In the wake of the killing of over a dozen gold miners in Venezuela's eastern state of Bolívar last month, InSight Crime reprints this article originally published by investigative partner Armando Info in October 2015 on the main actors involved in the region's mining industry.
It was a hot Thursday afternoon and no one was really thinking about solemn acts like declaring independence. Some 600 indigenous people, from 13 communities on the banks of the Paragua River, were on their way to subdue a group of soldiers. The army troops were armed but vastly outnumbered: there were just 22 of them. A month ago the soldiers had evacuated nearly 3,000 illegal miners from the Toronó gold mine. But after their victory, the troops had abandoned their security duties and started using the hydraulic pumps left by the illegal miners for their own benefit.
This article originally appeared in Armando Info and was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission. It does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.
It was easy to defeat the soldiers. The determined indigenous surprised them as they were buried knee-deep in mud, with the pumps working. They disarmed the soldiers and tied them up. Only the official in charge of the group, Lieutenant Gutiérrez, and one soldier managed to escape the attack.
The following day, a helicopter flew Coronel Cortez to the area to negotiate their release. Cortez claimed President Hugo Chávez himself had sent him to take care of the situation. The imposing Cortez expected, demanded almost, the soldiers' freedom.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Mining
Nevertheless, the indigenous group was not about to relinquish control of the situation. Together they realized that they did not know how to negotiate hostages, or anything else for that matter, with the state. They called some of their counterparts in Gran Sábana who had the relevant experience.
Alexis Romero was quick to reply. He arrived in the area on the same day as Chávez's envoy. Romero took the lead in the negotiations with the military official, which would last four days.
And so it was that, unexpectedly, October 27, 2011 sparked a series of events that would give birth to the Musukpa community and its virtual independence from the Venezuelan state. Four years later, its inhabitants exploit the Toronó mine as they see fit, following the guidelines they themselves have established.
The Self-Governance Experiment
A wooden sign tied to a tree greets you at the entrance of the Musukpa community. At first sight, it looks like an expanse of deforested jungle. Large sand banks cover the area. Long hoses on wooden platforms connect to machines that asthmatically churn out muddy water on some weathered rugs that retain some of the suctioned water.
These are all marks of mining. Even though the population is indigenous, they no longer practice small-scale mining. According to an assessment from December 2013, one of every two Musukpa inhabitants owns a small mining machine. Two out of ten do woodwork. One out of ten works in commerce or river transport. Only five percent work in agriculture. In Musukpa there are no parcels of land to plant crops. Demand for "casaba" -- a tortilla made out of yucca flour, which is essential to the indigenous diet -- is satisfied by buying the product in neighboring communities. Musukpa is independent, but not autonomous.
The Musukpa community is surprisingly heterogeneous. Different ethnic groups from the south, as well as "creoles," cohabit in the area. The internal harmony is palpable during the indigenous assemblies.
"Here we do not allow corruption, nor armed gangs, we don't allow the sale of alcohol," says the person who called the assembly, Gloria Lucila Morales, who has a lifetime's experience in the organization and struggles of her "indigenous brothers." Musukpa has strict social norms outlined in 76 articles in 10 chapters, which regulate all aspects of communal living, from mining work to the entry of visitors. According to the Communal Law, the electricity plant must be switched off every day at 10 PM, the exploitation of the mine is only allowed from Monday to Saturday, between 6 AM and 5 PM. Sundays are for communal duties. Failure to abide by the laws can lead to fines and even expulsion from the community.
"We are not getting rich, we are surviving," says Ángel Blanco, former second captain who participated in the disarmament of military troops in 2011. At the assembly, he claims proudly that since 2011 "we have been independent from the government, we maintain the clinic with 10 percent of the commission, we are building a school with mining proceeds. It's not like those blocks over there" -- he indicates some wooden planks -- "were given to us by the government. No, everything here has been thanks to all of our efforts," he reiterates. Those attending the meeting nod in agreement.
The Communal Law establishes a Social Fund under the management of a special commission selected by the indigenous council, which is responsible for administering funds provided by the owners of the mining machines, who must report their earnings every week and contribute a portion to the community. All traders and gold buyers are also obliged to pay contributions.
This de facto law is opposed by national norms, especially the presidential Decree 8.413, which in September 2011 gave the state the monopoly over the exploration, exploitation and commercialization of gold. Only two months later, eight indigenous captains -- among them Alexis Romero -- put forward an appeal for the annulment of the decree.
The Supreme Court rejected the motion. At the time, it told the inhabitants of the areas getting expropriated that they had no right to make decisions regarding their lands.
The legal uncertainty is not the only thing threatening to bring an end to this self-governance experiment. The most urgent menace could be the presence of thugs who have grown increasingly strong in the region.
"They work together," Blanco says, not hesitating to denounce the alliance between military troops and the "syndicates," -- the name given to the illegal armed groups prowling around the area.
"Everybody knows that they pay extortion fees to the military, to the police," he continues. "We're sure that the security forces are at the head of the criminal syndicates."
Blood in the River
There are records that date back to 2005 of violent actions resulting from illegal groups taking control of mines in the municipalities of Sifontes and Piar, in eastern Bolívar. But all the testimonies from locals in the region coincide in specifying that the definitive rupture between the state and the indigenous community occurred at the end of August 2013. This is when Teodoro Osman, who had a camp in Musukpa, disappeared. His body was found weeks later, floating in the river near Uraima, eaten by fish.
Osman paid with his life a debt that was not his. Manolo, his brother, who had allied himself with some outsiders, disappeared without a trace, but left behind a pending debt with a criminal group. The inert, swollen body of Osman served as a warning to the inhabitants of the Paragua area that the "syndicate" law was in force.
On January 21, 2014, almost five months after Osman's death and after numerous meetings, the local population presented a report to the General Assembly, in which they outlined the presence of external groups who use military weapons and carry out "extortion, assaults against women, threats, kidnappings and assassinations."
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Human Rights
A letter signed August 15 of that year shows that a local police commander, Pinto Novis, informed the secretary of citizen security and head of police in the state of Bolívar, Juvenal Villegas, about the issue.
The murder of Osman and the deterioration of the security situation in the Paragua region coincided, tellingly, with the withdrawal of the armed forces and the abandoning of a control point located meters from Port Uraima, where the body was found.
Their withdrawal was reported by 20 community leaders in their January 2014 report.
"Eleven months ago the military officials belonging to the Ministry for the People's Power of Defense stopped their activities in the Uraima Port... for reasons that are unknown to us," the report states. "Since this time, there has been a large influx of non-indigenous and foreign citizens among us, many of them with criminal records. They are organized in criminal gangs, carry out mining activities and violently impose a new administration over everything to do with the trade."
Uraima -- port, passage point, and island -- is a key area of the river. Near here is where the most recent "bulla" -- the name given to sudden mass migrations surrounding new gold discoveries -- took place. The name of the mine is Manaza, the most active one in the Paragua basin. In 2012, when news of its riches was spreading, it attracted thousands of people. Clashes between armed groups left six people dead that year. Two gangs, "Los 24" and the "Marco Polo," fought for control of the area. The conflict forced a military intervention.
Whichever group has the key to Uraima controls transit along the Paragua, which is vital to river communities. In 2013, an incident there made it very clear how far illegal gangs were willing to go to gain control.
Everything began on a Sunday, sources agree. A handful of hooligans were camping out in Uraima. When notified of this, Andrés Solis and other communal authorities went to where they were and asked them to leave the area, which they did grudgingly.
The next morning, a nervous group of indigenous people went to the community leaders with the news that the bandits had seized the port. They had gone for reinforcements, and were under the command of a Colombian names Edwin. As a warning, they exhibited an arsenal that included hand grenades.
Around 100 indigenous people, armed with arrows and shotguns, went to take back control of the area. But on this occasion, blood was not to flow. Tempers began to calm down and the parties agreed that both indigenous people and syndicates could move freely in Uraima, as long as they respected the indigenous authority and did not carry arms, or at least did not display them.
The locals had certainly not been intimidated. But to keep the peace they had paid a heavy price: allowing illegal groups to move through their ancestral lands.
The native communities continue to respect this status quo. Nevertheless, at the time they incessantly informed state authorities regarding the incident and its consequences. They never received a response.
In early 2014, then-Minister of the Interior, Justice and Peace Miguel Rodríguez Torres visited the area and promised the creation of special groups for the "neutralization of these gangs, who can practically do whatever they want." But a year and a half later, the reality has barely changed.
The Gold Devil
The January 2014 report to the General Assembly ended up being a founding document of sorts for Musukpa and its sudden ambition to become an independent enclave.
Seeing that the "survival of the fittest" law was beginning to take over the region, overrunning the authority of the Venezuelan state, the report includes a statement that, as would later be verified, was not an empty threat. The indigenous community was preparing to defend itself.
"Should the security institutions not assume their responsibilities, we will be obliged to organize our people in the defense of our rights and to fight insecurity in our territories," the document reads.
In January 2014, the formation of self-defense groups was considered to be imminent. The locals suggested that the groups be maintained using financial contributions from traders, river transport, visitors, owners of mining machines, and other workers.
In Venezuela, the example of Musukpa was contagious. Two years after the seizure of Toronó, the Pemón people disarmed Venezuelan military officials who were forcing them to pay extortion fees in the Gran Sabana.
SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profiles
Now, in some areas of Gran Sabana, there are local security brigades. Last July a meeting was held in which the idea of a future indigenous university for security was conceived.
The popularity of self-governance in the region is partly due to Romero, the community leader who helped negotiate the military hostage situation in 2011. Romero paid a high price for his assistance: he was the only one out of the five captains who ended up in prison for the revolt against the military authorities. He was detained in the Eastern Penitentiary, better known as La Pica. After a number of days, Romero received an unexpected presidential pardon from Hugo Chávez.
In a telephone conversation from Gran Sabana, Romero advises caution when evaluating what is occurring among the Pemón people regarding communal security. Firstly, so that people do not confuse local initiatives with other security groups formed over the past few years, such as the so-called "collectives." He worries that the confusion may at some point serve to criminalize the autonomous movement in its infancy.
Secondly, he urges caution so that people do not idealize the situation. This is not a case of the "noble savage," but of supervising a mining activity that wrecks nature and collective morality. This is the gold devil.
"The indigenous people are miners because nobody has supported them in any other type of activity," says anthropologist Esteban Mosonyi. "They have requested help with tourism, help with agriculture, normal economic activities and they never received assistance."
In Musukpa, few youths seem willing to carry out communal work, the foundation of the indigenous community's very existence.
"Seeing as it's not a paid job, to cover their needs they work as miners," Lucila Morales says with regret during her speech at the indigenous assembly. "This is the sad reality of what we are dealing with."
A video of the 2011 indigenous revolt against soldier-miners. Part 2
*This article originally appeared in Armando Info and was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission. It does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.