On the border of Colombia and Venezuela, illegal gold mining unites armed forces

On the border of Colombia and Venezuela, illegal gold mining unites armed forces

  • On the border between Colombia and Venezuela, just a few kilometers from Colombia’s Guainía department, illegal mining shakes the region’s economy while devastating the environment. The absence of the government is obvious.
  • According to witnesses and photographs, the areas around Yapacana Hill are full of improvised billiard halls, restaurants, ice cream shops, brothels, grocery stores, clinics and even nurseries; this is all occurring under the strict control of Colombia’s National Liberation Army and FARC dissidents.
  • In a 2020 study, a Venezuelan organization called SOS Orinoco revealed the massive scale of the illegal mining in Yapacana: In that year, mining affected a total of 2,035 hectares (about 5,029 acres), an area equivalent to about 1,884 soccer fields that is visible in satellite images.

*This report is part of a journalistic collaboration between Mongabay Latam and Vorágine, a Colombian news source.

Juana* seems nostalgic when she talks about the work she used to do in the illegal mines of the Yapacana Hill (or Cerro Yapacana in Spanish). These were times of abundance and prosperity for her. She was never short of money. “Not like now that I’m penniless,” said Juana while sitting outside of a seedy bar in Inírida, the capital of Colombia’s Guainía department.

Juana has spent four months working as a cleaner for a company, trying to earn the money she needs to return to Cerro Yapacana National Park in the Venezuelan state of Amazonas, about 200 kilometers (about 124 miles) from the border with Colombia. The almost-rectangular Yapacana Hill can be seen from the the Mavicure Hill (or Cerro Mavicure in Spanish), a rocky formation 170 meters (about 558 feet) high on the Colombian side of the Inírida River. Here, armed groups are extracting metals. It used to take $80 and four hours of travel on the Orinoco River for Juana to reach this area, where — according to a report by the National Army of Colombia — Colombia’s National Liberation Army, dissidents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the Armed Forces of Venezuela all work hand in hand.

This is the far eastern side of Colombia. Anyone who visits the Yapacana Hill from Colombia must cross the Fluvial Star of Inírida, where the Guaviare, Atabapo and Inírida rivers meet. Eventually, the water flows into the Orinoco River, which hugs the Yapacana Hill just a few miles ahead.

Because the Yapacana Hill is so close to the border with Guainía, everything that happens here has an impact on the economic and social dynamics of Inírida, a municipality of 31,000 residents that spans 17,000 square kilometers (about 6,564 square miles). Inírida has very precarious security protocols, in addition to other limitations. In this area, the government often seems to be ineffective in containing the actions of the armed groups. Vorágine and Mongabay Latam attempted to speak to a spokesperson or secretary from Guainía department, but no one was willing to make any statements to us about the border area’s uncontrolled illegal mining. “No area dares to talk about the case; everyone knows that illegal mining like this happens in Venezuela,” said the Inírida mayor’s office of communications.

Venezuelan migrants, Indigenous people of various ethnic groups from southern Colombia and other outsiders go to the mine to earn money and return months later, according to Juana. She showed several photos of the area, in which one can see a complex built on boards covered with tarps. Juana estimated that more than 7,000 people may live there.

What are the impacts of illegal mining and violence along this forgotten border between Colombia and Venezuela?

A view of the environmental devastation caused by illegal mining in Yapacana, 200 kilometers (about 124 miles) from the border between Colombia’s Guainía department and Venezuela.

The “paradise” of illegality

According to our witnesses and the photographs supplied, the areas around Yapacana Hill are full of improvised billiard halls, restaurants, ice cream shops, brothels, grocery stores, clinics and even nurseries. This is all occurring under the strict control of Colombia’s National Liberation Army and FARC dissidents. Several witnesses claimed that men from the Venezuelan National Guard collect a weekly “vaccine,” or bribe, in the form of gold and money. With this guarantee, mining continues without obstacles. Yapacana is a paradise of illegal activity that has turned Colombia into the territory where miners come to spend money and acquire supplies, machinery and the raw materials they need for mining.

The evolution of environmental degradation in Yapacana. Image courtesy of Amazon Conservation’s Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP).

Vorágine and Mongabay Latam contacted the National Army of Colombia to inquire about the actions that have been taken in the past year against illegal mining along this part of the border. According to the National Army of Colombia’s office of communications, “In this specific area of the country [Guainía, on the border with Venezuela], there are no operations in development currently … but there are other possibilities in other parts of the country.” Later, they added: “Along with the National Army, there are other institutions that are dedicating their efforts to counteract the scourge.” In mid-October 2022, Vorágine and Mongabay Latam also requested information from the press office of the National Police, but there was no response.

However, the National Army of Colombia knows what is happening between the armed groups and the Venezuelan authorities in Yapacana. An official report accessed by Vorágine and Mongabay Latam confirmed that the border between Colombia and Venezuela is controlled by Gener García Molina, who goes by the alias “John 40.” He is an “old guard” from the FARC who became rich through drug trafficking, and now he leads the Acacio Medina Front (of FARC dissidents). The report also mentioned there is an agreement between this group and “the Armed Forces of Venezuela to coordinate illegal activities in the ‘La 40’ sector of the Yapacana mine.”

Yapacana podría ser la mina ilegal más grande de la Amazonia. Su funcionamiento se da con la aquiescencia de las autoridades venezolanas. La organización SOS Orinoco ha hecho varias alertas sobre lo que allí ocurre.
Yapacana may be the largest illegal mine in the Amazon. Its operation is possible because of the complicity of Venezuelan authorities. The organization SOS Orinoco has published several alerts that warn of the events in the mine.

In this region, it is no secret that Colombia’s National Liberation Army and FARC dissidents act in tandem in Guainía: there is no conflict between them compared with the situation in other regions in the country’s interior. On Oct. 19, 2021, a truck owned by the National Army of Colombia carrying a group of soldiers through the streets of Inírida was attacked with a grenade. This terrorist act left two soldiers dead and nine injured. A day later, Brig. Gen. Mauricio José Zabala, the commander of the 8th Division of the National Army of Colombia, declared that two illegal organizations — which appeared to be just one organization in Guainía — were behind this attack.

Illegal gold mining is taking place around Mavicure Hill in Guainía. It mostly occurs along the Inírida River. Dredges are always in the area. Image courtesy of the National Parks Institute of Venezuela.

This department has become an expansion area for several groups of dissidents. An investigation by InSight Crime said that John 40 was an ally of the First Front in Colombia, which may be the largest organization in an alliance of FARC dissidents in terms of individuals and weapons. It is led by a ringleader using the alias “Iván Mordisco,” whom former Colombian President Iván Duque had believed to be dead. In reality, Mordisco continued to commit crimes.

The First Front emerged in Guaviare around 2016, and little by little, it expanded toward the southern part of Meta department and then to Vaupés department. On maps, Guainía appeared to be the best route to travel to Venezuela. It was in this department in August 2021 where the Military Forces of Colombia carried out a bombing that resulted in the death of a man using the alias “El Mono Ferney,” who was allegedly the second-highest ranking member of the “Mordisco” dissidents.

John 40 also appears to be an ally of the Second Marquetalia, a faction commanded by a man under the alias “Iván Márquez,” who is also in conflict with the “Mordisco” groups in Colombia. In mid-2021, John 40 appeared in a video alongside Iván Márquez, who is also seeking refuge in Venezuela and is negotiating with the Colombian government during this time of so-called “total peace.” These disputes and alliances are complicating the situation in a country where the illegal gold industry has looted land and turned areas into strategic places for the finances of armed dissident groups. These traits are similar to those of the José Daniel Pérez Front of Colombia’s National Liberation Army.

Vorágine and Mongabay Latam traveled to Guainía department, on the border with Venezuela, and gathered testimonies and documents that provide evidence as to how armed groups extract gold to sell later in Inírida. Image by José Guarnizo.

The dance of millions of dollars

In a 2020 study, a Venezuelan organization called SOS Orinoco revealed the scale of the illegal mining in Yapacana. According to their report, in that year, a total of 2,035 ha (about 5,029 acres) were experiencing mining activity around the mountain. This adds up to an area equivalent to about 1,884 soccer fields and is visible in satellite images. The document also provides evidence that mining is being carried out with the complicity of Venezuelan authorities.

“All Venezuelan people already know this; no more proof is needed to blame them. We know this business is big because every day, they call me to tell me that gold, diamonds and coltan are being carried into Colombian territory in vehicles [owned by] the National Guard, Bolivarian National Intelligence Service of Venezuela and the Scientific, Penal and Criminal Investigation Service Corps. All of this is confirmed, but no one acts,” Romel Guzamana, the deputy to the National Assembly of Venezuela from the state of Amazonas, said to SOS Orinoco.

The armed groups on the border have spent years earning millions of dollars in profits from the mines. In this region, money flows as if there were an economic boom. A document from the Military Forces of Colombia, cited by the newspaper “El Tiempo,” said that between 2021 and June 2022, these illegal organizations made transactions totaling more than $13 million in Guainía. “The researchers have their radars on the department where they confirm [that] strong financial activity by these organized armed groups has been recorded. In fact, the report said that since 2014, ‘more than $23 million has been traded in Inírida’”. And this only refers to the money that left a footprint. The problem is that in this area, gold leaves the mine and is later taken to Villavicencio and Bogotá to “authenticate it.” The report from the Public Forces that was accessed by Vorágine and Mongabay Latam stated that members of the illegal organizations bring the gold to Inírida, then later take it to these two Colombian cities. According to the report, from there, replacement parts for the machinery used by the miners in Yapacana arrive in the area.

How much can a worker earn by working in the mines in Yapacana? Juana said it depends on the role that a person plays in the business. “If you work in a store, they pay you a regular salary there. We are talking about $400 per month, which would be about 11-12 grams (0.39-0.42 ounces) of gold, but if you work in the mine, extracting gold, you earn a percentage,” said Juana.

One gram of gold is worth approximately $35 in Yapacana. Juana said she has co-workers who have earned more than $6,250 in one month. “If the machine doesn’t extract a single line of gold, it means they will not pay you at all, but if the machine at the site where you are extracts 100 kilograms [about 220 pounds] of gold, it means there are about 200 grams [7.05 ounces] for each team member, depending on the workers who are there. The cost of gasoline [and] food are deducted from that [amount]. And what remains is split between the owner of the machine and the workers,” said Juana.

In broad daylight, machines are digging holes in the gold mines. A group of workers is arriving to excavate and grind rocks. Some workers are dedicated to washing, and others fill machinery with gasoline. From memory, Juana — who spent two years stuck working in Yapacana — listed some of the mines that border Yapacana Hill: “That is huge; there are trails. There are [mines called] La 40, El Puerto, Mina Nueva, Caño Piedra, Cacique, Mendesaque, Caño Carne, La 24, Jerusalén, Fibral, Monterrey, Caño Jabón, Caño Diablo, Caño Grande, Caño Caimán, La Cocina, Maraya and several more.” Gold is not only extracted from the rocks, but also from the rivers, where workers install dredges and use mercury to separate the metals. The environmental damage is incalculable.

The devastation and irreparable environmental damage that illegal mining continues to leave in Yapacana has consequences for the entire planet. The 2020 study by SOS Orinoco discussed these impacts. “Because of the vulnerability and impunity in socio-environmental issues of this important national park, the park is seen as having the greatest illegal mining presence and being the most affected [park] in the entire Venezuelan Amazon, even among all the countries that make up the Amazon Basin in terms of the level and degree of devastation,” according to the Political Ecology Observatory of Venezuela.

This study also recorded the concerns of Indigenous communities around Yapacana and the pleas they have made to the Venezuelan government. The Regional Organization of the Indigenous Peoples of the State of Amazonas said: “We want to emphasize that since 2015, we Indigenous organizations have been alerting President Nicolás Maduro about the impacts of mining in the country, especially in Cerro Yapacana National Park. The mining in the entire state of Amazonas has contributed to the deforestation of large areas of forest, the diversion of riverbeds such as [that of] the Atabapo, the contamination of waters due to mercury and other toxic substances, the loss of biodiversity, the change in natural ecosystem cycles [and] soil degradation.”

The fact that this disaster is occurring so close to the border — and with the complicity of the Armed Forces of Venezuela — reveals a paradox that was made visible in the first week of the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Egypt. There, President Gustavo Petro of Colombia and President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela signed an agreement in an attempt to save the Amazon. These two leaders, along with President Chan Santokhi of Suriname, took photos and announced they would open a fund of $200 million per year. This fund would lead an “Amazonian [agreement] that has the climatic balance of humanity as a pillar.” The photos and this announcement contrast with the dramatic situation in Yapacana.

Anyone who visits the Yapacana Hill from Colombia must cross the Fluvial Star of Inírida, where the Guaviare, Atabapo and Inírida rivers converge. There, a collection of water forms that eventually flows into the Orinoco River, which hugs the Yapacana Hill just a few miles ahead. Image by José Guarnizo.

A natural park damaged by armed groups

A man who belongs to the Puinave ethnic group expressed his concern over the events in the Indigenous communities in Puinawai National Natural Reserve, a territory rich with Amazonian jungles and savannas that lies in the southwest of Guainía department on the border with Brazil. This natural paradise can be accessed via the Inírida River and lies about 230 km (about 143 mi) away from the capital of the department.

This is one of the largest protected areas in Colombia, but there are currently no authorities to take care of it. The anonymous man said the Indigenous communities that live in this part of the department have been abandoned, and that is why he is concerned. Where the Colombian government is absent, it’s the armed groups that have authority.

Since 2014, there are no officials from Colombia’s Network of National Natural Parks in the reserve. This entity is in charge of regulating the use and the operations of the reserve. The absence of authorities, the remoteness of the reserve, and a lack of administrative infrastructure caused the Network of National Natural Parks to declare its inability to conserve this area, which covers parts of the land between the Inírida, Guainía and Isana rivers. Through Resolution 0490 (of Dec. 31, 2014), the entity “temporarily [closed] the administrative headquarters” of this reserve, which spans approximately 1,095,200 ha (about 2,706,298 acres).

The document mentioned “the existing public order problems in the area, as well as illegal mining activity.” Later in the document, a bleak situation was exposed: “In the area, the 16th Front and the 3rd Commission of the Acacio Medina Front of the FARC maintain a presence; [the FARC] controls the illegal mining activities.”

The document is an explicit declaration that there, the power is not in the hands of the Public Forces, but in the hands of illegal armed groups: “The current situation leads us to believe that the government does not have control of the territory, nor has it managed to stop criminal activity in the protected area of the reserve.”

An anonymous resident of the area said that the officials from Colombia’s Network of National Natural Parks have not yet returned. “Along the side of the Inírida River, the officials left because they threatened them and they did not come back; that is forgotten. That area is very neglected and now it has been taken over by illegal mining. They got inside the reserve,” said the resident.

En Yapacana podrían trabajar unas 7.000 personas, según los cálculos de los testigos consultados por esta alianza periodística.
It is believed that about 7,000 people may work in Yapacana, according to the witnesses consulted by Mongabay Latam and Vorágine.

This same resident added that illegal mining is present throughout the whole department and that its impact is not only felt around the Inírida River, but also around the Atabapo and Guainía rivers, on the border with Brazil.

“The Brazilians enter there to put in dredges, and they convince the captains and leaders so that they can begin working. They also bring dredges from Villavicencio and Bogotá. And it isn’t even the initiative of the Indigenous leaders, but in those communities there is no work, there is no money [and] there is no investment. People come and say, ‘I have money; I’ll put in a dredge.’ That is what they do there,” said a local source who asked to remain anonymous.

On Aug. 25, Luisz Olmedo Martínez Zamora took over the management of Colombia’s Network of National Natural Parks. Since Sept. 27, Vorágine and Mongabay Latam have tried to obtain a response from him regarding the abandonment of the reserve and the illegal gold mining there. Once again — and just like most of the authorities we consulted — there was no response. “In Puinawai, we have a delicate public order situation. … We have not received responses from the management on the issue,” said the former press officer of the Network of National Natural Parks.

En Yapacana no solo hay minas. Según fuentes consultadas para este reportaje, en los alrededores del cerro existe todo un complejo construido en tablas en el que hay prostíbulos, almacenes y hasta guarderías.
In Yapacana, there are not only mines. According to sources consulted for this article, in the area surrounding the Yapacana Hill, there is an entire complex built on boards. The complex includes brothels, warehouses and even baby nurseries.

Jenny Soad Rojas, the director of the Corporation for the Sustainable Development of the Eastern Amazon, confirmed there is a constant presence of dredges along the Inírida River. “The truth is that illicit mining in the department happens throughout all the rivers, less so for the Guaviare River, because materials like granite come from there, but [mining happens] all throughout the rest,” said Soad Rojas. The Inírida River, for example, is the river with the fourth-highest amount of illegal mining. In a study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the Inírida River was found to have had more illegal mining alerts than any of the other nine bodies of water included in the study. A 2022 study by this organization determined that in Puinawai National Natural Reserve, mining happens not only along the rivers, but also on land. “The Puinawai National Natural Reserve has the highest presence of EVOA[evidence of alluvial gold exploitation] on land, with 84 hectares [about 208 acres]; this protected area represents 93 percent of the total [amount] detected in the Network of National Natural Parks.”

The consequences of this uncontrolled mining have already wreaked havoc, according to Soad Rojas. “The corporation conducted studies about mercury in plants, fish and sediments in the Guainía River. And we found [mercury] content that exceeds the permissible limits. This makes us aware of the environmental impacts on the riverbeds. [This is] without taking into account the effects on the forests, because these people deforest to build mining camps,” said Soad Rojas.

Soad Rojas added that mining is not one of the ancestral activities of the Indigenous people from this department. They are not the ones leading or managing this illegal business. The members of these communities work in these mines as laborers. “This is mostly due to [the fact] that there are no more sources of income; this also happens because of the absence of the government in these communities that are being abandoned. The unfulfilled basic necessities are enormous, so according to them, there is no other way to survive unless they mine,” said Soad Rojas. She clarified that the responsibility of the corporation that she leads is strictly environmental, so she prefers not to comment on issues like mining safety or regulations.

The concerns of some residents of Inírida and of Soad Rojas are the same as those of Mauricio Cabrera, a consultant on government relations and international relations from WWF Colombia. “We have been very concerned about the high [amount of] mercury contamination in the rivers. [We have also been concerned] about the continuous increase of dredges coming from Brazil and that they enter through southern Guainía, Vaupés and Amazonas, [and] sufficient actions are not being taken against [this],” he said.

The complex part of the issue, according to these sources, is that the Indigenous communities themselves are being used to work in the illegal mines. The case of Puinawai National Natural Reserve is the most notable example of this.

This reserve is located in the Guiana Shield, which is one of the oldest geological formations in the world and includes parts of Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil and the Guianas (Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana). The Guiana Shield covers 2.7 million km2 (more than 1 million mi2) and has biological importance for the entire planet. Puinawai National Natural Reserve has special characteristics; 14 distinct ecosystems can be found there. Part of its natural wealth is due to the Inírida, Guainía Cuiari and Isana rivers, which are exactly where the dredges are that have been damaging the area without consequences.

Carlos* is a member of the Kurripaco Indigenous community who has seen how others from his area have entered this business simply due to the need to feed their children. While sitting in a restaurant in Inírida, Carlos said that in a mine called Campo Alegre, which is in the reserve, looking for gold is the only activity. From that small, remote place, 1kg (about 2.2 pounds) of gold can be extracted every week. This is how social conflicts arise almost daily. On the outskirts of the Puinawai National Natural Reserve, which borders Vaupés and Brazil, there are 19 Indigenous communities that are recognized by the Ministry of the Interior. The approximately 1,780 people who live there, according to Carlos, are the same Indigenous people who are not formally recognized by the Colombian government. In those areas, the people in charge are the ones with the weapons.

*Names changed to protect the safety of these sources.

Banner image: The environmental degradation in Cerro Yapacana National Park in Venezuela, near the border with Colombia in Guainía Department. Image courtesy of Amazon Conservation’s Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP).

Editor’s note: This article is part of the project “The Rights of the Amazon in Sight: The Protection of Communities and Forests,” a series of investigative reports about the situation surrounding deforestation and environmental crimes in Colombia, funded by Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative. Editorial decisions are made on an independent basis and are not based on donor support.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on Nov. 17, 2022.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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