LATIN AMERICA

Venezuela to launch probe into disappearance of 28 miners

Government yet to recognize incident, which is alleged to have taken place over gold find

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.MARCO BELLO (REUTERS)
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The Venezuelan Attorney General has decided to investigate whether a chilling rumor that swept the country over the weekend is true. Information from Tumeremo, in the southeastern state of Bolívar, suggests that 28 miners have been missing since Friday. There are fears that they may have been murdered by a group of criminals, led by an individual known as El Topo, who wanted to lay his hands on a valuable haul of gold that they had uncovered hours before.

The Public Ministry has assigned two prosecutors to investigate the facts behind a case that the government of President Nicolás Maduro is still yet to recognize.

The families of the 28 missing men began a protest on Saturday cutting off the main access roads to the city and a freeway

Tumeremo, which is around 10 hours’ drive from Caracas, is part of a huge Savannah, and is home to some of the most famous tepuyes – table-top mountains – to be found in the country. It is also a lawless area, victim of the progressive disappearance of the state’s arbitration over relations among citizens and an apparent complicity between local political powers and criminals.

According to reports received from the area and local newspapers, the families of the 28 missing men began a protest on Saturday cutting off the main access roads to the city and a freeway.

The stories related by the families of the missing miners, who have not been identified for fear of reprisals, have provided local press with indications that there is no political aspect to the incident, as had been suggested by the provincial governor, Francisco Rangel Gómez. “Until now the authorities have not found the bodies in the areas were the families claim they were buried, nor has there been any evidence found of a massacre in the Atenas estate or in the Hoja de Lata area,” explains Carlos Chancellor, the mayor of the Sifontes municipality, in a telephone conversation with EL PAÍS.

The area is often home to armed conflicts in a bid to control the sites, but a mass disappearance such as this one has never been reported before

The extraction of gold is the main activity in the area, and attracts Brazilians, Guyanese and Venezuelans from all over the country. Most return to their families at the end of the day, something that has raised concerns among the families given that none of the missing men have not returned home since Friday.

Chancellor admitted that the mines are run by criminal groups, while opposition deputies in the region openly voiced their convictions that a mass murder may have taken place. One politician, Andrés Velásquez, has compared the incident to the disappearance of 43 student teachers in Ayotzinapa, Mexico in September 2014.

The area is often home to armed conflicts in a bid to control the sites, but a mass disappearance such as this one has never been reported before. In the context of the current economic crisis in Venezuela the incident has particular significance. The industrial exploitation of the gold-bearing sites in Venezuela is the new obsession of President Maduro, in a bid to try to diversify the sources of income for the state.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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