Venezuela’s military launched an operation against illegal miners in Yapacana National Park following an international backlash over the destruction of the country’s Amazon rainforest. But with armed groups and corrupt state elements profiting from illegal mining, doubts over the commitment remain.
Throughout January, Venezuela’s military carried out six operations to destroy equipment and infrastructure used for illegal mining in Yapacana National Park, a 320-hectare protected natural reserve located in the central region of the state of Amazonas that is regarded as one of the country’s natural jewels.
The operations dismantled at least two illegal mining camps and seized or destroyed motors, pumps, and other equipment used in mining, according to official reports.
SEE ALSO: Beneath The Surface of Illegal Gold Mining in the Amazon
The military actions in January were a continuation of a first round of strikes in December 2022, which came in the wake of a growing international outcry over deforestation in the Venezuelan Amazon.
In the weeks and months before the launch of operations, several media outlets and environmental groups published reports based on satellite imaging data showing the devastation caused by illegal mining in Yapacana.
Not only did the reports highlight the scale of the deforestation, but they also made clear where much of the blame lay: with Colombian-origin guerrilla groups that have largely operated with impunity in the region thanks to their ties to the Venezuelan government.
President Nicolás Maduro’s appearance at the COP27 climate summit in Egypt in November, where he called on renewed efforts for multilateral cooperation to protect the Amazon, began the backlash against his regime. Geoff Ramsey, director for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), told the Guardian that Maduro’s invitation to the event was “like asking an arsonist to put out a fire.”
As pressure built, Hollywood celebrities joined in, with movie star Leonardo DiCaprio making social media posts drawing attention to the deforestation caused by illegal mining.
InSight Crime Analysis
With the sacking of Yapacana now known the world over, inaction from Maduro would damage his standing on the world stage. But any genuine efforts against illegal mining would affect an important source of financing for his allies both within the state and the criminal world.
InSight Crime investigations in Amazonas in 2022 uncovered how mining operations in Yapacana are run by a mix of criminal entrepreneurs, indigenous communities, and, above all, guerrilla groups.
The Acacio Medina Front of the ex-FARC mafia, for example, run mining operations and “tax” other miners and the multitude of other businesses that have sprung up to service the operations. They also regulate the mining camps, imposing their own social order.
“They control [extortion] payments, they control gold sales, and they control the business and traders,” said a representative of an indigenous community in Atabapo, the municipality where Yapacan is located, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.
SEE ALSO: Could Venezuelan Military Finally Bring Bolívar’s Illegal Gold Miners to Heel?
In addition, the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional – ELN) controls territories on the edge of the area, which they use to charge fees to miners and traders in exchange for allowing them to enter the mining zone.
The guerrillas — according to community leaders, miners, investigators, and authorities in the region — operate in coordination with the Venezuelan military, while all of those involved in mining must pay a portion of their profits to the military and other state actors in order to be allowed to work.
“In Yapacana and Atabapo, sometimes you will see guerrillas traveling together in a military boat, or vice versa,” said a local human rights defender, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity. “You will see a military official from one of the isolated posts in a guerrilla boat.”
The recent round of military operations may have disrupted this criminal equilibrium. However, satellite imaging and sources in the region suggest the overall impact on mining and the armed groups behind it has so far been minimal.
Analysis of satellite data by the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP) following the first operations in December, for instance, suggested barely a dent had been made in mining operations.
What’s more, when the operations began, the Acacio Medina Front staged a tactical withdrawal, according to an indigenous community leader from the area, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity.
“They are still close but not at the mines because they say they have received orders, and if that is the order from the military then they will pull back,” he said.
By the end of January, the operations had been suspended, according to the same source, as indigenous communities involved in mining negotiated terms with the military.
Such an accord stands to reason since illegal mining remains a key earner for the Venezuelan state and its criminal allies.
Was this content helpful?
We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.
What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.
We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.