Dozens of massacres and a sprawling organized crime structure are behind a recent alliance between the governments of Venezuela and Turkey to extract, refine and market the "blood gold" that leaves the Amazon and supplies cross-border illegal economies.
During a recent visit to Venezuela, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ratified the leading role of Turkey in the Venezuelan gold business, with exports of the mineral reaching $779 million, and through agreements for the Eurasian country to participate directly in its exploitation.
Erdogan also expressed his direct support for Nicolás Maduro to avoid sanctions as part of the executive order signed by President Donald Trump on November 1 with the purpose of preventing the "plunder of Venezuela's wealth for...corrupt purposes."
This blockade on international transactions for Venezuelan gold is the latest in a series of sanctions against Venezuelan officials who have been linked to drug trafficking, money laundering, and corruption. "The Maduro regime has used this sector as a bastion to finance illicit activities, to fill its coffers, and to support criminal groups," said US National Security Advisor John Bolton.
On the other hand, the Venezuelan government has recognized that illegal mining activity is growing out of control in the south of the country. In June, Vice President Tareck El Aissami reported the arrest of 28 people as a result of an operation called "Hands of Metal."
"These bands had as their modus operandi the purchase of gold from the small miners of the (southeastern) state of Bolívar and then, with organized crime networks, they took that material out of Venezuela," El Aissami said.
A 2016 report by The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, entitled "Organized Crime and Illegally Mined Gold in Latin America", revealed that between 80 and 90 percent of the mineral produced in Venezuela is illegal.
InSight Crime Analysis
Maduro's government has ignored the strengthening of organized crime and the resurgence of violence seen in massacres around the exploitation of gold in Venezuela. Formally, the issue is not on the agenda of negotiations with Erdogan. This allows Venezuela to benefit economically and to, at least partially, sidestep the obstacles put up by the US government, which Maduro and Erdogan both distrust.
Venezuela aspired to produce 24 tons of gold in 2018, but it has been forced to act more cautiously after the international sanctions imposed in November. For example, the Bank of England has already resisted the return of Venezuelan gold reserves it holds, valued at $550 million.
The United States has also focused on organized crime around illegal mining. When questioning the business between Venezuela and Turkey, Assistant US Treasury Secretary Marshall Billingslea used the term "blood gold" to compare the deaths, chaos, and extreme violence that characterize illegal mining in Venezuela with the exploitation of "blood diamonds" in Africa.
Some official documents support Billingslea's comparison. A report by the Venezuelan scientific police spoke of the massacre of at least 17 miners in the town of Tumeremo in March 2016. This happened within a month of the Orinoco Mining Arc being created in the north of the state of Bolivar; a large-scale mining project spread across 111,843 square kilometers, compromising the ecological balance of the Amazon.
Two years after the Tumeremo massacre, the most conservative calculations indicate that over 30 massacres have occurred and the mining underworld has consolidated itself as a real criminal enclave. Similarly to Venezuelan prisons, these gangs rule through violence, often with the direct complicit participation of the government and military.
Added to this is the increase in violence in Bolívar, which has the fourth highest homicide rate in Venezuela (113 cases per 100,000 inhabitants), according to the 2017 report of the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia – OVV). Compared to 2016, homicides increased by 70 percent in Bolivar. The municipality of El Callao, the area with the longest tradition in gold mining, stands out in the Observatory's reports as the most violent in the country, with 817 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.
To make matters worse, security forces have more deaths to their credit than the criminal gangs linked to illegal mining. Among the most recent and bloody massacres are those that occurred in September 2017, when the army and police murdered 21 people. On February 10, 2018, another 18 people perished after an army incursion.
Finally, the presence of the ELN in the area has contributed to the increase in violence and is attributed to the execution of seven miners on October 14, 2018.