The death of a gang leader allegedly responsible for the massacre of over a dozen gold miners in Venezuela represents a step forward for the official investigation. However, there is still much to be done in terms of re-establishing state control over the country's lawless gold mining region.
Jamilton Andrés Ulloa Suárez, alias '"El Topo," was killed by a task force primarily made up of intelligence officials in eastern Venezuela on May 6, reported El Nacional.
Authorities said that Ulloa, an Ecuadorian, led a criminal group in the eastern state of Bolívar and was behind the killing of 17 miners, whose bodies were found in mid-March. Security forces, who reportedly tracked down Ulloa via his cell phone use, took two other alleged members of Ulloa's gang into custody during the operation.
Community residents in the area where Ulloa operated told investigative news outlet Runrun.es that the alleged gang leader was known for dismembering bodies with a chainsaw and feeding the pieces to animals or burying them, a practice he allegedly picked up while fighting alongside Colombian paramilitaries.
The disappearance of the miners in March called attention to the degree of violence and corruption involved in the gold trade in Bolívar state. Authorities have said that the massacre was linked to tensions between El Topo's gang and another rival criminal group involved in gold mining. Locals told Runrun.es that the rival gang, led by alias "El Gordo," was attempting to extort gold mining activities in the area dominated by El Topo's gang.
Military officials have also been accused of involvement in the Bolívar gold trade, allegedly offering "protection" to criminal gangs involved in gold mining in return for a slice of the profits.
InSight Crime Analysis
It remains to be seen whether Venezuelan authorities will continue to investigate the alleged criminal and corrupt networks that exploit the mostly indigenous mining communities in remote areas of Bolívar state. Some officials maintain there is more to the case than meets the eye. During a radio program, Bolívar state Congressman Américo De Grazia of opposition party Radical Cause (La Causa Radical - LCR) said that the military used El Topo to "clean out" rival illegal mining operations, in order to make way for multinational companies to move in.
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There is a long precedent of violent armed groups attempting to take over gold mining operations in Bolívar state. As El Nacional recently reported, in 2015 Bolívar registered at least 70 deaths and three disappearances in mining areas. Authorities would do well to continue investigating these dynamics, rather than using El Topo's death as an excuse for closing the case and once again turning their backs on Bolívar's poor mining communities.