Another massacre perpetrated by the army in Venezuela’s mining region has prompted the country’s congress to announce that it will take the case to international courts and initiate an investigation.
The war for gold between the military, government officials and criminal organizations involved in illegal mining could be the motive behind these killings, which have increased in the midst of the country’s worst economic crisis and the threat of international sanctions on its main export: oil.
On February 10 in the town of Guasipati in the southeastern state of Bolívar, a Venezuelan army raid on the Cicapra mine left 18 people dead. Although there were no wounded soldiers, state Governor Justo Noguera Pietri — an official from the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB) who is among those sanctioned by the US government for human rights violations — contended that the officers had been ambushed by a criminal gang.
“It was an attack on a military commission [in which] compliance with protocols” was necessary to repel it, said the governor, in what has been the only official statement from any government official about the incident.
Among the victims of the massacre are a woman, her partner and her 19-year-old son. Angelis Rodríguez Cuevas was a mine operator, and for over 15 years her family had a government permit to operate the Cicapra mine, which is one of the most productive in the region, and where the highest purity gold is obtained.
“Rodríguez was summoned to the Ministry of Mines in Caracas, where officials requested that she incorporate her mine into the Orinoco Mining Arc [a transnational mining project created by Nicolás Maduro’s government in February 2016]. She answered the summons and participated in a meeting where she showed willingness to negotiate the handing over of the mine to the government,” National Assembly Deputy Rachid Yasbeck told InSight Crime.
However, six days later — when the miners were sleeping — came the early morning military incursion. Yasbeck told RunRun.es he believed the victims were executed, as 11 of them presented bullet wounds to the head.
Also among the dead were a farmer and taxi driver delivering contraband fuel, a trade they were just getting started in.
“The country’s situation led them to fuel smuggling, and this was their first trip. They arrived on Thursday afternoon and decided to stay and sleep in the mine because it was getting dark,” a relative of the victims told journalist Germán Dam, who has reported on other killings in the mining area.
“This case needs an in-depth investigation to clarify a lot of things, mainly those related to the involvement of the military,” said Yasbeck, who represents the state of Bolívar.
On February 20, a week after the massacre, the Venezuelan congress announced that it will begin investigations and will require the appearance of the army officials who participated in the military operation. The official release also said that the case “will be subject to many international proceedings.”
But this is not the first mining region massacre that the Venezuelan parliament is investigating. The Cicapra massacre is just one of more than 30 registered in the mining towns of Bolívar over the past 12 years, National Assembly Deputy Américo De Grazia, who has been keeping a log of such slayings, told InSight Crime.
Although Cicapra has left the highest number of victims in its wake, it was the Tumeremo massacre in March of 2016 that exposed the criminal dynamics generated by gold mining. In that incident 17 miners were killed, and the participation of both police officials and criminal gangs was confirmed. However, it remains unclear whether military officials close to the governor or high-ranking government officials were also involved.
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Massacres in recent years have brought attention to this region, known for its abundance in coltan, gold and precious stones. But violence generally in the state of Bolívar has increased since the creation of the Orinoco Mining Arc. In 2017, it was the state with the fourth highest homicide rate at 113 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, while El Callao, a municipality in Bolívar with one of the highest levels of gold mining activity is now registered as the most violent in the country, with a rate of 817 homicides per 100,000 according to data from Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia.
The cause of this spike in violence are the criminal dynamics that has been developing in the area. There are reports that military and government officials are sharing control of mining operations and the region in general with “pranes” (a word often used to refer to jailed gang leaders, but in this case for local crime bosses outside the prison walls) and “sindicatos” (literally, “syndicates,” criminal organizations arising from the labor system, but that should not be confused with labor unions).
“The pranes become withholding agents that charge small-scale miners a ‘vacuna’ or extortion rate of 30 percent of the gold they mine. They also fix the price at which the miner will sell the rest of the gold. The pran has direct control over the mine, enforcing the rules and reporting to the ‘generalato’ [a group of high-ranking military officials], and the gold is mined from Venezuela’s forested regions. They give a quota to the state and leave the country with the rest,” stated De Grazia. (See diagram)
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However, when a dispute or disagreement comes up, it is the military that conducts “cleaning operations” or “government changes,” shifting control of the mines to other criminal groups with which they have reached new — almost always temporary — agreements.
“So, all this trouble and all the massacres that have been happening in Bolívar state, basically in the gold region, are due to the increase in extortion. When the miners start falling behind or refusing to pay, that’s when the massacres start,” De Grazia explained to InSight Crime. “The massacres are part of a state policy involving military leadership, and the aim is to control the gold to smuggle it, to take it to Brazil, Colombia, Trinidad, Aruba, Curaçao and Bonaire.”
This report coincides with recent information released on social networks on the alleged illegal transport of Venezuelan gold in government and personal planes to destinations such as Dubai, China and some Caribbean islands by order of government officials.
As a prime example, on February 9, a Venezuelan merchant was arrested in Aruba with 46 gold ingots valued at more than $2 million, just one day before the Cicapra massacre. The identity of the man, who intended to travel to Holland, was not disclosed, nor were further details of the case.
But this practice is not new. A report from the GNB obtained by InSight Crime describes the arrest in May 2017 of a Venezuelan citizen carrying a two-kilo gold ingot in his luggage. The traveler was detained while preparing to board a flight to Bogotá and was identified as the brother of an ex-president of the state-run company Bauxilum, located in Bolívar state.
“It’s not clear what the mining arc is; it seems like a way to take advantage of the situation. Five thousand tons of gold per year should be going to the nation’s coffers, but that’s not happening,” De Grazia said.
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Some of these acts can be attributed to the search for alternative means of income by the Venezuelan government due to the little wiggle room officials have been left by sanctions imposed by the US government and other countries.
According to De Grazia, what is occurring is the result of the Maduro administration’s attempt to “switch from an oil boom to a mining boom.” This, coupled with the recent threat from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who confirmed that the US government would continue to “impose sanctions on Venezuelan oil,” might have intensified the war for gold in Venezuela.
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