Recent reports from military operations and civil society groups indicate that the presence of Brazilian miners in the south of Venezuela is growing following a government offensive in Brazil.

In mid-May, the Venezuelan army dismantled a mining camp allegedly belonging to garimpeiros, or illegal miners from Brazil, in the Alto Orinoco municipality, Amazonas state, according to Domingo Hernández Lares, Strategic Operational Commander of the Venezuelan Armed Forces (CEOFANB).

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The military found power plants, fuel, compressors, and suction pumps in the area, which borders Brazil. The procedure was carried out as part of Operation Neblina 2024.

The operation, which began in February 2024, targets the garimpeiros’ mining infrastructure, including camps, fuel containers, dredges, and airstrips.  

In a statement released on X, Hernández Lares wrote that the operation’s objectives include the “dismantling and destruction of illegal mining structures operated by garimpeiros.”

Civil society organizations have also reported on the operations of garimpeiros in Venezuela. At the end of April, machines belonging to miners invaded the municipality of Rio Negro, located on the southern border of Amazonas state with Brazil, according to SOS Orinoco, an organization dedicated to the study of illegal mining in Venezuela’s Amazon region. 

SOS Orinoco also denounced the adaptation of a rudimentary 63-kilometer road connecting the Venezuelan state with Tepequém, in southern Brazil. According to SOS Orinoco, the road would have been sponsored by a Brazilian businessman, and would be used for the movement of mining equipment between both countries.

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In a way, a sort of balloon effect is taking place. Under President Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva, the Brazilian government has increased operations aimed at eradicating illegal mining in the Brazilian Amazon, turning Venezuela into an escape valve, where until now they have not been pursued as aggressively.

According to local media, at the beginning of Lula’s offensive, about 20,000 informal miners were operating in Yanomami territory, a protected area belonging to the Yanomami Indigenous group and located on the border with Venezuela. A year later, that number had decreased by about 65%, reducing the number of miners in the area to 7,000.

“Lula came in and started cracking down on the garimpeiros in northern Brazil, specifically in Yanomami territory. And what happened is that these miners have been moving further north, towards Venezuela,” Cristina Burelli, founder of SOS Orinoco, told InSight Crime.

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While Lula’s hard-line policy has succeeded in diminishing the presence of garimpeiros on Brazilian soil momentarily, his campaign has not eliminated the financial muscle driving illegal mining. As long as the economic infrastructure that finances illegal mining remains in place, these operations will not cease, but have simply moved to Venezuelan soil. 

“These funders are in charge of supplying [the garimpeiros] with logistics, such as food, fuel, and mercury, and then the gold they produce is flown back to Brazil where it enters the supply chain, and is finally legalized,” Burelli explained. 

Local Indigenous activists also told InSight Crime that garimpeiros use clandestine airstrips to transport the gold extracted from these regions, as well as their own travel to and from the region.

The recent increase in operations by the Veneuzelan government against these groups is part of a larger effort by President Nicolás Maduro’s government, which has adopted a policy of zero tolerance for environmental crimes in the Amazon. With this strategy, the administration has sought to distance itself from its links to illegal mining and to take a tougher stance against these types of crimes in the run-up to the 2024 elections. However, it remains to be seen whether these operations will succeed in removing the Brazilian influence from the Venezuelan Amazon. 

For more than 30 years, there have been records of the garimpeiros coming and going as they pleased in the Venezuelan states of Amazonas and Bolivar, often by bribing local security officials, a common phenomenon in this region. Their operations have not been limited to illegally exploiting mineral deposits, but have also subjected local Indigenous communities to violence and forced labor. 

Featured image: Military deployed in anti-mining operation destroy alleged garimpeiro camp in the Venezuelan Amazon. Credit: Venezuelan Armed Forces