blocs exploit.

"Run is the rebel of the south because he doesn't want to align himself with any security forces nor with any big name in the government," said the OR member.

Although the OR is playing a dangerous game in Bolívar, it has done so with panache. As Maduro struggles to control the chaos he has unleashed in Bolívar, the Rebel of the South is becoming the state's favored business partner.

*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.

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