The recent massacre of seven people in one of Venezuela’s mining regions may confirm that the Colombia guerrilla group ELN is expanding its criminal activities into the south of Venezuela, encroaching on the gold mining territory of local mafias.
On October 14 on the border with Guyana, alleged members of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) are believed to have ambushed a group of miners in the town of El Bochinche, located in the municipality of Sifontes in Bolívar state.
The first reports came from six miners who survived the attack. Only later did Venezuelan armed forces discover seven bodies near the mine, according to media outlet El Pitazo.
So far, the Venezuelan government has not offered an official version of events.
There have been repeated massacres in the mining areas of Bolívar state, mostly due to rivalries between criminal gangs called either “syndicates” (sindicatos) or “pranatos,” the latter of which is a type of mafia that originated in Venezuela’s prison system and whose leaders are called “pranes.” Mining pranatos have successfully established themselves and now set the standard for all illegal businesses thriving on the unchecked pilfering of Venezuela’s mineral deposits.
What is different about this incident is the alleged role of the ELN. Bolívar’s representative in the National Assembly, Américo De Grazia, was one of the first to confirm it.
“The indigenous and mining communities have been reporting the presence of the ELN in El Bochinche to us since November 2017,” he told InSight Crime.
Colombian President Iván Duque has also mentioned the likelihood of the ELN transferring some of its criminal enclaves to Venezuelan territory -- with the “support” of Nicolás Maduro’s government. This week, he shut down any possibility of dialogue with the guerrilla group if their criminal activities continue.
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While it is believed that the ELN has expanded into Venezuelan territory, it remains difficult to determine just how well established it is. But its alleged presence more than 1,500 kilometers from the Colombian border could mean it is poised to enter into another war -- this time for gold -- and its first battles would be with the criminal gangs operating along the borders with Guyana and Brazil. The ELN could be making headway into Venezuela in search of new opportunities to expand its criminal economies.
SEE ALSO: Venezuela: A Mafia State?
Congressman De Grazia explained that approximately 100 armed and uniformed members of the ELN have allegedly settled in El Bochinche, where the latest attack on miners took place.
“They seized the Hermanos Hernández logging operation and installed a camp there,” he added.
De Grazia also alleged that the ELN and government authorities in the mining areas have formed an alliance as part of a corruption network that reaches all the way to Caracas and involves top military and civil officials.
“The government of President Nicolás Maduro is very satisfied with the work the ELN has done. They appreciate that they’ve displaced the pranatos in controlling illegal mining. The government thinks of the ELN as serious people with whom they can negotiate. That’s why they’re acting with impunity. They moved towards Cedeño [a municipality in Bolívar state] and took over the coltan and diamond mining. Now for about a year we’ve seen them fighting over the gold mines at the other end of the country, on the border with Guyana,” the politician told InSight Crime.
SEE ALSO: ELN en Venezuela
Javier Tarazona, director of non-governmental organization Fundaredes, has been following the ELN’s expansion into Venezuela. He agrees with De Grazia regarding the potential shift in “criminal governments” in the country’s mining regions.
“The government has lost control of the mining pranato and is appealing to the greater fire power that the ELN may have. It’s operating as an armed branch of the ruling party to keep the illegal mining profits coming in,” Tarazone said.
Illegal mining is a criminal economy that the ELN has already been exploiting in Colombian territory. The current situation in Venezuela -- in part because authorities seem to lack the will to intervene -- makes it easier for the group to fill its coffers and strengthen its criminal structures with the resources it gets from gold mining. Add to this the pressure the Colombian government is putting on the guerrilla group by ending the ceasefire, and seeking refuge on the other side of the border may seem like an attractive option for the ELN now more than ever.