Gold mining in Venezuela rampant with human rights abuses

Person with headlamp working in mine (© Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)
A miner descends into a gold mine in El Callao, Bolívar state, which is in the southeastern part of Venezuela. (© Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)

A new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) details the gruesome conditions that gold miners in Venezuela are forced to endure.

Twelve percent of Venezuela, a country rich in natural resources such as oil, diamonds and uranium, is surfaced with gold and mineral deposits.

In Venezuela’s southern Bolívar state, pro-Maduro civilian armed groups force miners to work, employing physical abuse and fear tactics to control gold production.

The Maduro regime permits the groups using these tactics to oversee the gold mining operations. Witnesses report seeing a top government official patrolling the mines, according to the report.

HRW spent two years collecting testimonials from Venezuelan gold miners and people living in gold mining towns. According to the report, “many mines in Bolívar are under the tight control of Venezuelan syndicates or Colombian armed groups,” such as the guerrilla organization FARC, also known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and the ELN, also known as the National Liberation Army.

These armed groups enforce arbitrary “laws” to instill fear and keep order among the mining communities. They accuse miners and innocent civilians of theft before publicly cutting off their fingers and hands, and, in extreme cases, executing them, according to witnesses interviewed for the report.

There is no enforced judicial system to protect the victims.

Two men with pickaxes working on muddy plot of land (© Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
Miners use pickaxes and high-pressure hoses to dig a new gold mine in Venezuela. (© Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

The gold mines, located in the southern part of the country, operate in close proximity to indigenous communities. As a result, indigenous persons are often forced to work in the mines against their will.

The working conditions of the mines are hazardous. Toxic amounts of mercury are used to clean the gold ore, and there are little to no safety measures taken to prevent workplace injury. The report details how a 16-year-old boy sustained a spinal fracture from a falling log that hit him as he was using a high-pressure hose without any protective gear.

Additionally, in testimony before Congress [PDF] on illicit mining in Venezuela, a State Department official reported that people in mining communities are “exploited in forced labor or sex trafficking, compelled through violence and fear by the group running the mine. There has been reporting that in some regions, the average age of those being sex trafficked is 13–14 years old.”

The HRW report says miners are forced to give up to 80 percent of their gold to the syndicates, and residents of the town must pay gold to the armed groups to keep their businesses operational.

HRW’s report underscores the concerns voiced by interim president and National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He beseeched Venezuela’s allies to stop purchasing Venezuelan gold until the human rights abuses end.

“The first thing to do is to stop the illegal traffic of gold,” Guaidó said, according to Reuters. “It is blood gold.”