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Claims, Conflict, and Capital Report: ILLEGAL GOLD MINING IN VENEZUELA

Ciro Mazzola, Illicit Finance and Economic Threats; Benedetta Piva, SOUTHCOM

Week of Monday, December 13, 2021


Gran Sabana gold mine, Venezuela[1]


Geographical Area | Venezuela

Countries Affected | Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, Guyana


Summary: While Venezuela’s political, economic, and humanitarian crises worsen, criminal gangs, Colombian guerrilla groups, and paramilitary groups compete for control of the country’s significant natural resources, most notably gold.[2] Illegal gold mining will very likely harm the environment, drive human rights violations, and pose security risks to Venezuela and the region. The international community should impose accountability measures and cooperate with Venezuelan investigative journalists and civil society organizations to uncover mining-related violations.


Security Risk Level:

Areas of High Security Concern: Environmental degradation; human rights violations; personal security risks for locals; economic security risks for locals; civil unrest; potential increase in drug and human trafficking

Current Claims: Venezuela, Latin America

Current Conflicts: The unpredictable nature of the relationship between guerrilla groups, organized criminal gangs, and the government under President Nicolás Maduro pose a significant threat to the local population as violent clashes may begin at any moment.[3] The control of mining sites exercised by Colombian guerrilla groups, namely the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), and other criminal organizations is also subject to frequent change.[4] Local miners must adapt periodically to different and potentially harsher rules regulating their income and codes of conduct that govern their lives.[5] Economic desperation forced numerous indigenous communities to engage in illegal mining, leading them to accept guerrillas’ and gangs’ presence in the territory and control of the mines.[6] The Maduro Administration avoids interfering with the situation because it has its own mining agreements with guerrilla groups and criminal organizations it profits from.[7]

Groups Involved in Conflict: Venezuelan government; organized criminal gangs; Colombian guerrilla groups; paramilitary groups; indigenous people; local populations; environmental and humanitarian non-governmental organizations (NGOs)

Major Capital Industries: Mining industry; international gold market; tourism

Potential Industry Concerns: Illegal gold mining in Venezuela is increasing violence between various criminal organizations for the control of natural resources.[8] The involvement of guerrillas and gangs in illegal mining also has a detrimental impact on Venezuela’s tourism sector. With said groups operating in large amounts of territories to maximize their illegal activities,[9] both locals and foreigners are at risk of being robbed, kidnapped, or murdered when visiting places like the Parque Nacional Canaima and Morrocoy.[10] One of the most biodiverse areas of the Amazon rainforest is in danger as it is being illegally logged to make way for mines, roads, and mining camps.[11] Indigenous and non-indigenous local communities have been displaced from ancestral lands by illegal gold mining.[12] Illegal mining also indirectly finances the Maduro Administration through State-owned enterprises, such as Minerven and Compañía Anónima Militar para las Industrias Mineras, Petrolíferas y de Gas (CAMIMPEG), involved in the semi-official mining sector and cooperating with guerrilla and criminal groups.[13] Venezuela’s illegally-mined gold is exported as contraband and easily blends into the international gold market in the Russian Federation, China, and Turkey, among other countries.[14] This allows the Venezuelan government to avoid international sanctions and further ensure profits. Venezuelans’ dissatisfaction with the Maduro Administration will likely cause political rallies, generally evoking a strong response by authorities and making the country unsafe for travelers.[15]


Areas of Caution:

  • Increase in violence:

  • Civil unrest in Venezuela is a security concern for the local population and businesses, which are very likely forced to shut down for unknown periods of time during protests. The government answers with violent crackdowns, eliciting similar responses by protesters.[16] Governmental actions tend to worsen the situation as protesters are likely to target businesses while engaging in acts of vandalism and looting.[17]


Venezuelan National Guardsman holding a protester in a headlock[18]


  • Illicit markets:

  • The influence guerrilla and organized crime groups have over territories and the Venezuelan government allows illicit markets such as drug and human trafficking to thrive in criminally-controlled areas. The groups exploit profits from said illegal trades to finance their gold mining activities by smuggling the illegally-excavated gold.[19] After transporting their products to Colombia, Brazil, and Guyana, among other countries,[20] guerrilla groups and paramilitary groups ensure its entry into the global gold market, effectively running a vast money laundering operation.[21] It is very likely that the majority of illicit trades occurring in Venezuela are difficult to trace, very likely making it difficult to prevent them.

  • Environmental degradation:

  • Illegal mining severely impacts the Venezuelan Amazon rainforest. Although mining is prohibited in the country’s national parks, mining in and near Yapacana, Canaima, and several other national parks has been documented.[22] Illegal gold mining has been reported in Southern Venezuela, where indigenous people have previously been involved in environmental preservation.[23] Aside from negatively impacting the Venezuelan Amazon’s biodiversity, the process of deforestation induced by illegal mining is almost certainly a root cause of indigenous communities’ participation in the criminal activity. Indigenous communities find themselves displaced and, due to a lack of options, very likely try to survive with any potential means they find. It is very likely that illegal gold mining attracts the same individuals it has put in a difficult economic situation, further fueling itself.

  • Mercury runoff from illegal mining operations damages the soil and rivers that provide water to indigenous and non-indigenous local communities.[24] Mercury runoff has likely been causing damage to brain, kidney, and fetal development in these populations. Cyanidation, a procedure used to mine gold which creates small pools on river banks, is likely the cause for malaria outbreaks and mosquito multiplication in the area.

  • Violation of human rights:

  • Many impoverished people, including people from indigenous communities, have been coerced into working in illegal mining.[25] Participation in illegal mining is likely the result of threats of violence and economic need. They work in critical conditions, under danger of punishment from criminal organizations, guerrilla groups, and paramilitary groups.[26] Miners who disobey or clash with the groups running the illegal mines are mutilated, amputated, raped, or killed.[27].

  • Indigenous villages have reported incursions into illegal gold mines by FARC and ELN dissidents.[28] Indigenous populations who have sought to oppose illicit gold mining have likely been suppressed or forced to leave their ancestral lands.

  • Sex trafficking has increased in Latin America, with children being especially vulnerable.[29] This is likely the result of women and girls being forced into sex work or considering it as their only possible source of income, while men and boys are coerced into working in the mines. The increase in sex work has likely led to an increase in sexually transmitted illnesses in the region.


Indigenous man working in an illegal gold mine[30]


Predictive Analysis:

  • Who: Involved parties include criminal gangs, Colombian guerrilla groups, paramilitary groups, and the local indigenous and non-indigenous population. Venezuelan, Brazilian, Colombian, and Guyanese governments also have an important role in this context with environmental and humanitarian NGOs.

  • What: The cycle of violence and socio-economic instability will very likely continue in Venezuela. Competition over control of the gold mines will very likely cause further violence between guerrillas, criminal gangs, and the Maduro Administration. The lives of indigenous and non-indigenous local communities will very likely be endangered. Illegal mining is unlikely to stop during these conflicts, adding more risks for indigenous and non-indigenous local communities as, aside from the conditions they are forced to work in, they may also be attacked by rival guerrilla or criminal groups. Other illicit trades such as drug trafficking and human trafficking will very likely continue due to their role in financing illegal mining. These forms of illicit trade will likely ensure the flow of illicit finances and their laundering through the smuggling of gold, likely resulting in all activities and their profits continuing to remain undetected. The Venezuelan government will almost certainly react similarly as in the past by enacting violent crackdowns, further destabilizing the country, which will almost certainly cause Venezuelans to continue protesting. The ongoing economic crisis will very likely continue to induce indigenous and non-indigenous communities to participate in illegal markets, including illegal mining.

  • Why: Due to the exportation of gold almost certainly having high profits, guerrilla groups, criminal gangs, and the Maduro Administration likely have a high interest in being involved in the Venezuelan mining sector. Competition between guerrillas and criminal groups is strong, while the Maduro Administration almost certainly aims to ensure its access to the mineral for its own profit.

  • When: The threat is ongoing, has significantly heightened in recent months, and is expected to worsen in the near future.

  • How: As long as violence and economic and political instability remain in Venezuela, criminal gangs, as well as the guerrilla and paramilitary groups controlling the mines, will very likely continue to control the country’s natural resources through illegal mining. Indigenous and non-indigenous local people will very likely continue to be coerced into working in illegal mining, likely leading to further human rights violations. The environment will very likely be damaged, as illegal mining severely impacts the Amazon rainforest.

CTG Recommendations

The Venezuelan government should collaborate with Colombia, Guyana, and Brazil to secure borders and demobilize criminal organizations. This will very likely reduce the impact of the violence caused by these groups' conflicts for control of the region’s natural resources. Opposition parties facing Maduro's Administration should join to combat endemic corruption in the country and request aid from the international community to promote anti-corruption and accountability movements encompassing both lower and higher levels of Venezuela’s political, judicial, and public security systems. This will likely lead to the gradual shutdown of illegal gold mining activities through the confiscation or destruction of mining equipment and the blockade of transportation routes. Moreover, opposition parties should work together to provide prompt protection and humanitarian assistance, with the help of humanitarian NGOs, to indigenous and non-indigenous local populations impacted by illegal gold mining. This will almost certainly mitigate the effects of human rights violations caused by the illicit activity.


The international community should increase its efforts in responsible sourcing requirements for corporations importing gold by imposing stricter checks on import records, and put pressure on transit nations to cease importing Venezuelan gold, through the imposition of sanctions. These actions will almost certainly reduce the revenues derived from illegal gold mining and the interest in engaging in this activity. Environmental and human rights NGOs should conduct both environmental and humanitarian impact studies to determine the magnitude of the harm caused by illegal gold mining and organize an awareness campaign about its impacts in Venezuela. This will very likely boost people’s understanding of the threat posed by this practice at the local, national, and international levels.


Both the IFET and the SOUTHCOM Teams are monitoring threats across Venezuela, analyzing OSINT, GEOINT and SOCINT sources, data and trends, and tracking the illegal gold mining market. The IFET Team and the SOUTHCOM Team will ensure optimal recommendations are provided to key stakeholders. Collaboration with other CTG Teams will assist in creating well-rounded, up-to-date analyses regarding Latin America. Future reports will track developments of physical and economic threats from illegal gold mining as well as implications for any local, regional, or international groups. CTG’s Worldwide Analysis of Threats, Crime, and Hazards (W.A.T.C.H.) Officers and Threat Hunters will provide updated reports on threats and attacks of this nature in Latin America.


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[1]Gran Sabana - Mining” by randomvariableintheuk licensed under Creative Commons

[2] Illegal Mining in Venezuela: Death and Devastation in the Amazonas and Orinoco Regions, Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/illegal-mining-venezuela-death-and-devastation-amazonas-and-orinoco-regions

[3] Metal Hands and Rubber Feet: Colombian Guerrillas and Venezuelan Gold, InSight Crime, November 2021, https://insightcrime.org/investigations/metal-hands-rubber-feet-colombian-guerrillas-venezuelan-gold/

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] ‘The Rebel of the South’: Rise of the R Organization, InSight Crime, November 2021, https://insightcrime.org/investigations/rebel-south-rise-r-organization/

[7] Ibid

[8] Illegal Mining in Venezuela: Death and Devastation in the Amazonas and Orinoco Regions, Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/illegal-mining-venezuela-death-and-devastation-amazonas-and-orinoco-regions

[9] Metal Hands and Rubber Feet: Colombian Guerrillas and Venezuelan Gold, InSight Crime, November 2021, https://insightcrime.org/investigations/metal-hands-rubber-feet-colombian-guerrillas-venezuelan-gold/

[10] Venezuela Travel Advisory, U.S. Department of State, June 2021, https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/traveladvisories/traveladvisories/venezuela-travel-advisory.html

[11] Illegal Mining in Venezuela: Death and Devastation in the Amazonas and Orinoco Regions, Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/illegal-mining-venezuela-death-and-devastation-amazonas-and-orinoco-regions

[12] Illegal Mining in Venezuela is Exacerbating Violence, Ecocide, and Global Corruption. The International Community Must Act., Freedom House, October 2020, https://freedomhouse.org/article/illegal-mining-venezuela-exacerbating-violence-ecocide-and-global-corruption-international

[13] Illegal Mining in Venezuela: Death and Devastation in the Amazonas and Orinoco Regions, Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/illegal-mining-venezuela-death-and-devastation-amazonas-and-orinoco-regions

[14] Smuggler’s Paradise: How Venezuela is Using “Blood Gold” to Circumvent U.S. Sanctions, ACSS, August 2020, https://sanctionsassociation.org/smugglers-paradise-how-venezuela-is-using-blood-gold-to-circumvent-u-s-sanctions/

[15] Ibid

[16] Venezuela Travel Advisory, U.S. Department of State, June 2021, https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/traveladvisories/traveladvisories/venezuela-travel-advisory.html

[17] Ibid

[18]Venezuela National Guard Headlock” by Daga95 licensed under Creative Commons

[19] “Gold Mining Activity in Yapacana National Park Venezuela's Amazon Region: A national, international and geopolitical matter of extreme urgency for the environment”, SOS Orinoco, 2019, https://sosorinoco.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/PNY_EN_20190314.pdf

[20] Illegal Mining in Venezuela: Death and Devastation in the Amazonas and Orinoco Regions, Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/illegal-mining-venezuela-death-and-devastation-amazonas-and-orinoco-regions

[21] “Gold Mining Activity in Yapacana National Park Venezuela's Amazon Region: A national, international and geopolitical matter of extreme urgency for the environment”, SOS Orinoco, 2019, https://sosorinoco.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/PNY_EN_20190314.pdf

[22] Illegal Mining in Venezuela: Death and Devastation in the Amazonas and Orinoco Regions, Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/illegal-mining-venezuela-death-and-devastation-amazonas-and-orinoco-regions

[23] Ibid

[24] Ibid

[25] Ibid

[26] Ibid

[27] Ibid

[28] Metal Hands and Rubber Feet: Colombian Guerrillas and Venezuelan Gold, InSightCrime, November 2021, https://insightcrime.org/investigations/metal-hands-rubber-feet-colombian-guerrillas-venezuelan-gold/

[29] Illegal Mining in Venezuela: Death and Devastation in the Amazonas and Orinoco Regions, Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/illegal-mining-venezuela-death-and-devastation-amazonas-and-orinoco-regions

[30]VENEZUELA-ILLEGAL-MINING-GOLD” by Juan Berreto licensed under GettyImages


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