Tribe suffers in deadly battle for riches of Venezuela’s El Dorado
'Blood gold' has turned the Gran Sabana into a killing ground that could shape the troubled country's future
It was once the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, an otherworldly region of grassy plains and table-topped mountains known as “tepuis”, or “Houses of the Gods”.
A remote area deep in the Venezuelan south close to the border with Brazil, the Gran Sabana was home only to the indigenous Pemon tribe and a handful of adventurous travellers. And, crucially, vast seams of one of the world’s biggest reserves of gold.
Now, those underground riches are fuelling a deadly conflict that could determine the course of the country’s crisis. Simmering for years, it erupted into the international consciousness when, the day before the attempted entry of humanitarian aid from Colombia and Brazil, security forces clashed with Pemon locals trying to stop them from blocking the border. A Pemon woman was shot dead and at least a dozen were admitted to hospital.
The next day, the border town of Santa Elena de Uairén became a war zone, its streets filled with tanks, gunfire and tear gas. The Pemon mayor of the Gran Sabana, Emilio Gonzalez, was forced to flee to Brazil.
Largely portrayed as a flashpoint in the aid showdown, locals and experts said the reality is far different. Instead, it is the culmination of a growing territorial standoff between Venezuelan forces and associated armed groups bent on exploiting the area’s gold mines, and the Pemon who stand in their way.
During the violent crackdown, security forces had gone house to house searching for Gonzalez, a Santa Elena businessman said, asking to remain anonymous. The Pemon mayor had become an irritant to the army after standing up for his people and against “the sacking of minerals”, he said. In response, Venezuelan forces had launched “a war”, taking advantage of the aid confrontation to “topple him” and exert control over the area.
Now, the area is in lockdown, completely “militarised”, Fulgencio Alexander Gómez, a Pemon resident of Manakri, an indigenous community of several hundred people on Santa Elena’s outskirts, said. At least 25 people have been killed, residents and local politicians say; others have fled.
Gómez said the Pemon were armed only with arrows, and could not withstand the firepower of the military. They had wreaked “disaster”, fighting “without compassion; they were not warning shots, they were aimed to kill”.
“Right now the majority of people living in Manakri are shut inside their houses, hardly anyone is going out into the street because of the insecurity,” he said. Previously, the entrance to Manakri had a Pemon checkpoint, but the army had eliminated this.
The Pemon and other indigenous groups are on the front line of a battle for control of the mineral wealth – principally gold, diamonds and coltan – that lies beneath the southern states of Amazonas and Bolívar. As oil production has plunged in the South American nation, the government of Nicolas Maduro has given itself broad powers to exploit what it has designated the Arco Minero (Mining Arc), becoming increasingly reliant on the area as a source of hard currency.
Once thought by European explorers to be the location of the mythical city of El Dorado, the region is estimated by the regime to hold about 7,000 tons of gold, a reserve that would be second only to that of Australia. Operating their own artisanal mines to support their communities, and acting as guardians of their ancestral lands, indigenous groups have become obstacles in the brutal pursuit of gold by Venezuelan forces, criminal gangs and Colombian guerrillas.
Local testimonies and those of former military and intelligence officials have alleged collusion between armed groups and Venezuelan forces reaching to the top of the regime; however, factional rivalries often spill over into violence.
Americo de Grazia, a left-wing congressman from the south of Bolívar state, which encompasses Santa Elena, said the state mining company Minerven had essentially become a front to “legitimise the gold they are extracting in a criminal way”. In an interview he detailed years of collusion between government officials, generals and, at the outset, gang leaders known as “pranes” whom the military armed to carry out their bidding.
Later came the Colombian rebel group the ELN, and the Farc – now dissident factions – Cubans, and in recent years, he said, Hezbollah. “The military high command is involved in all of this.”
De Grazia described the region as an “occupied territory” in which the business of “blood gold” had unleashed a “cocktail of crime”. He said there had been at least 43 massacres since 2006, some committed by the armed forces, others by guerrillas or criminal groups. This month, the US treasury imposed sanctions on Minerven, which it said was “propping up” the regime’s inner circle and buying military loyalty with pillaged wealth.
Since the leadership standoff with Juan Guaidó began in January, with 65 countries recognising the national assembly head as Venezuela’s legitimate leader and international sanctions choking sources of revenue, the government has scrambled to access funds both at home and overseas. The Bank of England has refused Maduro’s request to repatriate more than £1bn of Venezuelan gold from its vaults, and is under pressure to hand it instead to Guaidó.
In late February, it was reported that at least eight tons of gold had been withdrawn from the Central Bank of Venezuela, its destination unknown. But a year earlier, a seizure at the airport on the Dutch Antilles island of Aruba gave an insight into the workings of the illicit trade: a Venezuelan man was detained on his way to Dubai carrying 50kg of gold bars, its seller reportedly a company created by the Maduro government.
Nicmer Evans, a prominent former Chavista who is now an adviser to Guaidó, said the government was trafficking in minerals to stockpile funds without having to use formal accounts. He criticised the recent withdrawals from the Central Bank, stressing: “These are gold reserves belonging to the country.”
It is not only the regime’s access to such wealth that could shape Venezuela’s future. In the event of outside intervention to topple Maduro, the Arco Minero is likely to prove a tinderbox, with prospects for protracted and multidimensional conflict. The International Crisis Group has warned that rebel groups could be drawn to defend the regime against foreign forces. Indeed, leaders of the ELN said last month they were drawing up a strategy to repel a ground assault by US troops.
Meanwhile, the Pemon and other indigenous groups have vowed to defend themselves against Venezuelan forces.
Romel Guzamana, an indigenous congressman representing the states of Amazonas and Apure, said the Pemon were being “exterminated”, describing the army aggression as a “massacre”.
But the Pemon were warriors, Guzamana said, calling for indigenous groups to fight back with greater firepower. “They have arms, we have arrows, we can’t do damage with those,” he said. “So if they come at us armed, we have to arm ourselves too, because we are not going to let them kill our boys, our women, our grandparents.”