Venezuela: Violent Abuses in Illegal Gold Mines

Credible Allegations of Authorities Involvement, Acquiescence

(New York) – Residents of Venezuela’s southern Bolívar state are struggling amputations and different horrific abuses by the hands of armed teams, together with Venezuelan teams known as “syndicates” within the space and Colombian armed teams working within the area, each of which train management over gold mines, Human Rights Watch mentioned at this time. The armed teams appear to function largely with authorities acquiescence, and in some instances authorities involvement, to take care of tight social management over native populations.

Venezuela has reserves of extremely valued sources like gold, diamonds, and nickel, in addition to coltan and uranium. Though the federal government has introduced efforts to draw companions for authorized mining and a crackdown on unlawful mining, most gold mining in southern states, together with Bolívar, is illegitimate, with a lot of the gold smuggled overseas. The assorted syndicates that management the mines exert strict management over the populations who stay and work there, impose abusive working situations, and viciously deal with these accused of theft and different offenses – within the worst instances, they’ve dismembered and killed alleged offenders in entrance of different employees.

“Poor Venezuelans pushed to work in gold mining by the continuing financial disaster and humanitarian emergency have turn out to be victims of macabre crimes by armed teams that management unlawful mines in southern Venezuela,” mentioned José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s crucial for gold consumers and refineries to make sure that any Venezuelan gold of their provide chains isn’t stained with the blood of Venezuelan victims.”

The operations of those unlawful mines are additionally having a devastating affect on the atmosphere and the well being of employees, native sources mentioned. Inner economic migration because of the financial and humanitarian disaster in Venezuela has elevated the variety of individuals searching for to work in mining areas. Many residents stay in concern and are uncovered to harsh working situations, poor sanitation, and a particularly excessive threat of ailments equivalent to malaria.

In October 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed 21 individuals who had labored in mines or mining cities in Bolívar state in 2018 and 2019, together with the mines close to Las Claritas, El Callao, El Dorado, and El Algarrobo. In October and November, Human Rights Watch interviewed 15 different individuals, together with leaders of indigenous teams within the space, journalists and specialists who visited the realm lately, and relations of individuals working in mines, and reviewed stories by impartial teams and media retailers, which had been according to accounts from the individuals interviewed within the area. Human Rights Watch additionally reviewed satellite tv for pc imagery that exhibits the expansion of mining on this space. 

Overview of unlawful mining websites in Sifontes Municipality, Bolivar State, Venezuela, accessed through on January 8, 2020. Location of the unlawful mining websites is approximate and will depend on the supply of satellite tv for pc imagery and the knowledge supplied by third events. 

© 2019 Portal Raisg – Minería Ilegal

Satellite tv for pc picture recorded as of January 3, 2020 exhibits the extension of Las Claritas mining web site in Bolivar State, Venezuela.

© 2020 Planet Labs

Quite a few individuals interviewed mentioned that many mines in Bolívar are underneath the tight management of Venezuelan syndicates or Colombian armed teams. The International Crisis Group has reported that each the Colombian insurgent group Nationwide Liberation Military (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) and at the very least one dissident group that emerged from the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) function within the space. A number of individuals interviewed additionally mentioned that these teams had been lively in Bolívar.

Individuals interviewed additionally mentioned that Venezuelan authorities are conscious of the unlawful mining actions. Ten individuals who labored on the mines, two journalists overlaying the realm, and a neighborhood indigenous chief mentioned that state safety brokers have visited mining websites to gather bribes. A few of these sources mentioned they witnessed this. Two individuals working within the mines and the indigenous chief, interviewed by Human Rights Watch individually, claimed they noticed a prime official from the Nicolás Maduro authorities go to the mines in several incidents.

The armed teams, who’re successfully answerable for the mines and the settlements which have grown up round them, brutally implement their rule. “Everybody is aware of the principles,” one resident mentioned. “Should you steal or combine gold with one other product, the pran [the syndicate leader] will beat or kill you.” One other mentioned “They’re the federal government there…. Should you steal, they ‘disappear’ you.”

As detailed beneath, 4 residents mentioned that they witnessed members of syndicates amputating or capturing the fingers of individuals accused of stealing. A number of different residents mentioned they knew of instances through which syndicate members had minimize offenders into items with a chainsaw, ax, or machete.

Residents are additionally uncovered to mercury, which miners use to extract the gold, regardless of it being prohibited in Venezuela. Mercury could cause serious health problems, even in small quantities, with poisonous results on the nervous, digestive, and immune methods, and on lungs, kidneys, pores and skin, and eyes. Research performed in mining areas in Bolívar a few years in the past already discovered high levels of mercury exposure, together with amongst girls and kids, for whom the well being dangers are even increased and, for pregnant girls, embody critical incapacity or dying of the fetus and, if carried to time period, the kid.  

As well as, residents described constantly harsh working situations within the mines, together with working 12-hour shifts with none protecting gear and kids as younger as 10 working alongside adults.

The malaria epidemic affecting Venezuela is intently correlated with the upsurge of unlawful mining within the south of Venezuela. Usually, miners stay open air in tents, which increases their exposure to mosquitoes. Deforested mining pits, which fill with rainwater, present a superb breeding atmosphere for malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

Practically each individual interviewed who had labored in mines or mining cities had had malaria, a lot of them a number of occasions. The general public well being system, amid the humanitarian emergency within the nation, has not been in a position to present remedy to everybody. A number of interviewees mentioned they generally needed to buy antimalarial medication, which may price as much as two grams of gold, presently about US$100 on the worldwide market.

Human Rights Watch has been unable to seek out any public info concerning investigations into the prison accountability of presidency officers or Venezuelan safety forces implicated in these abuses.

On November 14, Human Rights Watch requested info from Venezuela’s authorities on the standing of prosecutions towards these chargeable for abuses dedicated by armed teams in Bolívar, together with authorities officers and members of Venezuelan safety forces complicit in abuses, however has obtained no response.

Human Rights Watch was unable to determine whether or not any of the gold mined underneath the management of syndicates was bought or whether or not it’s within the provide chain of any particular firms. Nonetheless, firms ought to be vigilant about gold from Venezuela and undertake human rights due diligence to determine, stop, mitigate, and account for his or her affect on human rights related to their operations, according to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Within the case of Venezuelan gold, this contains figuring out and assessing dangers in provide chains, monitoring a enterprise’ human rights affect on an ongoing foundation, publishing details about due diligence efforts, and having processes in place to remediate antagonistic human rights impacts of their actions.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has said that companies have an obligation to undertake due diligence procedures to make sure that the minerals they interact with don’t come out of “battle” or “high-risk” areas – that’s, areas through which armed battle, widespread violence, collapse of civil infrastructure, or different dangers of hurt to individuals are current.

“Nationwide and worldwide firms shopping for gold from Venezuela ought to know whether or not it comes from mines in Bolívar state and may have due diligence procedures in place to make sure that their provide chains are free from illicit, exploitative, and violent actions,” Vivanco mentioned. “If firms discover that their gold provide is linked to a few of these abuses, or are unable to hint its supply, they need to work to repair these issues or stop working with these suppliers.”

For additional info on Human Rights Watch’s findings, see beneath.

Unlawful Gold Mining in Venezuela

Satellite tv for pc imagery present a big improve within the quantity and enlargement of mining websites alongside Chicanan River in Bolivar State, Venezuela, since 2016.

© 2020 Planet Labs

In line with international and local groups, the overwhelming majority of gold mined in Venezuela is reported to be unlawful, an evaluation according to testimony gathered by Human Rights Watch.

Among the gold produced is bought to Venezuela’s Central Financial institution, however a lot of it is smuggled by way of Venezuela’s borders, reportedly reaching international locations together with Turkey, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Switzerland. The entire quantity is tough to find out exactly as a consequence of it being unlawful.

Former President Hugo Chávez announced the Orinoco Mining Arc in 2011 with the unique objective of nationalizing the exploitation and export of metals and non-metals. This space contains the Canaima Nationwide Park, a UNESCO Heritage Web site, and indigenous territories.

On February 24, 2016, President Nicolás Maduro created the “Nationwide Strategic Zone of Growth of Orinoco Mining Arc” to additional develop this space of 111,843 sq. kilometers – 12 percent of the country – in a number of states, together with Bolívar, for mining, with the said objective of extracting hundreds of tons of gold, diamonds, and different minerals.

Maduro signed the 2016 decree with out session or approval by the Nationwide Meeting, because the structure requires. In line with the Workplace of the UN Excessive Commissioner for Human Rights and members of native indigenous communities interviewed by Human Rights Watch, the federal government didn’t perform applicable environmental impact assessments or consultations with indigenous peoples residing there beforehand, because the structure additionally requires.

In 2016, Maduro mentioned the federal government had signed mining deals with foreign companies price $5.5 billion. In November 2018, Maduro launched a “Gold Plan” to promote investment in gold beginning in 2019, projecting profits to whole $5 billion in 2019. However, as of February 2019, no main cope with overseas companies had materialized and most mines have remained under the control of non-state armed groups, based on the Worldwide Disaster Group.

The state firm Minerven reportedly receives its gold from non-state affiliated mine operations and the military transports it to the Central Financial institution in Caracas, which in flip sells the gold to businesses in international locations equivalent to Turkey and the UAE, based on local and international sources. In December 2018, Maduro additionally introduced that he had signed contracts to export billions of dollars’ worth of gold to companions equivalent to Russia.

Nonetheless, miners who’ve labored for Minerven alleged that solely a small portion of Venezuela’s gold manufacturing finally ends up on the Central Financial institution. Consumers as an alternative allegedly earn more money smuggling many of the gold out of the country.

In October 2019, Maduro introduced that he would assign the management of one gold mine to each state governor who belongs to the official state occasion. In areas managed by opposition governments, the mining income could be channeled by way of a “social safety company” designated by his authorities.

Accountability for Crimes Dedicated in Gold Mines

The pinnacle of every syndicate, known as pran in Venezuela, workouts management over the syndicate’s territory, residents mentioned. Completely different syndicates management completely different particular mining areas, the place every units the principles and brutally enforces them. Miners are required to pay a big portion of the gold they get hold of – as much as 80 % – to the syndicate, whereas residents working in retailers or eating places in mining cities should pay a set quantity of gold per week to function, based on residents.

Whereas Venezuelan authorities have introduced operations aimed toward detaining individuals, together with some public officers, concerned in unlawful mining, they haven’t made info public about any actions to analyze and punish the crimes that represent human rights violations and had been dedicated within the mines with the acquiescence or participation of safety forces, equivalent to these described on this publication.

Maduro has said his intention to fight against illegal mining operations within the Arco Minero, and in June 2018, Venezuelan authorities introduced an operation known as Manos de steel (“Steel Palms”) to crack down on unlawful gold trafficking. The authorities declare they’ve issued arrest warrants for 39 individuals allegedly concerned in selling gold abroad, together with Minerven’s vice chairman. In line with the Lawyer Common’s Workplace, 32 arrest warrants that had been issued have but to be executed, 9 individuals have been arrested, 12 expenses filed, 426 financial institution accounts blocked, and 45 automobiles retained regarding gold smuggling as of August 2019.

In November 2018, Lawyer Common Tarek William Saab announced the arrest of Eduardo Enrique González Mejías, often called “El Tati,” who allegedly financed syndicates working in Bolívar mines. On the similar time, Saab requested an arrest warrant towards the previous head of the Nationwide Workplace of Mining Inspection, a department of the Ministry of In style Energy for Ecological Mining Growth, for granting irregular gold mining permits to Mejías. Saab additionally said it “is estimated that this prison group smuggled 150 kilograms of gold, equal to about $6 million that the state stopped receiving” in 2018. In August 2019, Saab additionally introduced the arrest and an extradition order towards a businessman linked to an illegal gold trafficking network from Venezuela to varied international locations within the Caribbean.

In November 2018, US President Donald Trump issued Executive Order 13850, which permits the U.S. to impose sanctions on these working “within the gold sector of the Venezuelan economic system.” In March 2019, the USA Division of the Treasury imposed sanctions on Minerven and its president because of the abuses and unlawful management of the mines.

Violence and Abuses within the Gold Mines

In 2018, the state of Bolívar had the third highest rate of “violent deaths” in the country (107 per 100,000 inhabitants) and El Callao, Venezuela’s mining capital of 20,000 inhabitants, was essentially the most violent municipality in Venezuela, with 620 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, based on the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, a nongovernmental group.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 5 residents who mentioned that they had witnessed shootouts between Venezuelan safety forces and syndicates, or between syndicates and members of Colombian armed teams, in what look like efforts to realize management of the mines and the income from them. In a number of instances, dozens of individuals, together with girls and kids, died or had been injured in these shootouts, the residents mentioned.

From 2012 to 2019, at the very least 50 people have been reported missing in Bolívar state alone, based on native sources. The true quantity is most definitely increased, however there are not any publicly obtainable official statistics.

The next are accounts by individuals interviewed who described abuses.

Ligia Castro (pseudonym), 35, labored in mines in El Algarrobo and La Cucharilla in 2018, splitting work between a restaurant throughout the day and within the mine at evening.

Castro mentioned that, in 2018, a younger lady in one of many mines was accused of stealing a pair of pants from one other lady and pleaded that she had not stolen something. Castro mentioned that syndicate members minimize off the lady’s fingers with a machete, shouting “Say you gained’t do it anymore!” When the lady repeated that she had not stolen the pants, they shot bullets into the air whereas shouting, “Right here, one can’t steal.” Castro mentioned the syndicate members put bandages on the lady, and took her away on a ship, instructing her to say she had an accident, as a result of they knew the place her household was.

Ricardo Gómez (pseudonym), 49, labored in a mine simply outdoors Las Claritas from January to October 2017.

In April 2017, whereas miners had been having lunch, a telephone was stolen. A syndicate watchman recognized a miner because the thief. Syndicate members positioned a rag in his mouth and minimize off his hand with an ax in entrance of everybody, Gómez mentioned. Afterward, the syndicate member took the person right into a automobile, and he has not been seen since. Per week later, the miner’s household went to the mine in search of him. They requested Gómez, however he mentioned nothing out of concern. After they left, syndicate members requested him what he had mentioned to the household and threatened him, saying “Should you say one thing that hurts us, you’ll even be disappeared.”

A few month later, a miner took 10 grams of gold from one other miner she had intercourse with, Gómez mentioned. Syndicate members seized the lady, tied her to a tree, and minimize off her head with a chainsaw and chopped up the remainder of her physique in entrance of different residents, he mentioned. “It’s all engraved in my thoughts,” Gómez mentioned. “I left the mine in concern.”

Different Accounts

One other resident mentioned that, earlier than punishing those that break their guidelines, members of the syndicate drive them to stroll in entrance of different residents with an indication on them that reads “I’ll die as a result of I [stole].” This resident and two others mentioned syndicate members additionally minimize the hair of girls accused of stealing. One in every of them mentioned he noticed members of the syndicate take a person accused of raping a lady to the opposite aspect of the river. He mentioned he heard the noise of a chainsaw and screams, and by no means noticed the person once more.

A 17-year-old boy mentioned he witnessed how members of the syndicate individually amputated every finger off the fingers of a miner accused of stealing gold, earlier than amputating the stays of each fingers. He mentioned they did it in entrance of different mine employees so “everybody may see.” One other man mentioned {that a} member of a syndicate made one other 17-year-old boy, accused of stealing gold, put one hand towards the opposite, as if he had been praying, and shot seven occasions instantly at his fingers earlier than telling him, “Go earlier than we kill you.”

Human Rights Watch additionally interviewed a 16-year-old who suffered a spinal fracture when a log hit him as he was utilizing a high-pressure hose with none type of protecting gear. A pastor who labored in a mine mentioned some members of the syndicate there had raped ladies, and their mother and father concern retaliation in the event that they report the abuse.

Corroborating Reporting

A congressman from Bolívar state, impartial teams, and media retailers have reported on instances of abuse according to these documented by Human Rights Watch. For instance:

  • On March 4, 2016, 28 miners working at a gold mine in Tumeremo, in Bolívar state, had been reported lacking, mentioned a Bolívar congressman, Américo de Grazia. Ten days later, 17 our bodies had been present in a mass grave in Nuevo Callao, based on Tarek William Saab, then-Venezuelan ombudsman. Then-Lawyer Common Luisa Ortega Diaz additionally said the bodies had been found, and later confirmed that 21 miners had disappeared. Experiences from witnesses obtained by de Grazia mentioned that the 28 miners had been shot behind their heads and dismembered with a chainsaw so an armed group may allegedly take control of the mine. On November 28, Interior Minister Gustavo González López decided the reason for the killings was as a consequence of a “gang battle” over the gathering of bribes. He additionally talked about that the “paramilitary phenomenon” was exported from Colombia and that these teams supposed to train political and financial management of the mining space.
  • Leocer José Lugo Maíz, a 19-year-old soldier, was found mutilated – along with his fingers amputated, his tongue minimize, and his eyes taken out – on January 14, 2019, based on media accounts. Lugo Maíz, a soldier of the Nationwide Bolivarian Guard who had abandoned, was captured by a syndicate within the Yin Yan mine in El Callao. In line with native media stories, Lugo was regarded as a Bolivarian National Guard informant. Syndicate members reportedly kidnapped Lugo Maíz on January 8.
  • The nongovernmental group Fee for Human Rights and Citizenship (Comisión de los Derechos Humanos y Ciudadanía, CODHECIU) has collected 51 complaints of lacking individuals within the mining municipalities in Guayana area, Bolívar, from 2012 to 2019, CODHECIU informed Human Rights Watch. Of these, 10 individuals had been discovered alive after being kidnapped or surviving a bloodbath; the whereabouts of the remaining remained unknown as of September 2019. Greater than 60 % of the reported instances occurred between 2018 and 2019. Six households informed CODHECIU {that a} member of the family had gone to work in gold mines within the space and by no means returned. In line with CODHECIU, many of the households mentioned they filed complaints with the investigative police CICPC however had been “inspired” by the police to cease the search. In a single case, relations informed CODHECIU there was no effective search for the missing person reported by the CICPC throughout the first hours.

    Human Rights Watch spoke to the spouse of one of many individuals featured in a local media article that lined this challenge. She final heard from her husband in March 2018, after he left to go to work at a mine in Delta Amacuro state, and he has not returned since. She mentioned she obtained threats and intimidation after she reported her husband lacking to Venezuelan authorities and informed Human Rights Watch that she obtained related encouragement from CICPC to cease her search.

  • On October 15, 2019, at the very least 16 individuals went lacking and 6 had been injured at Los Candados mine in Bolívar state throughout an alleged confrontation between a syndicate and the ELN, based on information stories.
  • On November 22, 2019, at least eight people had been reported dead in a shootout within the Pemón Ikabarú Indigenous territory, one of many mining areas within the Orinoco Mining Arc, in Gran Sabana municipality, Bolívar. Witnesses reported shots from an armed group round 7:30 p.m. in entrance of a neighborhood enterprise. At the least a kind of confirmed lifeless was a member of the Bolivarian Nationwide Guard, and one other was an indigenous individual from the Manak Kru group. Indigenous authorities in Pemón launched an official statement on the “Ikabarú bloodbath,” condemning the occasion and the presence of armed teams in indigenous territory and demanding that the bloodbath be investigated by the nationwide authorities together with indigenous authorities.


Within the Eight years from 2010 to 2018, malaria cases in Venezuela increased by 797 %, rising swiftly from 136,402 in 2015 to 240,613 in 2016 and 404,924 confirmed instances in 2018.

In line with a report by the Pan American Well being Group (PAHO) and World Well being Group (WHO), 323,392 malaria cases were reported in Venezuela between January and October 13, 2019. The Venezuelan Society of Public Health, nevertheless, estimates that there have been over 1 million malaria cases in 2018, more than a 50 percent increase compared to 2017. PAHO and the WHO reported that the biggest variety of instances reported in 2019 had been within the states of Amazonas, Bolívar, and Sucre.

As individuals migrate to and from Amazonas, Bolívar, and Sucre states, malaria spreads to components of Venezuela the place it has not been reported in a long time, in addition to to neighboring international locations. The potential emergence of drug-resistant strains because of the lack of availability of efficient remedy can also be an rising menace, accompanied by a rise in malaria-related mortality.

The scenario is aggravated by weakened vector management applications as nicely. Some individuals interviewed by Human Rights Watch mentioned they generally received remedy in public well being clinics. However others mentioned they paid as much as 2 grams of gold – price roughly $100 – for remedy, together with 1 one that needed to pay a nurse for it at a public well being clinic. Some who couldn’t afford to pay mentioned that they had resorted to treating malaria “with herbs.”

— Human Rights Watch to