Venezuelan officials are investigating the alleged disappearance of 28 miners, after reports emerged they were massacred during a confrontation over a gold deposit.
On March 6, Venezuela's Attorney General dispatched two investigators to the site of the alleged massacre, which occurred in Sifontes municipality in the southern state of Bolívar, reported the BBC.
The 28 miners disappeared on March 4, with family members reporting they did not return home from work at an artisinal gold mine near the town of Tumeremo.
Witnesses allege a criminal band led by a Colombian known as Hendry Norberto Bonalde, alias "El Topo," -- arrested in May 2015 -- killed the 28 for control of a recently discovered gold deposit.
According to a separate BBC report, some locals say the bodies were deposited within the mine, while others allege they were dismembered and dumped on land belonging to the gang leader.
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Francisco Rangel, the governor of Bolívar state and member of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela – PSUV), dismissed the reports as "rumors." He asserted that soldiers sent to the scene found no evidence to support claims of a massacre, and blamed the reports on "irresponsible politicians" for wanting to stir unrest.
However, Carlos Chancellor, the mayor of Sifontes municipality, called it "illogical" and "irrational" for Rangel to assert nothing had occurred. "Just because no bodies have appeared does not mean nothing happened," he told Reuters.
According to El País, artisanal gold mining is a key economic activity in this region of Venezuela, and it is also know to attract foreign workers. Armed confrontations over gold deposits are reportedly not uncommon.
Venezuela's National Assembly is due to discuss the miners' disappearance on March 8.
InSight Crime Analysis
Given mixed reports and ongoing investigations into the unconfirmed disappearances, it is difficult to ascertain the crime's potential motives and perpetrators. However, there are several possibilities.
For one, El Topo's Colombian nationality could prompt speculation over the relationship between Colombian criminal groups and Venezuela's artisinal gold trade. While Colombian criminal groups do operate along the Venezuela/Colombia border, it seems unlikely that they would penetrate this deep into Venezuela's interior. This is partly due to the presence of Colombian rebel groups the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) in the Venezuelan states of Amazonas and Apure, effectively providing a buffer between Colombia and Bolívar state.
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Indeed, Marcos Tarre Briceño, a Venezuelan security analyst and co-author of "Estado Delinquente," told InSight Crime it was more likely the disappearances are associated with Venezuela's "mega-gang" phenomenon.
El Topo's criminal band is one of four operating in Bolívar, and rumors suggest it operates with the complicity of regional officials and members of Venezuela's Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional – SEBIN) and investigative police (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas – CICPC). Witnesses have alleged the SEBIN and CICPC were involved in the miners' disappearance.
The disappearance occurs shortly after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's creation of the "Arco Minero del Orinoco," which seeks to dismantle illegal mining networks and assert greater government control over mining in Bolívar state to help offset falling oil revenue.