BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Criminal groups that run gold mines in the south of Venezuela have mutilated miners accused of stealing, extorted business owners and forced young children to work without security equipment as they tighten their grip on a region that is rich in minerals, Human Rights Watch said in a report published on Tuesday.
The watchdog group interviewed more than 30 mine workers, journalists and local experts who said that authorities in Venezuela are turning a blind eye to the abuses and in some occasions collaborating with criminal groups and with Colombian rebels who control mines in Venezuela’s Bolivar state.
“The armed groups seem to operate largely with government acquiescence and in some cases government involvement” the report said.
Venezuela’s socialist government increasingly has relied on gold mined in Bolivar state to cover its expenditures and get around U.S. sanctions on its oil industry.
According to Central Bank figures, Venezuela’s government bought more than 17 tons of gold from artisanal miners between 2016 and 2018. Some of that has been recently sold in the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, which has become one of the Venezuelan government’s main food suppliers.
Human Rights Watch said that it had not been able to trace which companies are currently buying gold taken from illegal mines in Venezuela.
But the watchdog group called on gold companies that do business with Venezuela to be “vigilant” about where their purchases are coming from.
“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 gold 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 report includes interviews with several miners who said that they had witnessed enforcers for criminal syndicates torturing miners accused of stealing and even chopped their hands off in public with axes and machetes.
One witness who spoke to Human Rights Watch on the condition that his name not be published, also said that a woman at one of the mines was tied to a tree and beheaded with a chainsaw, after she stole 10 grams of gold.
Human Rights Watch also said that some mines in Bolivar state are controlled by Colombian rebel groups now operating in Venezuela, including the National Liberation Army, which has an estimated 3,000 members and is still fighting to overthrow Colombia’s government. The group bombed a police academy in Bogota last year, killing 21 people.
President Nicolas Maduro has said that he is trying to promote legal mining in the region and launched a plan in 2016 to attract foreign investment in the nation’s gold mines. Chinese and Russian companies currently have joint ventures with state run companies in the area.
Venezuela’s government also launched a plan to stop illegal mining operations in 2018, and authorities have issued arrest warrants for 39 people allegedly involved in selling illegal gold abroad.