Caracas, March 8, 2016 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Venezuela’s public prosecutor and ombudsman’s office opened investigations Monday into the disappearance of 28 miners in southeastern Bolivar state following allegations by local residents of a possible massacre.
“We will conduct an objective, independent and impartial investigation,” pledged Venezuela’s chief ombudsman, Tarek William Saab, who ordered a special team to the region on Monday. The public prosecutor’s office for its part assigned two national attorneys to the case and arranged for protection for two of the victims’ family members.
The investigations come three days after the miners failed to return home to Tumeremo on Friday, leading family members to report them as disappeared.
The families allege that the miners were killed by the local mafia groups who illegally control access to many of the region’s gold mines.
“We are demanding that the bodies appear, be as they may… I want to know where my husband is,” Karen Paez, spouse of one of the miners, told reporters.
The allegations were echoed by opposition legislator Americo De Grazia, who claimed that the miners had been murdered at a remote camp by a criminal group headed by a Colombian gang leader known as “El Topo”, who reportedly controls the area around the mine.
The lawmaker has called for the resignation of Bolivar State Governor Francisco Rangel Gomez in the case that the bodies are found.
Rangel, for his part, dismissed the murder claims on Saturday, accusing De Grazia and other right-wing politicians of “trying to sow chaos in Bolivar State with FALSE information about murdered miners.”
However, the governor backtracked on Monday, admitting the possibility of a “confrontation between armed groups in the area”, though reaffirming that evidence has yet to surface of any deaths.
The governor added that the search continues for the disappeared miners with three military helicopters and some 300 personnel combing the rugged and mountainous region.
The victims’ families and fellow residents have nonetheless rejected the governor’s account, taking to the streets to demand that authorities return the bodies.
The three-day protest has seen the blockade of the main road running through Tumeremo to the southern border with Brazil, leading to critical shortages of food and fuel across the state in a move Rangel has denounced as an “illegal act”.
The disappearances come just two weeks after the Maduro government signed a $5 billion deal with the Canadian mining firm Gold Standard to open up the country’s resource-rich “Orinoco Arc” to joint ventures with the Venezuelan state, which is believed to preside over the second largest gold reserves in the world.
President Maduro has touted these new mining projects as one of the 14 “economic motors” aimed at jumpstarting the country’s ailing economy.
Former president Hugo Chávez nationalized Venezuela’s gold mining sector in 2011, revoking concessions to transnational companies, who subsequently left the country.
Illegal gold mining has nevertheless continued in many border regions under the auspices of criminal gangs who use armed force to control the industry’s migrant labor pool, which largely hails from Brazil, Guyana, Colombia, and Caribbean islands.
A local resident told Venezuelanalysis that these criminal groups are believed to operate with impunity from the military and the state government of Francisco Rangel, who are alleged to actively profit from the illegal activity through bribes and extortion.