A new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) details the gruesome conditions that gold miners in Venezuela are forced to endure.
Twelve percent of Venezuela, a country rich in natural resources such as oil, diamonds and uranium, has gold and mineral deposits.
In Venezuela’s southern Bolívar state, pro-Maduro civilian armed groups force miners to work, employing physical abuse and fear tactics to control gold production.
The Maduro regime allows the groups using these tactics to oversee gold mining operations. According to the report, witnesses have reported seeing a top government official patrolling mines.
HRW spent two years collecting testimonials from Venezuelan gold miners and people living in gold mining towns.
According to the report, “many mines in Bolívar are under the tight control of Venezuelan syndicates or Colombian armed groups,” such as the guerrilla organization the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, in Spanish), and the National Liberation Army (ELN, in Spanish).
These armed groups enforce arbitrary “laws” to instill fear and keep order among mining communities. They accuse miners and innocent civilians of theft before publicly cutting off their fingers and hands, and, in extreme cases, executing them, according to witnesses interviewed for the report.
There is no enforced judicial system to protect the victims.
The gold mines, located in the southern part of the country, operate in close proximity to indigenous communities. As a result, indigenous people are often forced to work in the mines against their will.
The working conditions of mines are hazardous. Toxic amounts of mercury are used to clean the gold ore, and there are little to no safety measures taken to prevent workplace injury.
The report details how a 16-year-old boy sustained a spinal fracture from a falling log that hit him as he was using a high-pressure hose without any protective gear.
Additionally, in testimony before the U.S. Congress on illicit mining in Venezuela, a U.S. State Department official reported that people in mining communities are “exploited in forced labor or sex trafficking, compelled through violence and fear by the group running the mine. There have been reports that in some regions, the average age of sex trafficking victims is 13–14 years old.”
The HRW report says miners are forced to give up to 80 percent of their gold to the syndicates, and town residents must pay gold to armed groups to keep their businesses operational.
The HRW report underscores the concerns voiced by Interim President and National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He requested that Venezuela’s allies stop purchasing Venezuelan gold until human rights abuses end.
“The first thing to do is to stop the illegal traffic of gold,” Guaidó said, according to Reuters. “It’s blood gold.”