Venezuela's military are accused of profiting from illegal mining

A Venezuela party leader has blamed corruption in the armed forces for the disappearance of 28 miners, hinting at long-standing military involvement in the illegal gold industry.

Former Bolívar state governor Andrés Velásquez has accused the military of benefiting from illegal gold mining, in the wake of the disappearance and possible murder of 28 miners in south Venezuela.

In an interview with Unión Radio, Velásquez -- one of the leaders of opposition party Radical Cause (La Causa Radical - LCR) -- blamed collusion between criminal groups and corrupt officials for the miners' disappearance.

SEE ALSO:  Coverage of Mining

"There are criminal gangs present," Velásquez said. "All of their leaders have been identified -- 'El Juancho,' 'El Topo,' 'El Gordo,' 'El Chingo' ... [They are] all-powerful mining 'chiefs.'"

He also asserted that military officials present in the area charge illegal miners extortion fees in exchange for allowing them to operate. 

Bolívar state congressman Américo De Grazia -- also of the LCR -- recently made similar assertions, claiming that while members of the armed forces condemn illegal mining, officials profit by collecting extortion fees in exchange for allowing miners to operate.

InSight Crime Analysis

Allegations that the armed forces are deeply involved in Venezuela's illegal mining industry have been around for quite some time. Thus, in some ways the rumours that authorities participated in the recent disappearance of over two dozen miners in Bolívar are unsurprising.

SEE ALSO:  Venezuela News and Profiles

One recent report that alleged Venezuela's security officials are involved in illicit mining was a 2015 documentary by Discovery MAX (see video below). The film asserted that Venezuela's armed forces benefit from a lack of state control in illegal mining hotspot Bolívar, as reported by Efecto Cocuyo. According to local government sources, high-ranking military officials support and give weapons to criminal "syndicates" that offer local miners protection in return for a slice of their profits.

Episode 5 of the "Amazonas Clandestino" documentary series by Discovery MAX (in Spanish)

Military officials reportedly attack and rob those that refuse to pay these fees, and resell confiscated gold to third parties, according to Efecto Cocuyo. 

It remains to be seen whether a Congress controlled by a non-Chavista majority will push harder to investigate such reports of corruption within the security forces. In one notable turn of events, Congress has already openly debated whether the former President of Congress, Diosdado Cabello, has links to the transnational drug trade. This stands in contrast to the status quo under President Hugo Chávez and President Nicolás Maduro, when such allegations were rarely investigated diligently.