A recent investigation into the theft and smuggling of bronze in Venezuela has revealed the existence of an organized crime network, dismantling Venezuelan artistic heritage in order to send bronze contraband to Caribbean islands.
Plaques identifying tombs in Venezuelan cemeteries as well as hundreds of bronze sculptures have disappeared in at least 12 states. An investigation carried out over two years by a team from Institutional Assets and Monuments of Venezuela (IAM Venezuela) determined that 6,812 pieces, equivalent to 297 tons of bronze, have been systematically stolen and sold to Colombia, the Caribbean and even Asia.
According to this study, Venezuelan bronze trafficking represents profits of millions of dollars for the criminal groups involved.
The illicit trafficking of bronze verified by IAM Venezuela showed that the west of the country is the most affected region, both due to being rich in monuments and located close to the Colombian border.
"Those who traffic illicitly in metals prefer the bustling Colombian city of Cúcuta, where they sell a kilogram of molten bronze at around $6," according to Anderson Jaimes, director of research at the San Cristóbal Museum in Táchira state.
The work details that the criminals send the bronze from Venezuela to Colombia at the border, to the Dutch territories Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao from the state of Falcón, and to Trinidad and Tobago from the eastern and southern regions of Venezuela to Trinidad and Tobago.
InSight Crime Analysis
Organized crime groups have regularly explored new criminal markets in Venezuela. The smuggling of bronze has consolidated itself into a transnational economy, which Venezuelan authorities have seemingly no interest in stopping.
The researchers from IAM Venezuela, consulted by InSight Crime, do not rule out complicity from authorities in allowing the theft and looting of bronze from cemeteries and beyond, as well as its subsequent sale.
One case, the theft of two bronze doors weighing around 1,000 kilograms from a bank in Zulia state, stood out to them as not having been doable without security agencies having allowed it.
Milagros González, one of the coordinators of the investigation, also warns that while their findings all indicated the involvement of organized mafia behind bronze theft, security agencies provided no official data for the report.
"IAM Venezuela has documented bronze theft for the last two years, and has kept highly detailed records for the last year. We hope this research will help curb this crime...as it is destroying Venezuela's symbols," González explained to InSight Crime.
Another IAM Venezuela investigator, journalist Nilda Silva, said that "the lack of a proper cultural protection policy has led to impunity."
"We have denounced the theft of plaques and busts in states such as Mérida and Barinas but there has never been any government action. The number of thefts has risen...but there are no open investigations, nor are there any detainees. Venezuela has become an open bronze mine," she told InSight Crime.
Bronze is only the latest product to be added to the long list of various items smuggled out of Venezuela by organized crime organizations acting with virtual impunity. It joins other merchandise such as gold, copper, coltan, fuel, cattle and weapons, which organized crime networks draw from Venezuelan territory and sell to Colombia, the Caribbean and abroad.