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 5 minutes

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

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