The law of gold and lead
THE LAW OF GOLD AND LEAD
Venezuela, which used to be the wealthiest nation in South America, is today crisis. 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 between 300,000 to 500,000 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 five 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 two most violent municipalities of the country are in Bolivar State. Municipio Sifontes (Tumeremo) had 199 violent deaths for every 100,000 people in 2018, 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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© Ignacio Marin