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The Law Of Gold And Lead

© Ignacio Marin

As Venezuelans struggle to afford food, many have turned to illegal gold mining to survive. But this modern day gold rush has caused an epidemic of violence as armed groups fight over the commodity.

Venezuela used to be the wealthiest nation in South America. Today, is in crisis. The global pandemic together with the collapse of the oil industry, large scale corruption and the economic sanctions imposed by the US has meant that many venezuelans are now struggling to put food on their tables. While most sectors of the Venezuelan economy have collapsed, rumours of gold riches in Bolivar State, on the border with Brazil, has created a modern-day gold rush. People are descending in hordes to this remote region from every corner of the country. If in 2012 there were about 40,000 miners, today up to 1 million men, women and even children work at the mines. In a medieval fashion, sometimes with their bare hands, they hope to extract a few grams of gold from the earth. For them, to find una grama (a gram of gold) mean to make up to almost thirty times the monthly minimum wage.

But they are not the only ones who are seeking out the mines. While the mines have been traditionally run by transnational corporations, now the riches of gold have also caught the attention of armed gangs, sindicatos (crime syndicates) and foreign guerrillas like the Colombian ELN. At the same time, Maduro’s regime has found in gold the last lifeline for keeping his isolated government afloat. Tension between these actors for the control of the mines has spiked recently, resulting in an epidemic of violence never seen before. According to the Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia (OVV), the escalation of violence in the state has placed it among the most violent in the country, rising from sixth place in 2016 to second in 2020, with a rate of 62 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. Yet many believe that the real figure is sure to be much higher as many murders go unreported.

As Venezuela spirals into lawlessness, the police and army are frequently replaced by gangs and armed groups. They alone administer justice: their own justice. At the Bolivar square at El Callao, a human head was found inside a bag. It came with a list of demands by the local criminal gang, including a detailed explanation of how the extortion has to be paid in gold on every 15th and 30th day of the month. In Tumeremo, doctors now frequently treat patients with gunshot wounds to their hands. It is the penalty for stealing, according to the law imposed by the gangs.

The locals have a saying, “it is the law of gold and lead”.

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This body of work is the recipient of several awards including:
Gabriel García Marquez (Gabo) award
Online Journalism Award

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