NEW YORK, Feb 5 2020 (IPS) – Residents of Venezuela‘s southern Bolivar state are suffering amputations and other horrific abuses at the hands of armed groups, including Venezuelan groups called “syndicates” in the area and Colombian armed groups operating in the region, both of which exercise control over gold mines, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday, February 4.
The armed groups seem to operate largely with government acquiescence, and in some cases government involvement, to maintain tight social control over local populations.
Venezuela has reserves of highly valued resources like gold, diamonds, and nickel, as well as coltan and uranium. Although the government has announced efforts to attract partners for legal mining and a crackdown on illegal mining, most gold mining in southern states, including Bolivar, is illegal, with much of the gold smuggled out of the country.
The various syndicates that control the mines exert strict control over the populations who live and work there, impose abusive working conditions, and viciously treat those accused of theft and other offenses – in the worst cases, they have dismembered and killed alleged offenders in front of other workers.
“Poor Venezuelans driven to work in gold mining by the ongoing economic crisis and humanitarian emergency have become victims of macabre crimes by armed groups that control illegal mines in southern Venezuela,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “It is critical for gold buyers and refineries to ensure that any Venezuelan gold in their supply chains is not stained with the blood of Venezuelan victims.”
The operations of these illegal mines are also having a devastating impact on the environment and the health of workers, local sources said. Internal economic migration due to the economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela has increased the number of people seeking to work in mining areas. Many residents live in fear and are exposed to harsh working conditions, poor sanitation, and an extremely high risk of diseases such as malaria.
In October 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed 21 people who had worked in mines or mining towns in Bolivar state in 2018 and 2019, including the mines near Las Claritas, El Callao, El Dorado, and El Algarrobo.
In October and November, Human Rights Watch interviewed 15 other people, including leaders of indigenous groups in the area, journalists and experts who visited the area recently, and family members of people working in mines, and reviewed reports by independent groups and media outlets, which were consistent with accounts from the people interviewed in the field. Human Rights Watch also reviewed satellite imagery that shows the growth of mining in this area.
Numerous people interviewed said that many mines in Bolivar are under the tight control of Venezuelan syndicates or Colombian armed groups. The International Crisis Group has reported that both the Colombian rebel group National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional, ELN) and at least one dissident group that emerged from the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) operate in the area. Several people interviewed also said that these groups were active in Bolivar.
People interviewed also said that Venezuelan authorities are aware of the illegal mining activities. Ten people who worked at the mines, two journalists covering the area, and a local indigenous leader said that state security agents have visited mining sites to collect bribes.
Some of these sources said they witnessed this. Two people working in the mines and the indigenous leader, interviewed by Human Rights Watch separately, claimed they saw a top official from the Nicolas Maduro government visit the mines in different incidents.
The armed groups, who are effectively in charge of the mines and the settlements that have grown up around them, brutally enforce their rule. “Everyone knows the rules,” one resident said. “If you steal or mix gold with another product, the pran [the syndicate leader] will beat or kill you.” Another said “They are the government there…. If you steal, they ‘disappear’ you.”
As detailed below, four residents said that they witnessed members of syndicates amputating or shooting the hands of people accused of stealing. Several other residents said they knew of cases in which syndicate members had cut offenders into pieces with a chainsaw, ax, or machete.
Residents are also exposed to mercury, which miners use to extract the gold, despite it being prohibited in Venezuela. Mercury can cause serious health problems, even in small amounts, with toxic effects on the nervous, digestive, and immune systems, and on lungs, kidneys, skin, and eyes.
Studies conducted in mining areas in Bolivar many years ago already found high levels of mercury exposure, including among women and children, for whom the health risks are even higher and, for pregnant women, include serious disability or death of the fetus and, if carried to term, the child.
In addition, residents described consistently harsh working conditions in the mines, including working 12-hour shifts without any protective gear and children as young as 10 working alongside adults.
The malaria epidemic affecting Venezuela is closely correlated with the upsurge of illegal mining in the south of Venezuela. Often, miners live outdoors in tents, which increases their exposure to mosquitoes. Deforested mining pits, which fill with rainwater, provide an excellent breeding environment for malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
Nearly every person interviewed who had worked in mines or mining towns had had malaria, many of them multiple times. The public health system, amid the humanitarian emergency in the country, has not been able to provide treatment to everyone. Several interviewees said they sometimes had to purchase antimalarial drugs, which could cost up to two grams of gold, currently about US$100 on the international market.
Human Rights Watch has been unable to find any public information regarding investigations into the criminal responsibility of government officials or Venezuelan security forces implicated in these abuses.
On November 14, Human Rights Watch requested information from Venezuela’s authorities on the status of prosecutions against those responsible for abuses committed by armed groups in Bolivar, including government officials and members of Venezuelan security forces complicit in abuses, but has received no response.
Human Rights Watch was unable to identify whether any of the gold mined under the control of syndicates was sold or whether it is in the supply chain of any specific companies. Nonetheless, companies should be vigilant about gold from Venezuela and undertake human rights due diligence to identify, prevent, mitigate, and account for their impact on human rights connected to their operations, consistent with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
In the case of Venezuelan gold, this includes identifying and assessing risks in supply chains, monitoring a business’ human rights impact on an ongoing basis, publishing information about due diligence efforts, and having processes in place to remediate adverse human rights impacts of their actions.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has stated that businesses have an obligation to adopt due diligence procedures to ensure that the minerals they engage with do not come out of “conflict” or “high-risk” areas – that is, areas in which armed conflict, widespread violence, collapse of civil infrastructure, or other risks of harm to people are present.
“National and international companies buying gold from Venezuela should know whether it comes from mines in Bolivar state and should have due diligence procedures in place to ensure that their supply chains are free from illicit, exploitative, and violent activities,” Vivanco said.
“If companies find that their gold supply is linked to some of these abuses, or are unable to trace its source, they should work to fix those problems or cease working with those suppliers.”
This story was originally published by Human Rights Watch