Venezuela’s investigative police has launched an internal investigation into the recent murder of 17 gold miners, in a case that has become the center of a political war between the socialist government and the opposition.
The director of Venezuela’s investigative police force (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas – CICPC), Douglas Rico, stated that a number of local officers will be dismissed as part of the case, while the Attorney General’s Office may also initiate its own investigations against the military and police, reported the Associated Press.
On March 14, authorities discovered the bodies of 17 miners in a mass grave in the southeastern state of Bolívar, of which 14 have been fully identified. The victims had reportedly been executed, most of them with bullets to the head.
According to witness testimony, a group of 60 armed individuals — some of whom were dressed as civilians while others wore uniforms belonging to Venezuela’s Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional – SEBIN) and the CICPC — participated in the miners’ disappearance. They were allegedly following the instructions of the criminal gang leader identified as being responsible for the disappearances, Ecuadorian national Jamilton Andrés Ulloa Suárez, alias “El Topo.”
Authorities have made at least one arrest in the case and are searching for three suspects, including El Topo.
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The massacre of the miners has inflamed already tense relations between the socialist government of President Nicolás Maduro and the opposition-led National Assembly.
Various conflicting theories have emerged surrounding the mass disappearance. On the one hand, Maduro’s administration has speculated that the miners may have been victims of a “gang war massacre” perpetrated by El Topo and his henchmen, who government officials say has links to the demobilized Colombian paramilitary organization United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC).
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Opposition politicians, on the other hand, have pointed fingers at the military, flagging up the armed forces’ long-standing collusion with criminal groups in the area. Congressman Américo de Grazia recently claimed that he was receiving death threats after denouncing the disappearances. The congressman has also suggested that the disappearances are the result of a government “cleansing” in the area in order to allow multinational gold mining companies to enter the region.
Both versions of events have their plausible aspects. Four criminal gangs reportedly operate in Bolívar, where violent clashes related to the mining trade are frequent. Locals have also suggested that a turf dispute was behind this most recent massacre. Security forces, meanwhile, have reportedly colluded with criminal groups in the past to extort miners and run protection rackets in Bolívar.
While the truth remains out of reach for now, the politicization of this case threatens to overshadow the more fundamental dynamics at work, which are the increasing sophistication of organized crime in Venezuela, and the government’s failures to address this phenomenon.