Las Claritas Sindicato is one of the strongest and longest-lasting criminal groups dedicated to illegal mining in Venezuela’s southern state of Bolívar. It is the only sindicato, a term used for illegal mining gang, which has not been targeted by security forces. On the contrary, it has long maintained alliances with state actors.
The gang controls some of the most important mining areas in Bolívar, where it organizes and charges “taxes” to both miners and local business owners. It also imposes strict control over nearby towns, where it enforces its own laws and punishes those who do not comply.
Las Claritas Sindicato -- which is also locally known as Juancho’s Sindicato, after one of its leaders Juan Gabrial Rivas Núñez, alias “Juancho” -- has operated in Bolívar for over a decade, according to whistleblower testimony from chief commissioner José Gregorio Lezama, who led an anti-kidnapping unit in the state.
His testimony, which was recorded and leaked to the press in 2016, alleges that the former governor of Bolívar, Francisco Rangel Gómez, and the director of local police, Julio César Fuentes Manzulli, provided weapons and protection to Las Claritas Sindicato and other gangs since 2010. Lezama even claimed that they gave Juancho control over “the mines in the south, from El Dorado to Las Claritas.”
Another intelligence report from 2016, written by former lieutenant Jesús Curvelo supported Lezama’s claims, once again linking Rangel Gómez and Fuentes Manzulli with Juancho’s gang and gold smuggling operations.
The sindicato gained another notorious criminal leader -- Yohan José Romero, alias “Johan Petrica”-- sometime between 2015 and 2017, according to local sources who spoke with InSight Crime on the condition of anonymity, citing security concerns. Petrica was one of the founders of Venezuela’s largest prison gang, the Tren de Aragua, and reportedly arrived in Bolívar after escaping security forces operations targeting him in Aragua in 2015.
Rangel Gómez’s administration ended in 2017, which led to a further shift in the sindicato’s relationship with local authorities. Justo Noguera Pietri, the state’s new governor, represented the state’s renewed interest in consolidating control over mining areas, especially after President Nicolás Maduro implemented the Orinoco Mining Arc (Arco Minero del Orinoco – AMO) the year before.
The national government announced the “Metal Hands” operation (Operación Manos de Metal) in mid-2018, which aimed to dismantle gold mining gangs in Bolívar, and named over 30 criminal leaders as targets. Many of those named were reportedly allied with former governor Rangel Gómez, but neither Juancho nor Petrica were included on the list.
Since then, the sindicato has maintained its control over the area and has even looked to lay claim to more land with gold deposits, sometimes clashing with the indigenous communities that live there.
The Las Claritas Sindicato does not have any official concessions to mine gold in its area of control. Like many other mining gangs in Bolívar, it profits from coordinating and charging taxes to mining activities in its area of control, including extraction as well as processing and smuggling.
The group has also been linked to extortion in its area of control, charging vacunas (vaccines, a term for extortion fees) to miners and business owners, especially those involved in the purchase and sale of gold.
Since its inception, the sindicato has been led by Rivas Núñez, who is Colombian but received Venezuelan nationality thanks to his ties to the Maduro government, according to Curvelo’s testimony.
However, there are differing claims regarding who currently leads the sindicato. Local sources have insisted to InSight Crime that Johan Petrica assumed leadership after he arrived to Las Claritas, although Juancho remained the gang’s more public face.
Petrica hails from the state of Aragua and was imprisoned in Tocorón prison, with a criminal background including extortion, unlawful possession of firearms, robbery, kidnapping, and homicide. Alongside Héctor Rusthenford Guerrero Flores, alias “Niño Guerrero,” Petrica helped found the Tren de Aragua prison gang which still controls Tocorón.
It appears as though Petrica’s low profile is intentional, according to local sources who told InSight Crime that he has even banned the use of his name in the area. In both Las Claritas and Kilómetro 88, he is more commonly referred to as “El Viejo,” an alias also used by other local criminals and even some members of Las Claritas Sindicato.
In fact, the gang’s highest ranking lieutenant, Humberto Martes, was the first to use the alias “El Viejo” in Las Claritas before Petrica arrived. Some people still refer to him with this alias, and local rumors suggest that Martes has operated in the area for over 20 years, even longer than Rivas Núñez.
Las Claritas Sindicato operates in the Sifontes municipality of Bolívar state, a strategic region for gold mining which also makes up part of the Orinoco Mining Arc. The sindicato controls various sectors along the state’s main highway, Troncal 10, but its stronghold is based in areas known as Kilómetro 88 and Las Claritas, as well as their surrounding gold mines.
Not only are these territories rich in gold, but they are also strategically placed to smuggle illegally mined gold out of Venezuela. It takes only three hours to travel to Brazil from Las Claritas, following Troncal 10, and the area is also close to the border with Guyana.
Allies and Enemies
The sindicato has established alliances with state elements since its very beginning. Whistleblower testimonies from security forces have linked the group with the former Bolívar governor Francisco Rangel Gómez and state security forces.
Lezama’s testimony reported that in 2012, five members of the group including Juancho himself were arrested in possession of weapons and falsified Bolívar state police credentials. However, Lezama claimed, they were freed the following day and all their items -- even the police credentials -- were returned to them.
Meanwhile, Curvelo claimed in his testimony that Fuentes Manzulli ordered him to bring boxes carrying a large sum of money from Ciudad Bolívar to the mining town of Tumeremo, which would be given to Juancho to purchase gold. Curvelo also reported that an unnamed Major General used his position in the Ministry of the Interior and Justice to erase Juancho’s police records, in which he was wanted for homicide in the state of Aragua.
The gang’s relationships are not limited to politicians. Multiple sources consulted during fieldwork reported that the Las Claritas Sindicato has a non-aggression pact with other mining gangs in Sifontes. The gangs named include the sindicato led by Fabio Enrique Gonzáles Isaza, alias “Negro Fabio,” in El Dorado, as well as the R Organization (Organización R – OR) in Tumeremo, which is led by Eduardo José Natera Balboa, alias “Run.”
Las Claritas Sindicato has not only survived but prospered under three different governors, outbreaks of violence between rival gangs across the state, and security forces campaigns targeting illegal mining. Even as military interventions in Bolívar resurged in late 2022, the gang’s position has so far remained unthreatened, continuing its long history of relative stability.
The gang is reportedly heavily armed and its membership well-trained, but it has not been tested by security forces operations. If the government were to set its sights on the Las Claritas Sindicato, it would not only require sufficient firepower to force out the gang and control its stronghold, but also strong state institutions to resist Bolívar’s well-entrenched corruption and the gang’s social control.