Venezuela: Illegal Gold Mine Collapse Kills 16 People, Gov’t Deploys Rescue Teams

The Maduro government committed to relocating miners to safe areas and supporting the families of the deceased.
The “Bulla Loca” mine has been operating illegally for almost a year in Bolívar state. (Photo: X/Internet)

Caracas, February 24, 2024 ( – At least 16 people died in the collapse of an illegally operated gold mine located in a remote indigenous region of the Venezuelan Amazon. 

The number of casualties could still rise, according to the local community.

On Tuesday, local officials reported that a wall collapsed at the “Bulla Loca” open-pit mine in Bolívar state, southeastern Venezuela, engulfing miners and injuring dozens. Around 200 people were reportedly working in the mine when a 30-meter hole opened. The tragedy was caught on video.

Edgar Colina Reyes, Bolívar state’s secretary of citizen security, said on Wednesday that rescue teams were deployed with the military, firefighters, civic protection and many other organizations joining forces. The operation could extend for a month as the area is swept and secured. 

Also on Wednesday, President Nicolás Maduro regretted the tragedy and said that more rescue teams were being flown in from Caracas to aid in the search. He also sent his condolences to the families of the deceased miners and pledged to guarantee them “all the social, personal and human support.”

“We sent all the Civil Protection teams as soon as we found out, they are on-site and we are going to reinforce the rescue phases”, Maduro said during a live broadcast from Apure state.

The “Bulla Loca” mine is in the middle of the Amazon and difficult to access with the nearest town La Paragua being a seven-hour boat ride and a two-hour helicopter flight away. The site began operating around 10 months ago with no permits when gold was found and since then it has expanded throughout 80 hectares, according to satellite images from NGO SOS Orinoco. “Bulla” is miners’ code for when a place has significant amounts of gold. 

Most of the pit’s workers come from La Paragua and other nearby towns. On Thursday, Bolívar Governor Angel Marcano informed that the recovered bodies were handed to their families and the injured were flown to hospitals in Ciudad Bolívar and Ciudad Guayana. 

The governor stated that the exact amount of people working in the mine is unknown as the place lacks any paperwork. Speaking with the families of the surviving miners, Maracano committed to helping them find work in legal mines under safe conditions, with state assistance and minimizing the environmental impact.

For his part, Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB) Commander, Domingo Hernández Lárez, confirmed on Friday that over 300 people had been evacuated from the area but many were refusing to leave and had carried on digging for gold.  

Previously an agricultural-based community, La Paragua has turned to gold extraction activities for economic sustenance amidst the country’s economic struggles. 

In recent years, illegal gold mining in the mineral-rich Bolívar state has expanded, attracting thousands of people from across the country looking for sources of income as living conditions worsened under US sanctions. Although these unregulated operations have existed for decades, they have proliferated in recent years causing large environmental damage to local ecosystems and indigenous populations.

In 2016, the government declared the Orinoco Mining Arc as a Special Economic Zone, opening the region to mega-mining projects frequently in alliances with foreign companies that are given sizable tax breaks. The purpose was to seek alternative sources of income to offset the decline of the oil industry under market volatility and wide-reaching US sanctions.

However, under special economic status, the region has become vastly deregulated, allowing illegal mining and smuggling activities to multiply, resulting in large deforestation, water contamination and an increase in malaria cases. Unilateral sanctions have likewise kept foreign corporations from investing in the area.

In July 2023, the government launched a large-scale operation to root out illegal mining from national parks in the Venezuelan Amazon region, which expands across the Amazonas, Bolívar, and Delta Amacuro states, south of the country. The initiative came a month after 12 miners were killed in the Talavera artisanal mine, in El Callao, Bolívar state.

The anti-illegal mining task likewise responded to mounting criticism for the lack of state supervision to guarantee safe conditions for workers in both legal and illegal mines and the environmental impact of these activities on the Amazon rainforest.

According to authorities, thousands of illegal miners have been evacuated from the Amazon region since last year and a reforestation plan is underway.

Venezuela has the world’s second-largest gold reserves but depends heavily on costly foreign assistance to process the material as state mining company Minerven has been under US sanctions since 2019. The measure was temporarily lifted in October 2023 following an electoral agreement between the Maduro government and the US-backed opposition, but it was revoked this month.