An entire contraband supply chain has sprung up to keep illegal mining functioning in Venezuela’s southern Yapacana National Park, providing more evidence of how the security forces will work with criminals they favor and punish those they don’t.
Some 280 people voluntarily left the Yapacana National Park in Amazonas state on July 2, after the Venezuelan army opened a humanitarian corridor, according to Domingo Hernández Lárez, the Venezuelan military's strategic operations commander.
The corridor forms part of Operation Autana 2023, a large-scale military operation to clear out illegal mining and armed groups from Yapacana National Park.
The operation has caused a series of flashpoints that highlighted the growth of a contraband economy that supplies the miners with essential products to live and work.
The first occurred on May 26, when Venezuelan soldiers in Amazonas seized 5.3 tons of food, beer, toilet paper, cooking oil, a 75-horsepower engine, and batteries for solar panels from a ship heading to Yapacana along the Orinoco River.
During the operation, one Colombian man was caught trying to bring the contraband materials to be sold to “illegal mining camps and criminal groups which cut down, burn, and deforest the Yapacana National Park,” Hernández Lárez wrote on Twitter.
Two days later, Indigenous residents attacked the Venezuelan army, firing arrows at a military base in Amazonas. No one was reported injured.
The attack was likely in response to the seizure of contraband 48 hours earlier, Hernández Lárez said.
Operation Autana 2023 began in December 2022. Between 15,000 and 18,000 people are engaged in illegal mining and associated acts in the Yapacana National Park, according to official estimates.
So far, around 2,000 miners have left the park as a result of the operation, local media reported.
InSight Crime Analysis
While contraband seizures are frequently reported, security forces are often complicit in smuggling merchandise into mining sites in southern Venezuela, as long as the smugglers have the right connections.
But the cross-border flow of contraband from Colombia into Yapacana goes some way beyond that, involving a complex network of criminal groups like the ELN, Indigenous communities, politicians, security forces, and local businesses.
Residents of local communities actively participate in, and are economically dependent on, the transport and sale of merchandise coming from Colombia to illegal mining sites, according to the testimonies of local traders and Indigenous residents gathered by InSight Crime on condition of anonymity.
According to InSight Crime interviews, the most contraband merchandise most commonly begins its journey into Venezuela at Puerto Inírida, a Colombian municipality in the department of Guainía. The municipality is located on the banks of the Inírida River, a tributary of the Orinoco River.
Shipments cross through various checkpoints, known locally as alcabalas. These can variously be run by the military, Indigenous communities, and guerrilla groups like the ELN. At each checkpoint must pay a fee of around 50,000 Colombian pesos ($12). There are a number of extra costs and bribes.
In total, the cost of paying off all the right people and groups to get across the border, through to Yapacana, into the park, and to the mining sites costs an estimated 2.5 million pesos ($600) per boat.
The confiscation of shipments of contraband, as happened in late May, represents a serious economic loss for businesses in the area that depends on such supplies. This is what allegedly contributed to triggering the Indigenous attack on the army base.
Seizing a single shipment might have a local impact. But given the number of supplies needed to sustain an illegal mining economy spread across more than 2,000 hectares in Yapacana, it won't make a dent in the amount of money being collected by state actors in Amazonas.
Locals and smugglers are resentful of the military’s recent crackdown, given the payoffs in place to prevent this. In addition to cash payments for each shipment, local army forces receive gold, one merchant, who spoke anonymously for fear of reprisals, told InSight Crime.
“Many times, they ask the merchants for a gram, or a gram and a half of gold [each time] … the most I had to pay was two grams [in one single time],” they said.