A Rising Tide of Murder in Venezuela’s Mineral-rich South
A Rising Tide of Murder in Venezuela’s Mineral-rich South
Venezuela: The Region Feels the Impact
Venezuela: The Region Feels the Impact
People stand next to Venezuelan soldiers, as they wait for information about the deaths in a remote illegal mine where seven people were killed in Tumeremo, Venezuela, on 17 October 2018.
People stand next to Venezuelan soldiers, as they wait for information about the deaths in a remote illegal mine where seven people were killed in Tumeremo, Venezuela, on 17 October 2018. REUTERS/William Urdaneta
Q&A / Latin America & Caribbean

A Rising Tide of Murder in Venezuela’s Mineral-rich South

Dead bodies are appearing across the Orinoco river basin of southern Venezuela. In this Q&A, Crisis Group consultant Bram Ebus explains how the killings are linked by jostling among criminals, guerrillas and soldiers for mineral wealth amid the country’s wider socio-economic meltdown.

What happened?

A spate of mass killings in southern Venezuela is stirring international concern as the country’s political and economic crisis continues to drive a migrant exodus. On 14 October, at least seven miners were murdered in clashes between non-state armed factions near Tumeremo, Bolívar state, toward the Guyana border. Three weeks later, on 4 November, guerrillas of Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) ambushed a troop of Venezuelan National Guardsmen, killing three and wounding ten, near the town of Puerto Ayacucho, capital of Amazonas state, close to the Colombia border. These attacks came in retaliation for the guard’s arrest of an ELN commander Luis Felipe Ortega Bernal, also known as Garganta (Throat). The two incidents added to a growing number of violent deaths across the country’s vast “mining arc”, a 122,000-sq km area in the southern watershed of the Orinoco river.

Though the Bolívar and Amazonas killings took place hundreds of kilometres apart, many Venezuelans see them as connected, given that both events occurred in areas exposed to intensive mining, legal and illegal. The deaths raise pressing questions as to the effects of Venezuela’s overall socio-economic disintegration on the sparsely populated but mineral-rich south. They also highlight the ELN guerrillas’ growing presence in these regions at a time when their peace talks with the Colombian government are at an impasse. Colombia’s new president, Iván Duque, put the already faltering negotiations with the guerrillas, estimated to have almost 2,000 fighters in Colombia, on hold soon after assuming office in August.

What is at stake in southern Venezuela?

Venezuela sits atop one of the biggest (though as yet uncertified) gold deposits in the world. There are also promising reserves of coltan and diamonds, among other scarce minerals. As a forthcoming Crisis Group report will show, the country’s economic meltdown has led various armed actors, both state and non-state, to loot its natural resources, spurred by the desperation of impoverished Venezuelans who see little option but to head south and join the pillage.

Venezuela is in the grip of one of the world’s sharpest economic contractions, marked by hyper-inflation and scarcity of basis goods.
Venezuela’s Mineral Arc

In 2016, President Nicolás Maduro signed a decree purporting to create a legal framework for mining in Bolívar state (Venezuelan law prohibits mining in Amazonas state), with the aim of establishing a modern, sustainable extractive industry. In reality, no experienced companies work in Bolívar or anywhere in the mining arc. The corporations and state companies that operate in Bolívar get most of their minerals from mines controlled by local gangs or ELN fighters. Dissident former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who oppose the peace agreement that movement signed in 2016 with the Colombian government, are involved in illegal mining operations in Amazonas.

Why does this matter?

Venezuela is in the grip of one of the world’s sharpest economic contractions, marked by hyper-inflation and scarcity of basis goods. Its citizens are leaving in massive numbers – some three million since 2015, according to the International Organization of Migration. Emigration into Colombia, along with ideological differences and the Maduro government’s authoritarian turn, has put Bogotá and Caracas at loggerheads. Armed group activity in southern Venezuela, especially involving irregulars crossing borders, is liable to stoke those tensions.

Many sources say ELN guerrillas have taken over a significant number of mines controlled by Venezuelan crime syndicates in 2018. Battles for control have left a trail of bodies across the mining arc. Many killings – even massacres – go unreported because most occur in remote places, often inhabited by indigenous peoples, with haphazard or non-existent transport and telephone connections. These people fear speaking to outsiders, even when relatives go missing.

What is the Venezuelan government’s role in this violence?

A new governor in Bolívar state since October 2017 is reportedly allied to the crime syndicates, while his predecessor allegedly had relations with different criminal groups (neither has responded to such allegations). In Caracas, meanwhile, two government factions are believed to be competing for control of mineral reserves. One faction, including members of the National Guard, reportedly works alongside crime syndicates for personal enrichment. The other, comprised of parts of the military apparatus, appears set on running the mines in alliance with the ELN so as to invest the profits in the survival of the chavista government.

The latter’s objectives would appear to include the use of experienced guerrillas as a strategic line of defence close to the Colombian border in the event of foreign military intervention in Venezuela, a prospect mooted by leading U.S. and Latin American figures in recent months. Officially, the Venezuelan Defence Ministry denies that ELN guerrillas are present in the country, blaming right-wing Colombian paramilitaries for the 4 November killings in Amazonas. But the Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent out a communiqué on 5 November in which they condemned the killings and recognised Luis Ortega, who was arrested along with eight colleagues by the Venezuelan National Guard and is now held in a military jail near Caracas, as a senior ELN commander.

How have other countries reacted to the killings?

Bordering countries have shown the most alarm. Guyana and Colombia have reinforced the troops stationed at their respective borders with Venezuela, according to sources in both countries’ armed forces, largely out of concern over expanding mining-related violence.

An increase in bloodshed in southern Venezuela remains highly likely, at least until one group consolidates power in the region.

As part of its sanctions on the Venezuelan government, the U.S. announced via an executive order on 1 November that it will target gold exports, which it believes are being used to enrich Venezuela’s political and economic elite at the cost of increasing violence and human rights abuses in the country’s south. On 24 October, Marshall Billingslea, assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the Treasury Department, accused Maduro of “looting” his country’s gold supply, naming the export of 21 tonnes of the precious metal to Turkey as an example. He added that “[t]his gold is being removed from the country without any of the customary safeguards that would ensure the funds are accounted for and properly catalogued as belonging to the Venezuelan people”. The executive order forbids commerce with those who “operate in the gold sector of the Venezuelan economy”. This measure could have pernicious side effects, however, by forcing greater quantities of gold into contraband routes, thus boosting the revenues of organised crime and armed non-state actors.

Alternatively, under existing U.S. and forthcoming European Union (EU) legislation, Washington and Brussels could classify Venezuelan gold and coltan as conflict minerals. These laws urge companies throughout the value chain to obtain minerals from conflict-free suppliers, a provision that could stop Venezuela from selling its gold and coltan abroad unless exporters clean up their act. The fact that the Venezuelan mineral trade is associated with massacres, money laundering, sexual violence and groups included on the U.S. and EU terrorist lists could justify application of these laws, but it is hard to say whether or not this measure would also boost smuggling networks.

What are the likely scenarios over the coming months?

An increase in bloodshed in southern Venezuela remains highly likely, at least until one group consolidates power in the region. The competition between factions within the state could easily have a multiplier effect on attacks. Continued clashes among Venezuelan state forces, Venezuelan crime syndicates and Colombian armed groups are also likely to displace locals, perhaps across the border into Colombia. The people of southern Venezuela need urgent humanitarian assistance, particularly health care, as mining operations ravage the land that normally sustains them.

Map of Venezuela’s Mineral Arc

International Crisis Group/KO/June 2017

Venezuela: The Region Feels the Impact

Elections scheduled for 20 May are likely to aggravate the crisis in Venezuela, which has forced 1.5 million people to flee the country in the past year and a half. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2018 – First Update early-warning report, Crisis Group urges European policy makers to expand their vital humanitarian assistance to Venezuela and work closely with the Lima Group to encourage a negotiated solution to the crisis.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2018 – First Update.

International efforts to broker a solution to Venezuela’s implosion so far have not borne fruit. The crisis is spilling across Venezuela’s borders, with some 1.5 million Venezuelans fleeing the country over the past year and a half. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government is unable or unwilling to reverse the economic and social collapse brought on by its misguided policies. It frustrated the last round of talks between it and opposition representatives by unexpectedly calling an early presidential election, even as those negotiators discussed reforms to help level the playing field. That vote, now scheduled for 20 May, is more likely to aggravate than resolve the crisis, as the EU’s April declaration on the situation in Venezuela identified. Most opposition leaders call for a boycott, arguing that Maduro’s re-election is predetermined. Latin American governments in the ad hoc Lima Group, as well as those of the United States, Canada and Spain, have declared they will not recognise the result should the elections proceed as planned. The European Parliament endorsed the same stance in a resolution adopted at the start of May.

The EU, U.S. and other Western governments have imposed targeted sanctions on dozens of government officials, including the president and vice president. The U.S. has also banned most loans to Venezuela and is considering some form of oil embargo. A solution to the crisis can only come through a negotiated transition, which will require new talks between the government and opposition and additional pressure on the government. Ideally, Lima Group members would use the threat of their own targeted sanctions – such sanctions from Latin American governments would be almost unprecedented – to help push the government back to the negotiating table. To contribute to such a strategy, the EU and its member states, should:

  • Agree with Lima Group governments and the U.S. on clearly delineated steps the government should take to have Western sanctions lifted and avert Latin American sanctions.
  • Caution against the oil embargo floated by the U.S. and called for by some opposition hardliners, which would worsen the humanitarian emergency.
  • Encourage China, during engagements with Chinese officials, to help nudge Maduro to accept talks.

At the same time, efforts to contain the humanitarian crisis should continue. To this end, the EU and its member states should:

  • Reinforce their support for migrants and refugees along Venezuela’s borders.
  • Continue to seek out opportunities for delivering aid inside the country.

Particularly for the latter efforts, the EU will need to maintain a strict separation between the provision of humanitarian assistance and political demands on the government.

Humanitarian Emergency

Venezuela is sinking ever deeper into a profound economic and social crisis. Annual inflation could reach upwards of 300,000 per cent by year’s end. Despite a government plan to strike three zeroes off Venezuela’s currency, cash is almost impossible to obtain, hitting the poor, many of whom have no other means of payment, particularly hard. Over eight million Venezuelans cannot afford three meals a day. Protein has disappeared from many of their diets. Essential medicines are lacking: for some such medicines only 20 per cent of the quantity needed is available; others have entirely run out. Many of those suffering chronic diseases like cancer, HIV/AIDS or haemophilia are dying for lack of treatment.

Most public hospitals cannot guarantee running water or working lifts, let alone equipment such as X-ray machines. Patients are forced to provide their own medical and surgical supplies. Many operations are cancelled because blood banks lack reagents to ensure transfusions are safe. Long-controlled diseases like measles and diphtheria are making a comeback. Parts of the country are in the throes of a malaria epidemic. Yet the Venezuelan government denies the humanitarian crisis exists, portraying any coverage of the crisis as misinformation designed to undermine its rule. It also rejects much humanitarian aid, arguing that such efforts are part of a foreign plot to oust it.

As many as 1.5 million people have left the country in the past eighteen months, and a similar number may leave in the course of this year. The exodus has placed public services in neighbouring countries under strain, with governments in countries as far away as Chile having to adapt immigration regulations accordingly. Temporary shelters and soup kitchens catering to Venezuelans have been set up in Colombian and Brazilian border towns. UN agencies and the EU are now beginning to provide international aid in those locations.

Political Deadlock

A presidential election is scheduled for 20 May, but is unlikely to provide a way out of the crisis. In February, the government brought forward the election by more than six months, thus sabotaging internationally facilitated talks with the opposition over electoral reforms that were underway at the time. Most opposition parties are boycotting the poll, but beyond that do not offer a coherent strategy for pressuring the government.

A presidential election is scheduled for 20 May, but is unlikely to provide a way out of the crisis.

Former state Governor Henri Falcón of the Avanzada Progresista party, with the backing of two other small parties, is contesting the presidency. To do so, he has broken with the Democratic Unity (MUD) opposition coalition, which includes most of the more moderate opposition parties that had been negotiating with the government and are now planning to boycott the polls. The opposition’s harder-line wing, now represented by the Soy Venezuela movement, is calling for a “humanitarian intervention” – for the U.S. to intervene militarily, in other words – and for President Maduro to be impeached and tried for crimes against humanity. On 17 April, parliament, in which opposition politicians, mostly from parties in the MUD, hold a majority, voted overwhelmingly to approve Maduro’s trial for corruption by an ad hoc “Supreme Court in exile” – composed of judges appointed to the Supreme Court by the parliament and later forced into exile. But this initiative will have little practical effect. Parliament has been rendered largely powerless, especially after a new Constituent Assembly, dominated by ruling party loyalists, was elected last year in a vote the opposition also shunned.

Polls indicate that most opposition voters will abstain on 20 May, offering Maduro a clear chance of victory despite popularity ratings below 30 per cent. Even if Falcón were to win, the government’s control of electoral authorities, the Supreme Court – which has the final word on electoral disputes – and the security forces means it would have the power to block his victory. The absence of credible international observer organisations, which declined to deploy observers given the conditions in which the vote is being held, also gives Maduro a free hand.

Dozens of military officers, including commanders of key units such as the armoured Ayala battalion in Caracas, have been detained for allegedly plotting against the government. Their arrests lend credence to widespread accounts of unrest in the barracks. With the exception of a minority of mostly top military leaders, who are accused of benefiting from corruption and other criminal activities, members of the armed forces suffer the same deterioration in living standards as other Venezuelans. Military canteens often provide little or nothing to eat. That said, a coup attempt, while impossible to rule out, would be hard to pull off: the armed forces are fractured and extensively penetrated by counter-intelligence.

International Reaction

Venezuela’s international isolation has intensified markedly over the past year, with regional governments in particular turning their back on Maduro, especially after the breakdown of talks in February. Further sanctions are likely unless the president postpones the vote and takes measures to level the playing field. That said, exactly how the threat by Latin American and other governments to “not recognise the results” would be put into practice is unclear. Many governments already have withdrawn ambassadors from Caracas. But entirely severing diplomatic relations could reinforce the government’s siege mentality and backfire.

The Lima Group issued a fresh statement at the mid-April Summit of the Americas, which the summit’s host, Peru, barred Venezuela from attending. That statement called for free and fair elections and the restoration of democracy. The group also emphasised the need for humanitarian assistance, both within Venezuela and in neighbouring countries hosting Venezuelans that have left. Meanwhile, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK, together with several Latin American governments, Canada, Japan and the U.S., have backed a joint initiative to locate and seize those assets of Venezuelan officials that they have reason to suspect have been acquired through corruption.

Recommendations to the European Union and its Member States

Venezuela’s crisis is now a grave threat not only for its own people, but also for the wider region. A lasting solution requires a negotiated transition. It also requires comprehensive economic reform, which can only be carried out by a government that enjoys international political and financial support. The starting point must be a return to negotiations between the government and opposition leaders.

Venezuela’s crisis is now a grave threat not only for its own people, but also for the wider region.

Thus far, the threat of economic collapse has not persuaded the group around Maduro to participate in such talks, which would, in essence, be aimed at negotiating the end of one-party rule and the restoration of democracy. Top officials perceive potential exit costs as extremely high, and fear they would risk prosecution for alleged corruption, drug trafficking and human rights violations were they to lose power. For its part, the opposition is split into three main factions, each frequently adopting tactics that contradict those of the other two. Calls for military intervention by the harder-line Soy Venezuela faction are particularly counterproductive, fuelling the government’s accusations that humanitarian aid is a foreign plot.

With no political solution in sight, the EU and its member states should continue and expand their critical humanitarian assistance along the lines described by the European commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis management after a visit in March to the Venezuela-Colombia border area. Their efforts should include helping neighbouring countries cope with the burden on welfare services due to unprecedented migrant and refugee flows. The EU shall continue providing assistance to those affected and seek additional ways to deliver support to the population, which requires working around the government’s refusal to acknowledge the crisis, particularly by clearly separating political from humanitarian demands on the government, while strengthening Venezuelan civil society groups and foreign non-governmental organisations able to deliver food and medical aid to vulnerable populations. The EU and its members also should use their influence in multilateral bodies, including the UN, to ensure those bodies do all they can to alleviate suffering, including ensuring adequate funding and providing accurate information on humanitarian conditions in Venezuela.

The EU and its member states should continue and expand their critical humanitarian assistance [to Venezuela].

To encourage a negotiated solution to the crisis, the EU and its member states should work closely with the Lima Group, the U.S. and other concerned governments to present a united front. All should coordinate their sanctions policy and diplomatic initiatives designed to bring about negotiations. This means agreeing on a set of measures that the government would have to take to have those Western sanctions that already exist lifted and avoid further sanctions, including from Latin American governments. The EU and its member states, however, should argue against wide-ranging economic sanctions, including an oil embargo. If the elections take place on 20 May, EU member states could use the opportunity presented by the 28 foreign ministers’ meeting scheduled shortly thereafter to coordinate their response.

A clear list of demands would allow sanctions against individuals, like those the EU introduced against seven top officials in January, to be gradually lifted if the government moves in the right direction. The EU should continue using its existing channels with the opposition to encourage them to unite around a credible strategy.

China, which thus far has played an important role propping up the Maduro government but shows some signs of tiring of its economic mismanagement, could contribute to a solution. The EU, together with Western and Latin American governments, should advise Chinese officials of the importance of nudging Maduro to accept talks, and thereby promote a stable and prosperous Venezuela. China also should participate in plans for a major economic and financial rescue package in the event of a transition agreement.

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