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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.

A spate of mass killings in southern Venezuela is stirring international concern as the country’s political and economic crisisFoto: Oro nativo, Edo. Bolívar, Venezuela.Foto: Oro nativo, Edo. Bolívar, Venezuela. 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.

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.

Read more:  Crisis Group