Ramiro Orias Arredondo*
Versión en español aquí.
The third report of the International Independent Fact-Finding Mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (FFM), presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council on September 20, 2022 (A/HRC/51/43), addresses the human rights situation in the region of the Orinoco Mining Arc and other areas of the Bolivar state, in a context aggravated by the presence of criminal organizations and illicit economies in coexistence with state actors.
Since its first report in 2020 (A/HRC/45/CRP.11), the Mission drew attention to the need for further investigation into the causes of the Venezuelan crisis, such as «the nexus between corruption and serious human rights violations.” At that time, it already noted that: «a motivating factor behind the human rights violations identified in the present report are the personal financial benefits derived from the capture of State institutions, providing a strong incentive for Government actors to maintain power and ensure impunity.» (para. 116).
The situation in the region of the Arco Minero del Orinoco (AMO) has been the subject of growing concern by international human rights bodies. In its resolution 45/20 on the «Situation of human rights in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” (A/HRC/RES/45/20), the Human Rights Council expressed its “deep concern at the human rights and environmental situation in the Arco Minero del Orinoco region, which is the site of labour exploitation of miners, including child labour, human trafficking and forced prostitution, and expresses particular concern about the violations of the rights of indigenous peoples in the region.»
According to the OHCHR Report of July 15, 2020, «much of the mining activity within and beyond Arco Minero del Orinoco is controlled by organized criminal groups or armed groups.» The so-called pranes or syndicates, are the ones who decide “who enters and leaves the area; impose rules; inflict harsh physical punishment on those who break the rules; and gain economic benefit from all activity within the mining area, including through extortion in exchange for protection.» Available information shows that most of the mines are controlled by these organized criminal groups, called «syndicatos» at the local level, which have reproduced the model of the pranato reigning in Venezuelan prisons and which are nothing more than «criminal structures, whose leader imposes his will with indescribable brutality and benefits from extortion and abuse,» in the case of the population living in that region.
Along the same lines, the FFM’s third report documents how state and non-state actors have committed human rights violations against the population of these territories, particularly affecting the indigenous peoples who ancestrally inhabit this region of the country, in the context of the struggle for control of the mining areas between various political, military, and non-state actors, such as armed irregular groups. The Mission has concluded that the information received suggests the permissiveness of state authorities to the illegal activities of these groups in some parts of the Bolivar state, which is home to the traditional territories of 16 indigenous peoples and large protected areas rich in strategic minerals, especially gold, diamonds, coltan and bauxite.
From its inception, the Orinoco Mining Arc was presented as a «mining megaproject,» a lifeline aimed at increasing the Government’s income in the context of Venezuela’s broken economy. The Report recalls that illegal mining has continued to expand due to the fall in oil revenues, the increase in international gold prices, and the country’s economic and humanitarian crisis.
The creation of a special legal regime for the AMO attracted massive migration from other parts of the country to the area, but the Government’s plans to attract foreign capital through public-private partnerships failed to materialize. Since the mid-2000s, it has been the syndicates and pranes that have expanded and gained illicit control of entire mining areas and transportation routes based on violent domination of the territories, colluding with political and military actors who benefit from these resources.
Aside from the military’s formal involvement in the mining industry, the FFM has also received credible information that members of the security forces are colluding with such syndicates and other criminal elements involved in the mining sector. As explained in the report, such collaboration has ranged from tacit acceptance of the presence of armed groups, to active collusion between low-ranking state and non-state actors, to alleged high-level strategic alliances to «clean» the mines of certain groups that informally exploit these riches. Low-ranking officials of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB) have also used extortion and other forms of abuse of power to obtain economic benefits. However, the sources of unofficial income are difficult to trace, and it is unclear to what extent these activities are carried out by rogue individuals in isolation, or whether they are supported, tolerated, or controlled through the structures of the military high command, the Mission Report asks.
The FFM indicates that «members of the Venezuelan military and political elite have benefited and continue to benefit financially from gold mining-related activities in the Arco Minero» (para. 85). Among the illicit activities in which, as detailed in the Report, FANB officials are involved, are: the provision of security services to illegal mines; control of fuel distribution and air transport in mining areas; cross-border mercury smuggling; and the collection of bribes («vacunas») or extortionate taxes from the exploitation of illegal mines or for access to infrastructure, often at military checkpoints («alcabalas»). Another major source of illicit military income is the alleged smuggling of gold to neighboring countries, especially Brazil and Colombia.
An investigation published by Transparencia Venezuela reviews in depth the environmental and social devastation occurring in the Orinoco Mining Arc, where several Illicit Economies converge under the cover of corruption. The work describes that, during the last two years, in the mining towns of the Bolivar state, gold exploitation activities proliferated uncontrollably; deforestation and soil erosion increased. The text emphasizes that in most of the deposits the mineral is extracted illegally, through the use of prohibited substances. The activity, which according to estimates produced up to 2,385 million dollars in 2021, does not generate wealth for the country, since only 25% of that amount, i.e. 580 million dollars, entered the public coffers. This means that 75% of the gold produced on Venezuelan soil (1.8 billion dollars) was traded through irregular channels.
The Bolivarian regime has promoted the militarization of the area supposedly to combat illegal mining activity; on the other hand, the emergence of non-state armed actors in that area has provoked high levels of violence, affecting the local population, particularly the indigenous communities that ancestrally inhabit those territories. Conflict dynamics linked to the presence of criminal armed groups and the widespread expansion of illegal mining and other illicit economies, along with increased militarization, have stimulated a sharp increase in insecurity in the Bolivar state. «Disputes between armed criminal groups for control of the mines, as well as between such groups and State security forces, have led to violence in the mining areas of Bolívar state, in particular in the state’s northeastern municipalities within the formal perimeter of the Arco Minero region,” the FFM Report reiterates.
The Mission has documented several cases in which State forces have attacked indigenous populations, committing a series of violations of their rights. «Local populations, including indigenous peoples, are caught in the violent battle between State and armed criminal groups for the control of gold,» the Report states. In other words, they are caught in the crossfire, harassed, and abused on both fronts.
After analyzing the information received on various cases, the FFM concludes that it has reasonable grounds to believe that Venezuelan security forces and armed criminal groups committed violations of the right to life and physical integrity, arbitrary detentions and torture, sexual and gender-based violence, including rape and sexual exploitation, especially against residents and workers in the mining areas of the Bolivar state; failing to comply with its international obligation to investigate and punish these serious human rights violations, since none of those responsible have been held accountable in relation to these incidents; in addition to pointing out other negative impacts on public health and the environment.
A recent study published in Americas Quarterly concludes that the environmental degradation of the Venezuelan Amazon has the fastest rate in the region and the fifth fastest in the world, with a total of 1.4 million hectares lost between 2016 and 2021, more intense than in Brazil, but less visible internationally. One of the causes of this deforestation process constitutes the predatory extractive policy of the mining industry that has occurred in the Orinoco Mining Arc.
Illegal groups are heavily armed and often come into violent conflict with each other or with state authorities. In addition, as mining activity has increased in this territory, so has the trafficking of arms and illicit goods, as well as violent incursions by state and non-state actors competing for access to this area. In addition, the FFM has accredited information showing how criminal groups exercise de facto control over large mining areas through violent incursions into the mines, illegal checkpoints, extortion, and a system of rules enforced through corporal punishment such as public beatings, amputations, and killings.
The FFM notes that another of its findings shows that the violence involved in these incidents led many people, especially indigenous leaders, to flee to other areas of the country or move to neighboring countries. This weakened the capacity of many indigenous communities to protect their territories from external actors, allowing both state and non-state armed actors to increase their presence and influence. As documented by the FFM, «several sources confirmed that incursions by miners and armed groups on indigenous lands, violent clashes over control of land and resources, and threats against indigenous peoples and leaders by armed criminal groups and the FANB continue to date.” (para. 98).
The FFM underscores that the human rights situation in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela continues to be grave and adds that: «The Mission’s analysis of the situation in Arco Minero and other areas in Bolívar state further give account of how human rights violations and crimes extend over remote areas of the country, in a context marked by widespread criminal activity, impunity and governance failure. The Mission has found reasonable grounds to believe that the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and specific officials are responsible for human rights violations that fall within the mandate of the Mission.” (para. 120).
In sum, the FFM’s third report dramatically shows how corruption is at the heart of the triangle between organized crime, illicit economies, and state capture, as the cause of the serious human rights violations committed in Venezuela’s Orinoco Mining Arc, which remain unpunished.
*Senior Program Officer at the Due Process Of Law Foundation.
Photo: Transparencia Venezuela.