State forces have reportedly been responsible for a wave of killings in Venezuela's illegal mining zones, sparking questions over whether they are combating criminal networks, clearing the way for multinationals or looking to control the trade themselves.
According to Efecto Cocuyo, local press reported 61 killings in five mining municipalities in the southeastern state of Bolívar between the start of 2017 and mid-September. Of these, the Venezuelan military was responsible for 40 deaths, and police a further seven.
Local residents told Efecto Cocuyo they believe the killings by security forces are part of a strategy to remove the illegal miners in order to turn over the territory to multinational mining companies.
The most recent deadly confrontation took place on September 10, when 11 people were killed and two soldiers injured in the municipality of Tumeremo in a shootout at a mining site.
Official sources stated the confrontation began when a military unit approached the mine and came under fire from a criminal gang exploiting the operation, reported El Universal.
However, opposition politician Americo De Grazia tweeted to say witnesses are reporting the miners were executed, and are scared of reprisals for speaking out.
InSight Crime Analysis
Violence linked to the criminalization of Venezuela's informal mining sector dates back over a decade. In recent years, though, there has been a clear escalation, and the murders registered in 2017 follow the deadliest incident recorded yet, the March 2016 disappearance and supposed murder of 28 miners in the same municipality of Tumeremo.
There is no doubt that criminal networks are indeed forming around the illegal mining trade, and the Venezuelan government has connected these groups to violence. But, as illustrated by the comments by De Grazia and local residents, the panorama is much more complicated.
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De Grazia has previously denounced the involvement of the military in illegal mining, claiming they are not looking to shut it down but rather exploit it for their own profits. He is not alone in making these allegations, with a former governor of Bolívar also accusing the military of extorting miners in order to allow them to work and colluding with gangs in violence.
Residents, meanwhile, claim that the killings are part of a plan to remove illegal miners to make way for multinationals, basing this conclusion on the Venezuelan government's decision last year to open up the country to large-scale industrial mining. Whether the theory is true or not, it is likely that the entry of multinational companies onto the scene could complicate an already volatile situation.