Caracas, February 13, 2018 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Eighteen people were killed in alleged clashes with Venezuelan authorities near a gold mine in the southeastern state of Bolivar on Saturday,.
According to official sources, the seventeen men and one woman were illegal gold miners who were killed in a confrontation with Venezuelan army personnel in the Cicapra de Guasipati mine.
“All [the victims] presented gunshot wounds product of a shootout between [state] functionaries and an armed group that runs the sector,” a military official told local newspaper Correo de Caroni.
The group reportedly had in its possession four FAL rifles, a R15 pistol, three revolvers, a shotgun, and two rocket propelled grenades.
Bolivar Governor Josto Noguera has confirmed that a military contingent participated in an operation in the area, but did not offer further details regarding the victims.
“Yes, there was an attack on a military commission that was undertaking tasks [in defense of] sovereignty. I am not at this time authorized to give numbers,” he told reporters.
Opposition lawmaker Rachid Yasbek has, however, disputed the military's account, referring to the incident as a “massacre”.
“The family members alleged that none of the deceased have a criminal record. Some are miners and others vendors,” he declared.
Yasbek has tweeted an alleged photo of one of the autopsy reports, which lists “gunshot wound to the head” as the cause of death.
El #Bloque de #Diputados del estado #Bolivar solicitaremos en plenaria que se instale comision especial @AsambleaVE para investigar la #Masacre #Cicapra exigimos #Justicia todavia a esta hora ninguna autoridad se ha pronunciado Silencio del regimen pic.twitter.com/Ry5rsHTDkT
— Dip.Rachid Yasbek V. (@YasbekRachid) February 13, 2018
Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly will be opening its own investigation into the case.
The incident is the bloodiest episode since the 2016 Tumeremo massacre, which saw at least 17 miners allegedly murdered by a criminal group in control of illegal gold mining in the area.
Mineral-rich Bolivar state has long been plagued by illegal mining, which has led to rampant environmental degradation as well as a wide range of social ills, including prostitution, cross-border smuggling, alcoholism, and gang violence. Such criminal networks often end up exerting significant control over local communities.
In 2016, the Maduro administration declared 112,000 square kilometers of the region a special economic zone for the development of mega-mining in conjunction with national and international firms under the auspices of the armed forces.
Known as the Orinoco Mining Arc, the initiative has been presented as an effort to bring gold mining under national regulation as well as crack down on criminal groups.
Nonetheless, the project has been criticized by social movements for lack of transparency in the details of the agreements, inadequate consultation of local indigenous communities, as well as concerns regarding social and ecological repercussions.
In March, the Venezuelan government will open a new round of registration for those who wish to participate in the Orinoco Mining Arc in a bid to legalize the status of local miners.
Last November and December, 20,000 miners reportedly registered under the government program.