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Story Publication logo January 30, 2022

The Illegal Runways that are Swarming the Venezuelan Jungle (Spanish)


Someone points to a dot on a map.

Joseph Poliszuk’s fellowship investigates forest destruction in the protected areas and Indigenous...


This report was originally translated from Spanish. To read the original story in full, please visit El País. A version of the report can be found on ArmandoInfo.

Venezuela's jungle conceals at least 42 airstrips from which planes loaded with gold take off from the Guayana region. Half of these airstrips are located next to some of the thousands of illegal mines that emerge south of the Orinoco River, the longest river in the country and the third longest in South America.

Different journalistic reports have shown that part of the Venezuelan gold leaves through furtive flights, especially when these are intercepted en route or at destination and become news. But a joint work by and EL PAÍS, with the support of the Pulitzer Center's Rainforest Investigations Network and the Norwegian organization Earthrise Media, shows for the first time on the map of Venezuela the strategic points that smuggling networks have established to take out illicit shipments by air. This is the initial installment of the series called Corredor Furtivo.

These findings arise from a survey of satellite monitoring information, later processed with artificial intelligence, to see and understand in a comprehensive way the evolution of the mining phenomenon in the Venezuelan Guayana, north of the Amazon.

With the help of experts, an algorithm was programmed to recognize and associate images similar to zenithal shots of open-pit mines and clandestine runways, in order to identify these patterns in the jungle. The result, later contrasted with other high definition satellite images, shows 3,718 points with illegal gold exploitation in the states of Amazonas and Bolivar, which together total 418,145 square kilometers of surface: almost half of the Venezuelan territory.

Cartography of the Runways

The proximity that exists between runways and clandestine mines can be verified, for example, at the point corresponding to the coordinates 4°45′25.2″N 61°29′07.2″W. At that site in the Gran Sabana, a track can be observed in the middle of a territory where the expansion of open-pit mines has been evident since 2015, as found in a historical monitoring of the Sentinel-2 satellite of the European Space Agency (ESA). The Gran Sabana, southeast of Bolivar state, constitutes a unique landscape and ecosystem, a high plateau of 10,000 square kilometers that serves as an access threshold to the region of the tepuis, characteristic massifs of the Guiana Shield.

Something similar is found at coordinates 5°58′54.2″N 63°13′41.7″W, a point within Canaima National Park. Founded 60 years ago and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, it is not only the setting for Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world, but the crown jewel of natural monuments in southern Venezuela.

This work is the product of an algorithm that was scheduled and processed through September 2021, so some of the tracks and mines noted in the red boxes are even newer or larger than they appear on the Mapbox map.

At coordinates 4°52′22.1″N 62°26′02.1″W, on the banks of the Caroní River, records of two landing strips remained in 2015. Today, one of them can still be distinguished very close to a large open pit mine, on the other side of the river. More than a dozen of the runways identified by the algorithm, in fact, are located on the banks of the Caroní, which originates near the Brazilian border and rises from there throughout the state of Bolivar.

Some of the runways shown in the images were already in place in previous decades to serve indigenous communities or remote populations scattered in the rugged geography of the area. Today, these facilities are strategically located very close to emerging mines. This is the case of the Piaroa community established in the northwest of the state of Amazonas, in a territory known as Janacome. There, next to the indigenous camp there is a track (at coordinate 5°37′58.3″N 66°26′48.7″W), just two kilometers from three emerging mines that, according to three sources in the area, are in the hands of the dissidence of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Meeting of Two Worlds

More than a particular denunciation, a set of testimonies give account of the presence of guerrilla troops in the Venezuelan Amazon, and the use of this territory for mining, despite the fact that it is forbidden by law. The warning "beware of the guerrillas!" has been in the air for at least the last decade, but rarely has it been more evident than two years ago, when, in a sort of meeting of two worlds, the guerrillas presented themselves to the local indigenous people as their new neighbors.

On that day, February 23, 2020, a commission of fighters from the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) presented themselves during an assembly before the representatives of the Piaroa communities of the banks of the Autana, Cuao, Sipapo and Guayapo rivers, in the locality of Pendare. There, in that jungle corner of the western Venezuelan Amazon, halfway between the right bank of the Orinoco River and the famous Autana hill — protagonist of aboriginal myths and tourist posters — they formalized their new camps and asked to adopt the good neighbor policy.

In that meeting, the guerrillas assured that they came in peace, that their intention was to protect the territory and that they even had the approval of Caracas. But not only did they encounter indigenous resistance, but they did not take into account that the Piaroa also know how to record audio and video: this is how the presence of irregular groups was recorded. And so they also gathered the testimony of one of the indigenous, who in his intervention warned about "a clandestine airstrip that exists there in Autana [one of the municipalities of northern Amazonas and epicenter of the Piaroa territory]" "Is that just a story?" he asked, challenging the uniformed: "Excuse me, could it be that there is no airstrip in Autana? The response from the crowd was clear: "Yes, there is!" they told him in chorus.

"What are you working on? Security? National Security? The people want to know what is going on," insisted the spokesman of the Piaroa. Three days later, in tune with his words, the Indigenous Organization of the Uwottüja del Sipapo People (Oipus) broke their silence to ask the Venezuelan State to do something. They not only asked the administration of Nicolás Maduro to recognize the support the guerrillas were talking about, but also to expel the planes that have invaded their space. "We declare the rejection of mining exploitation, we also reject that you use our territory for the transit of illicit activities," they stated in the February 26, 2020 communiqué. "That you explain or clarify to our indigenous people about the construction of airstrips, which during the nights [sic], take off and land in the Autana River sector."

Not a month had passed since that exhortation when another strange warning again made evident, in March 2020, that the north of Amazonas has become an air bridge for drug and mineral trafficking: a small plane appeared abandoned near the town of San Pedro del Orinoco (coordinates 04°36′30.52″N 67°46′12.88″W). The wreckage of the aircraft still showed the initials of its acronym, PT, which corresponds to the Brazilian air registry.

Something Smells in San Pedro del Orinoco

The indigenous people locate a track at this point on the border with Colombia. It is, however, a place that went unnoticed in the satellite tracking programmed for this work. Still a year later, in March 2021, Planet, Digital Globe and Google satellites did not register any track in the area; neither did Sentinel-2, which served as the basis for programming the algorithm of this work. At that point, a long dirt road could be seen, along which the indigenous people must have traveled when they found the plane.

It is evident that something is going on in San Pedro del Orinoco. Although in March the satellites could not make out the runway, in September they detected a new straight line of about 340 meters long at the same point. A kind of improvised runway that would represent a real challenge for any pilot, despite the fact that it is a clear terrain with no mountains or forests to hinder any forced landing.

Two other clandestine runways had already appeared in the area in 2018. Contrary to the policy of Nicolás Maduro's government, which ignores the guerrillas growing in Amazonas, the then Minister for Interior Relations, Justice and Peace, General Néstor Reverol, announced that they had destroyed those two runways and seized 450 panelas of cocaine in the Cacahual sector, a point on the border with Colombia located 30 kilometers from San Fernando de Atabapo. "In the place of the seizure two clandestine runways and aviation fuel tanks with 3,200 liters were located," he published on April 30 of that year on his Twitter account.

In 2021, other reports circulated about furtive flights of Brazilian-registered aircraft that had to make emergency landings in the area. On September 23, a twin-engine Piper Navajo model, with acronym PT-JEH, made a surprise emergency landing at the main airport of Puerto Ayacucho, capital of Amazonas state, on the right bank of the Orinoco river and in the middle of the border with Colombia. It had run out of fuel. It was flying from the city of Boa Vista, in the state of Roraima, northern Brazil, to the municipality of Pedro Camejo in the state of Apure, in the plains of southwestern Venezuela. Although it was not carrying any cargo, according to the military report, it did show traces of drugs, and its two crew members — Italian Deverson Ceccaroni and Colombian Duvier Linares — were arrested.

The aircraft, owned by the Brazilian company AEB Taxi Aéreo y Transportes Ltda, did not have valid air cab operating permits and its airworthiness certificate was suspended, as confirmed by the official registry of Brazil's National Civil Aviation Agency (ANAC). A similar case is that of the Brazilian PT-KFN light aircraft, which was forced to land on the other side of the Orinoco River — in the Colombian city of Puerto Carreño, capital of the department of Vichada — and in which traces of cocaine hydrochloride were also found. The two Brazilian nationals on board were placed under arrest.

If it were not for the fortuitous events that have given rise to this news, which reveal a daily activity, nothing would be known about this transit. The Venezuelan Amazon has become a regular route for Colombian cartel networks; the territory of Venezuela's southernmost state is sparsely populated, housing just 0.5% of the country's inhabitants in an area that represents little more than 17% of the national territory. There are not many witnesses of what happens there. Extensive, jungle-like, with an abrupt orography and crossed by a tangle of fast-flowing rivers that make up its most practical form of mobility and transportation, the State lends itself to the concealment of illicit activities.

A "Silent Genocide"

Even in the Upper Orinoco, probably the most remote and impregnable region of the entire country, only fully explored in 1951 by a Franco-Venezuelan expedition, there are traces of both mines and clandestine runways. The local Ye'kwana and Sanema peoples — grouped in the indigenous organizations Kuyunu and Kuyujani — filed a complaint in July 2021 with the Amazonas State Attorney General's Office about an invasion of at least 400 Brazilian miners — the so-called garimpeiros — equipped with 30 hydraulic pumps that, in their words, are generating "mercury contamination in the waters," "disease contagion," and even a "silent cultural genocide." This complaint, like so many similar ones filed at least since 2013 by indigenous communities before the Public Prosecutor's Office, local and national military agencies, parliamentary bodies and public agencies, was ignored.

Photograph of the aircraft found by the Piaroas. Image by El Pais.

"Ye'kwana and Sanema leaders point out that they are being victims of selective murders perpetrated by these garimpeiros, when they feel they can go against them." That they alerted before the Public Prosecutor's Office in an official letter dated and sealed on July 21, 2021. "The garimpeiros are heavily armed and enslave men, women and children of the Sanema people. They also have a clandestine track of about seven kilometers (7 kms) in length."

A week later, by means of a communiqué, the same indigenous organizations added that in this remote site in southern Amazonas — which is easier to reach from Brazil than from Venezuela itself — there are two helicopters that take food and materials to a mine located in the Wasiri channel: "Every three days planes go to look for gold, they take out between 40, 50 and 100 kgs per day."

Upset and frustrated, the indigenous peoples' representatives also spoke of two clandestine airstrips in that open letter: the first, "in the middle of the jungle," which is reached by a "small plane that always heads towards the Brazilian area," and the second, located seven kilometers from the garimpeiros' mine, in the Simada Woichö sector, at coordinates 03°49′9.51″N 64°35′59.818″W, whose location coincides with one of the airstrips detected by the algorithm developed for this work.

That piece of land alluded to in the denunciations represents just a footnote in the list of clandestine mines that sprout and thrive in the south of the country. In the state of Amazonas alone, this satellite tracking detected 303 mining sites, despite the fact that the activity is expressly prohibited there, in the country's most important forest reserve. Among these points is a mine that appeared months ago on the southern border, just ten kilometers from the Brazilian border, as well as on Yapacana hill, one of Venezuela's ecological jewels and a natural park. This area, where in 2009 the government of Hugo Chavez carried out a large military operation to expel hundreds of illegal miners to Colombia, has been deforested for at least five years.

The non-governmental organization SOS Orinoco, which has studied mining depredation in recent times, closely follows the situation in the national parks. In the case of Yapacana, it highlights that just from 2019 to 2020 it lost new forest areas — from 2,035 to 2,227 hectares — and mining sites increased by almost double: from 36 to 69.

40,000 Soccer Fields Deforested

The proportion of forest affected and the speed of deforestation in Venezuela surpasses any precedent in the Amazon region. In 2020, the The Amazonian Georeferenced Socio-Environmental Information Network (RAISG) totaled 4,472 points with illegal mines throughout the Amazon. Although half of these mines were in Brazilian territory, 32% were in Venezuela, although its forests represent only 5.6% of the total Amazon. The organization Provita reports more than 380,000 hectares of forest lost since 2000. Most of the deforestation corresponds to forested land converted into conucos and land destined for the agricultural sector, but mining areas — and the degradation they cause in rivers and local communities — has tripled in a matter of 20 years: "Although the area destined for this use is low (0.1% of the total area), in the period 2000-2020 there is a sustained increase from 18,490 hectares in 2000 to 55,090 hectares in 2020, with an estimated annual growth rate of 5.5%."

This trend is repeated in other specific areas. The pace in mines has not slowed with either the pandemic or the quarantines. The algorithm of this work found 3,415 mined points in Bolivar State, the largest in Venezuela. As already mentioned, there is a clear line along the Caroní River and other waterways in its basin, the emerging mines of Canaima, or the traditional deposits of Las Claritas, where there have been legal concessions. But the consequences of illegal mining can be seen in the surroundings of urban centers, and even in hydroelectric power plant dams such as Macagua, Caruachi and Tocoma, all on the Caroní.

Artisanal gold mining involves massive logging and pumping pressurized water until the land is bare. Toxic wastewater is left in distinctive yellow, tan and turquoise ponds, surrounded by clumps of deforested land.

The computer learns to identify some of these features in the satellite images, along with other patterns that humans do not recognize with the naked eye. This reveals a clear map of deforestation in Guyana. And one of the objectives of this journalistic work on mining in the region is achieved: to transcend anecdote, partial information and chronicles from specific places, to address the problem from a general vision.

Whichever way you look at it, the scale of mining in southern Venezuela is enormous. From the perspective of the space observation satellites, whose high-resolution images were used for this journalistic project, this deforestation covers the equivalent of 40,000 soccer fields. The algorithm designed for the project was able to analyze the images in blocks of 28 x 28 pixels. At ground level, each of these 28 x 28 pixel patches represents an area of 78,400 square meters — about 11 soccer fields — of real forest. Along with the scars of mining, the images taken from space now reveal 42 clandestine airstrips that also violate national sovereignty and connect this region to transnational criminal activities.

These are the dilemmas of Venezuela today and in the future. Even with some political negotiation; even if Nicolás Maduro remains in power or any other Chavista or opposition leader crosses the threshold of the Miraflores Palace to succeed him, these are no longer just problems of the so-called Bolivarian Republic, but of the entire region.

(*) This is the first installment of a series researched and published simultaneously by and El País, in conjunction with support from the Pulitzer Center's Rainforest Investigations Network and the Norwegian organization Earthrise Media.



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