Colombian guerrilla groups have advanced into indigenous territory in the Venezuelan state of Amazonas not with violence, but by co-opting, corrupting, and conning its people. Their presence has torn communities apart, fueled an illegal gold rush that is savaging the natural environment, and now it threatens the survival of ancient cultures that have for generations acted as custodians of one of the world’s most precious eco-systems: the Amazon rainforest.
It was 2019 when the Colombian guerrillas first arrived to the Cataniapo river basin, known as Ähuiyäru De’iyu Ręję to the region’s Indigenous Huottöja people. The Huottöja had been expecting them, having watched nervously as the guerrillas spread through Indigenous lands across the Venezuelan state of Amazonas.
The first commander arrived in a luxury vehicle, flanked by heavily armed guerrillas. She launched into a speech about how they were working with the Venezuelan government, how they had come to defend the territory from imperialist forces and bring investment and development to the region.
When the Huottöja rejected her offer and asked the guerrillas to leave their territory, she agreed, vowing they would not return. It was a lie. The guerrillas had soon set up a base in a nearby ranch. The Huottöja were scared but also angry. They descended on the ranch armed with spears and bows and arrows. They gave the guerrillas 18 days to pack up and leave.
The next time, it was a different commander, with a different approach. He tried to entice the community’s youth to join the guerrillas’ militia networks, promising cash and food for all in return. Some were tempted and the Huottöja began to argue among themselves. Community leaders stepped in, telling the guerrillas if they wanted to talk, they should return, unarmed, to meet with representatives from all the Indigenous communities in the area.
When the commander returned, they had a question for him: “Are you prepared to work with us, to submit yourself to our rules and customs, to eat wild animals, spiders, and worms like we do?”
The commander said that he was. But when they presented him with a document to sign to ratify his pledge, he refused, shouting about how they were trying to trick him before storming off. So instead, all of the assembled representatives signed their own document, declaring their intention to keep the guerrillas out of Ähuiyäru De’iyu Ręję.
So far, the guerrillas have not returned. But their advance has continued. They are now present in each one of Amazonas’ seven municipalities, and Ähuiyäru De’iyu Ręję is all but surrounded.
The guerrillas have occupied territories that have been home to Amazonas’ 19 Indigenous peoples for thousands of years. But they have done so, not with guns but by exploiting the desperation of vulnerable communities with empty promises and the corrupting power of dirty money.
“They have been allowed to invade this whole territory because they come with their fine words and say they are going to work with the communities,” said a leader of a local association, the United Huottöja People of the Cataniapo River Basin (Pueblo Unido Huottöja de la Cuenca del Cataniapo - OPUHC), who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. “And they give you money, but it is their money and once you accept it you have to work for them, it is to enslave you.”
Over the last five years, the Indigenous peoples of the Venezuelan Amazon have seen their position decline from precarious to desperate.
First came Venezuela’s economic crisis. What little state support they had received dried up. Health clinics have gone unstocked, schools have gone without teachers, and the communities have been left increasingly isolated by gasoline shortages. When they come to town to sell produce, the police and the military, now entirely dependent on corruption to make a living wage, steal their goods or extort them.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, and communities found themselves entirely cut off from the rest of the country both geographically and economically as the government imposed lock-downs and biosecurity measures.
For the Colombian guerrilla groups, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and dissidents from the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), known as the ex-FARC Mafia, this desperation spelled opportunity. Both groups have operated for years in Amazonas with the blessing of the Venezuelan government, which has treated them as a strategic ally and business partner in criminal economies.
“With this need for social assistance, the insufficient income, not having clothes, not having food, all this has allowed these groups to take advantage of the Indigenous peoples’ needs,” said a leader from the Jiwi community, who asked to remain anonymous out of security concerns.
As the Huottöja saw in Cataniapo, the guerrillas have approached the communities not with threats but with promises.
“They came offering their services,” said a cultural promoter from the Piaroa people, whose community was first approached by the ELN in 2017. “[They said] ‘we’re going to support you, we’re going to provide security.”
The guerrillas even promised to buy up their entire pineapple crop, but the community rejected their advances. But within a week, the ELN were setting up camp in their territory after the community’s leaders – referred to by the titles captain and cacique – went behind their backs to accept the guerrillas’ offer.
“The captain and the cacique decided to let them come in because the guerrillas offered each of them a motorbike and anything else they needed. Compared to all that money, the community wasn’t worth anything,” he said.
It is a scenario that has played out in Indigenous communities all across the region, and one that is tearing communities apart from the inside, said a local human rights worker, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
“The guerrillas follow the maxim of divide and rule: If they can convince half the population, then even if the others are not in agreement they have them, especially if they can convince the captain.”
“They come not so much with political talk but with money,” added the human rights worker. “There are some that resist, who say they don’t want the violence the guerrillas have bought to Colombia over the last 60 years, but very few of them. The truth is the money seduces them, it corrupts even the cleanest leaders.”
Those that do stand firm live in fear. Although the guerrillas have so far sought to avoid violence with the Indigenous communities, community leaders are all too aware of how quickly that could change. And they are all too aware that they will have nowhere to turn for protection if it does. The guerrillas boast of their alliances with the Venezuelan government, and their collusion with the military is an open secret.
“The government knows the irregular groups are here, it supports them because they provide the government with benefits,” said the Jiwi leader. “I can’t denounce any of this because if I go to any state body, the guerrillas will have their informants there, and the next day I will be attacked.”
Once the communities accept the guerrillas – or are forced to accept them – in their territories, the promises of what the guerrillas can do for the Indigenous people quickly turn into what the Indigenous people can do for them. And the most valuable thing they can offer the guerrillas aside from their lands is their youth.
“They come to the communities and offer to pay the youths to join their ranks,” said a human rights defender from the Baré community, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. “They have succeeded in occupying our territories with our own Indigenous people.”
While some are taken for the ranks, others stay in their communities but become part of the guerrilla support networks. They use their local knowledge to act as guides, provide intelligence and allow the guerrillas access to community resources such as subsidized fuel or food.
For the communities’ girls and young women, though, the guerrillas have a far more disposable use – sexual exploitation. In an account echoed by several other Indigenous sources, the Piaroa cultural leader described how groups of guerrillas would enter his community, offering girls money or food to accompany them back to the guerrilla camps.
“The girls that went with them all have their babies now,” he said.
Behind the anti-imperialist rhetoric and promises to help communities, the primary motivation driving the guerrilla advance in Amazonas is money.
Control of Amazonas’ Indigenous territories means control of smuggling routes and jungle hideouts that are perfect for the construction of clandestine airstrips used to dispatch cocaine shipments to Central America or Brazil. But above all, it means control of Amazonas’ most precious – and most cursed – commodity: gold.
Over the last five years, illegal gold mining has exploded across the region, and the guerrillas – primarily the ex-FARC but increasingly also the ELN – have been the main drivers of the expansion.
The guerrillas and their financial backers not only run mining operations, they also control the mine sites, some of which have developed into small towns, complete with hotels, restaurants, bars and brothels. There they charge their “taxes” – to be paid in gold – to everyone from the owners of the mining equipment to the prostitutes. The profits, sources that have seen and worked in the sites say, are enormous.
The impact on the delicate and megadiverse environment that Venezuela’s Indigenous peoples have cared for and lived off for generations has been devastating. Tens of thousands of hecatres have been deforested and the soils and rivers contaminated with mercury and other chemicals, leaving a toxic wasteland where ancient rainforest once stood.
“Amazonas is bleeding, it is an ecocide,” said the Baré human rights worker.
But the mines are consuming more than virgin rainforest. Violence and death are common in and around the mines, but news of it rarely leaves the forest.
“An Indigenous friend told me ‘for a mine to spit out gold, it has to eat the dead,’” said a local merchant, who has worked at numerous mine sites around the region, speaking on condition of anonymity, told InSight Crime.
But the mines are not only consuming individual lives, they are also consuming ancient cultures. Living in such poverty at the side of such riches has proven too great a temptation for many Indigenous people.
Many have gone to work in the mines, in some cases leaving their children behind to fend for themselves, in others taking them to the mine sites, where they are exposed to disease, toxic chemicals, child labor – and guerrillas.
“Those working in the mines are totally lost, their minds are contaminated because they are working for the guerrillas,” said the Piaroa cultural promoter.
Others have found other ways to claim their own slice of the looting of their ancestral lands.
Most mines are only accessible by river, and many groups of Indigenous people have set up their own blockades, known as “alcabalas,” along the routes they take. Often armed with bows and arrows, they tie up the boats and demand a cut of whatever is being transported or charge fees to let the boats carry on their way.
“They are very aggressive,” said the merchant. “They say ‘you are going to work in the mine. Well, where is our work? We are here going hungry,’”
The only ones who can move freely through the alcabalas are the guerrillas, the merchant added.
While most have been scrabbling around at the bottom of the supply chain for whatever flakes of gold fall from the guerrillas’ treasure, some Indigenous are now seeking their own fortunes by setting up their own mining operations.
This participation in the pillage is ramping up tensions between those determined to resist the ravages of the gold trade and those who see it as the only way out.
“The Indigenous people are also participating in this and they are fighting among themselves like you wouldn’t believe,” Liborio Guarulla, the Indigenous former governor of Amazonas, told InSight Crime. “This a fever for which there is no cure."
In Ähuiyäru De’iyu Ręję, little has been seen of the guerrillas since the Huottöja drove them out. But the communities are preparing for their return. Together, they have formed an Indigenous guard, comprised of 10 people from each community, who are charged with coordinating security and monitoring their territories.
While the OPUHC leader insists their struggle is peaceful, he also makes it clear he is ready to die for the cause. “We believe in what we are doing, we are standing firm for our people,” he said.
But their work is shackled by a lack of resources and support, which not only makes the Indigenous guard’s task near on impossible, it also hampers their efforts to build an alternative future for their people.
“We have no money to organize and work to defend our communities, so there are some weak people who want to work with them, that is the reality we are living with,” said the Huottöja leader.
Other Indigenous leaders are trying to revive their communities by investing what little they have in education, by promoting traditional culture, or by taking their message to Caracas to try to shame the national government into action.
All face the same challenges: scarce resources and a government that is at best indifferent and at worst openly hostile.
Some fear that some among Amazonas’ Indigenous peoples may seek a more aggressive escape from their bleak future. “When people see the guerrillas raping, killing, cutting people up, generating this extreme level of violence, they are going to respond with the same,” said Guarulla, the former governor.
Despite these displays of hope and defiance, there is a creeping fear that unless something changes soon, all that will remain for the Amazonas Indigenous peoples is survival. And the only way to survive will be to abandon their ancestral lands or to pick a devil to make a deal with: the gold or the guerrillas.