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Story Publication logo February 3, 2022

The Who’s Who of the Criminal Cartels South of the Orinoco River (Spanish)


Someone points to a dot on a map.

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


This report has been translated from Spanish. To read the original report in full, visit ArmandoInfo. A version of this report can be found on the El País website.

The 3,718 mining sites and the 42 clandestine airstrips that satellites identify from space in Venezuelan Guyana serve the illicit activities of criminal gangs that, foreign or native, sometimes in confederation and sometimes in conflict with each other, impose their law, almost without opposition from the State. They are not all the same and knowing the differences in their origins, histories and interests helps to understand the complex dynamics of the sovereignty that, in practice, they exercise in this jungle confine of Venezuelan territory.

In general, the contrast between the harsh and precarious reality of the main Venezuelan cities, concentrated in the northern coastal axis of the country, and the natural exuberance — ecological and geological — of the territory south of the Orinoco River, the mythical Guayana of Walter Raleigh, José Gumilla and Alexander von Humboldt is enormous. But they have something in common: in recent years, organized crime has taken control of increasingly large areas of both; it is just that until now public attention and law enforcement action have been more concentrated in the cities.

It is curious, because the southern half of Venezuela has been the object of some measures specifically adopted by the governments of the self-styled Bolivarian Revolution which, either under the pretext of protecting a key natural habitat for the nation, or of preserving for the State the exploitation of its resources, has encouraged its intervention. Mining has been prohibited in the State of Amazonas since 1989 by decree 269 of the government of that time, presided by Carlos Andres Perez, but 20 years later, in 2009, Hugo Chavez had to order the militarization of the entity to expel hundreds of miners. Another initiative of the revolutionary commander, the creation of the so-called Orinoco Mining Arc, was finally carried out in 2016 by his successor, Nicolás Maduro, in an area of 112,000 square kilometers in the state of Bolívar, with the intention of promoting an extraction of minerals, if intensive, at least orderly, by private ventures in alliance with the State.

The result, in any case, has been different: guerrillas, garimpeiros and criminal gangs, which call themselves syndicates or systems, finance their activities with the control, practically without resistance, of the mines, the extortion business and the trafficking of minerals, drugs and arms. The criminal brotherhood shares, sometimes with internal tensions, an area of 418,000 square kilometers, which would include the combined territories of Germany, Costa Rica and Cyprus.

A database constructed for this investigation, based on military and press reports issued between January 2018 and September 2021, allowed the identification of seven armed groups that exercise their criminal activity in the area, which is expressed in at least 21 types of crimes.

In Bolivar state, for example, mega-gangs led by ringleaders known by their nicknames Toto, Fabio, Juancho, El Viejo and Run, among others, predominate. They have become strong in the municipalities of Roscio, El Callao and Sifontes.

In the state of Amazonas, the porous borders with Colombia and Brazil are a fundamental factor. The National Liberation Army (ELN) and the so-called dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a guerrilla group demobilized after the peace process, but of which a faction decided to return to arms.

Armed Groups In Amazonas and Bolivar

Unwanted Guests In The Green Mansion

The penultimate time G.T. (whose name is omitted for security reasons), an indigenous member of the Baniva ethnic group — a community of a little more than a thousand people distributed between Venezuela and Brazil — born on a small island in the south of Amazonas state, set foot in his sport fishing camp in the Rio Negro municipality, something had changed radically. The area, bathed by a branch of the Casiquiare River — the waterway that connects the Orinoco and Amazon basins — is more than five days by river navigation from the state capital, in an almost virgin territory. G.T. maintained the post as a service camp and mecca for fishermen, who came from far away to collect specimens of the pavón or tucunaré (Cichla ocellaris), a species highly prized as a trophy for sport fishing in the waters of the Orinoco.

That time, in 2011, a group of armed men who identified themselves as members of the FARC, dressed in civilian clothes, approached him to talk. G.T., now 47 years old, admits that the treatment they gave him was "respectful." But he and his family decided not to return to the camp anyway. After all, the clients were not going to return under those conditions either.

The municipalities of Atures, Autana, Atabapo, Maroa and Río Negro, make up the border row of the Venezuelan state of Amazonas that faces the departments of Guainía and Vichada, in Colombia. These eastern Colombian territories were traditional FARC strongholds. The main rivers in the area — Inírida, Guaviare, Vichada, Meta, Orinoco, Atabapo, Guainía and Negro, if the Venezuelan part is also included, as well as the extensive capillarity of canyons and arms, where the indigenous Baniva used to fish for pavón — caused the Colombian guerrillas to migrate to Venezuela in a gradual osmosis. The weakening of local leadership and the low institutional presence on the Venezuelan side did the same. The river corridors were first key for the provision of supplies and logistics required by the guerrilla campaigns; then they helped to create a sort of spillway in Venezuela; and finally, they provided the opportunity to take over illicit activities that provided financing.

A variety of fine canals have provided the guerrillas with the means to supply provisions initially and, later, to develop illegal economies. Image by Sergio González.

Public reports of FARC presence in the Venezuelan Amazon date back to at least the beginning of the 21st century. But with the signing in Cartagena in 2016 of the Peace Accords between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC, a vacuum was created that the ELN, which until then had not had a major presence in Guainía and Vichada, was quick to fill. The ELN, traditionally more active in the Los Llanos area, took its first steps in southern Amazonas with the Jose Daniel Perez Carrero Front, according to sources consulted. Later, the now FARC dissidents established themselves in Venezuela under the franchise of the Acacio Medina Front, created in 2012, and the leadership of Géner García Molina or Jhon 40.

As can be seen, the expansion of the Colombian guerrillas in the extreme south of Venezuela began in the most unpopulated area. But today it is spreading throughout the seven municipalities of Amazonas state.

Amazonas is an area with almost no local media and very limited coverage by the national press. Therefore, journalistic reports coming from that entity are few in the database. Even so, they show from 2016 — the year of the Peace Accords in Colombia — an increase in complaints against the mining boom, military abuses and the incursion of armed groups.

The expansion of the ELN and FARC dissidents is not only related to an interest in mineral extraction, but also to the control of drug trafficking routes from the Colombian departments of Meta, Guaviare and the municipality of Cumaribo, in Vichada, into Venezuelan territory. They profit by providing security services or allowing transit and presence in the area, confirms a March 2021 report by Colombia's Ombudsman's Office.

Informe Defensoría del Pueb... by ArmandoInfo

For example, in January 2021, the Colombian Navy was alerted of a boat that sank a little too deep while navigating the Inírida River. After checking supplies that were covering the bottom, the military found a cove with 600 kilos of marijuana that was presumed to be destined for Venezuela. In the rainy season, they take advantage of the flooding of small rivers to move around and avoid military controls, according to reports in the database.

The political tensions between Caracas and Bogota, which led to the diplomatic rupture in 2019, created a "propitious scenario" for the "tactical positioning" of Colombian guerrillas on the border in order to take advantage of "the geographical and environmental conditions of the territory in the exploitation of illegal economies and the use of this area as a refuge and rearguard," according to the same report.

The ELN and the dissidents seek in the Venezuelan Amazon to coordinate their actions, including an approach to indigenous communities that is usually peaceful. This has not, however, managed to prevent the invasion of territories, the construction of certain infrastructures — such as camps or airstrips — and forced recruitment, among other activities they carry out, from alienating the friendship of the locals and forcing the natives to migrate to Colombia and Brazil.

Although the Bolivarian Armed Forces of Venezuela maintain their presence in the area, there is no reason to believe that it is to expel or even contain the guerrillas. Instead, testimonies abound about their dedication to irregular or illicit practices. Military officials have been denounced for stripping belongings from those transiting aboard boats in Colombian waters. In mid-2019, for example, seven Venezuelan uniformed officers shot at a Colombian vessel which they then intercepted to rob its crew members.

In the north of Amazonas state, where the borders of the Venezuelan states of Apure and Bolivar converge with those of the Colombian department of Vichada, the guerrillas have gained strategic control of an important river crossroads. In the municipality of Atures — the name of the famous rapids of the Orinoco River — the ELN shares territory with the Tenth Front of the FARC dissidents and shares tasks from Puerto Carreño — a city that dominates the crossing of the Meta with the Orinoco — with two other armed groups, successors of paramilitarism: Los Puntilleros Libertadores del Vichada (PLV) and the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC).

On the Venezuelan side of the border, violent reprisals are already taking place, although they are not yet common. Two facts investigated by Colombian authorities suggest this: In June 2019, two male corpses were found in Puerto Carreño. Both were young Venezuelan men. Ten months later, the bodies of two other men, a Colombian and a Venezuelan, were found with a sign attached that read: "For traitors and toadies [delatores, in colloquial Colombian and Venezuelan Spanish]." Both cases were attributed to FARC dissidents.

Miners Versus Indigenous People

In the south of Amazonas, another invader is about to celebrate 40 years of occupation. They are the garimpeiros, a Brazilian Portuguese term for illegal miners. Like their name, they usually come from Brazil and operate, above all, in the territory of the Yanomami peoples, which is binational.

They come for the gold rush and establish themselves with blood and fire whenever necessary. The massacre of Haximú, a Yanomami community near the sources of the Orinoco River in Venezuela, is still remembered. In 1993, 16 indigenous people were brutally murdered by garimpeiros. The community was set on fire. And, as if nothing had happened, the garimpeiros continued to operate there, among other reasons, because of the laxity of the Brazilian justice system, which was ultimately responsible for examining the case given the nationality of the accused and its competence to prosecute extraterritorial crimes: only five of the 22 perpetrators of the massacre were convicted.

In fact, the database prepared for this report verifies that press reports and reports from indigenous organizations continue to locate the bulk of the current activity of the garimpeiros not far from Haximú, along the Ocamo River.

The entry corridor to Venezuela for the miners passes through the Delgado Chalbaud hill, in the Sierra de Parima, despite the fact that a Venezuelan military outpost is located there. From that point the expeditionaries are only a two days walk, or less, from Haximú, according to a communiqué sent by a Yanomami representation in 2020 to Provea, the main Human Rights organization in Venezuela: "The authorities allowed them to install four machines to extract gold and minerals (…) they are in the same lands that were circulating when the massacre took place."

Like the guerrillas, the garimpeiros told the indigenous people that they wanted to make an agreement with them. Here fear had all the upper hand, just as it had against the guerrillas. "We have no choice but to keep quiet because they are armed and we are afraid," they said in the communiqué.

But the garimpeiros are also much further north. This is the case of the Manapiare municipality, which borders the state of Bolivar. The indigenous organizations Kuyunu of the Upper and Middle Ventuari River, Kuyujani of the Caura River and Kuyujani of the Upper Orinoco, denounced in August 2021 the presence of 400 garimpeiros with 30 machines. "The indigenous peoples are being subjected to a situation of slavery in the most remote and difficult to access communities of the Manapiare municipality," denounced the Ombudsman of Amazonas state, Gumersindo Castro, without finding an echo.

All in all, the activity of illegal miners in Amazonas state is still modest compared to the frenzy on the Brazilian side. The well-known Brazilian Yanomami leader, Dário Vitório Kopenawa, vice-president of the Hutukara Yanomami Association, denounced — via telephone — the presence of 20,000 miners in the ancestral lands of the ethnic group on the Brazilian side. He also assured that among the miners are infiltrated members of the fearsome Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), one of the most powerful and fearsome criminal organizations in Brazil, as well as other armed groups. As the transfer is occurring in both directions across the perforated border membrane, Brazilian authorities are finding that dozens of Venezuelans with criminal records, who arrived in the country amid the unstoppable flow of refugees, have joined the ranks of the PCC.

"The invaders are growing and businessmen are supporting the illegal garimpo [mine] with air transport, planes, helicopters, boats," said Kopenawa.

The Criminal Activities Of The 'Syndicates'

The indigenous people of western Bolivar state, near the borders of Amazonas state, also suffer from the rampages of armed invaders. Among them there are guerrillas and also other new actors: the unions.

At least since May 2020, in the middle of the first wave of the pandemic, seven events were reported that ratify the presence of both local armed groups and foreign guerrilla groups in the Sucre municipality of Bolivar state, heart of the Caura National Park, decreed by the government of Nicolas Maduro in March 2017. The protected area, which corresponds to the margins and basin of the Caura River, covers 7.5 million hectares.

In mid-July 2020, a platoon of 70 men in olive green uniforms took over a tourist camp on the banks of the Caura River. They were armed. Witnesses to the incursion recounted that they hung up their hammocks and remained in the area for at least three weeks. They identified themselves as FARC dissidents. That same month, the indigenous community of El Playón, in Bajo Caura, denounced the arrival of "armed Colombian groups" and, three months later, in the community of Las Pavas, the story was repeated: an "irregular group from Colombia" arrived in the indigenous territory and settled. Community leaders of the Ye'kwana and Sanemá ethnic groups, who live on the banks of the Caura, denounced to the Kapé-Kapé Indigenous Observatory that these armed groups intimidated the community to take control of the mining areas. The irregulars imposed restrictions on movement. They could no longer fish or hunt freely.

For five months there was relative peace, but in March 2021 other irregular groups carried out an attack on the El Kino mine in Bajo Caura. A teacher and her husband were killed. The first versions of the indigenous spokespersons indicated that the armed group, which did not identify itself, asked them to vacate the land adjacent to the illegal mine. When the response was negative, violence broke out.

Just a month later, another attack at the El Silencio mine resulted in the murder of four people, among them the indigenous captain — chief or cacique — of the La Felicidad community, Nelson Pérez, 30 years old. Three years earlier, a predecessor in the captaincy, Misael Ramírez, was killed along with his 18-year-old son at the same site. The execution was attributed to an armed group that allied with Sanema Indians to take over the area. Both Pérez and Ramírez belonged to the Jivi ethnic group, which together with Ye'kwana individuals make up the population of La Felicidad.

These are the actions of the so-called syndicates, in reality, gangs or gangs of the unclassified that congregate around pranes or criminal leaders. The sum of numerous testimonies makes it possible to affirm that these groups dominated the Caura oilfields until July 2020. But after that date things changed. The aforementioned seizure of the tourist camp in Las Trincheras, as well as the incursions in the communities of El Playón and Las Pavas, were in reality advance parties of the FARC dissidents, who managed to dislodge them. The four largest mines in Caura — Yuruani, La Bullita, Fijiriña and San Pablo — are now in the hands of FARC and ELN dissidents who, according to the leaders consulted, benefit from the payment in gold that the owners of machines used in gold extraction must hand over. "They guarantee the security of the miners and those who circulate in the area and charge a protection fee to each machine owner," explained an indigenous leader.

Violence in El Callao, Roscio and Sifontes place Bolivar as the state with the third highest rate of violent deaths in Venezuela. Image by María Ramírez Cabello.

When the government of Nicolás Maduro decreed the creation of Caura National Park, the objective was to expand the protection of the biodiversity reservoir and refuge for indigenous peoples. However, the park is adjacent to the so-called Block 2 of the Orinoco Mining Arc, which exacerbates pressures in an area already affected by mining.

"These groups keep the basin's population under systematic threats and terror throughout the area. There is a structural situation of violence exercised by these irregulars against the communities along the Caura and Ventuari rivers. If the deterioration of rights continues, the negative consequences driven by extractive activities will deepen," warned the NGO Wataniba at the peak of the violence.

The Law of The Jungle

But the fact that the so-called unions suffered a defeat in the Caura basin does not mean that they have become extinct. In other areas of the state of Bolivar they enjoy excellent health.

This can be seen, for example, in the dusty streets of the town of El Callao, capital of the municipality of the same name. Founded in the mid-19th century on the banks of the Yuruani River, it is the most traditional gold vein in Venezuela. At one time it attracted foreign capital and a flood of workers from the English-speaking Caribbean, who brought with them all their cultural baggage. Not for nothing has it been a place of adaptation and development for local versions of the Patois language and calypso, as well as flavors reminiscent of the Antilles that can be recognized in dishes such as calalú, domplín and yinyabié. In 2016, its Carnival festivities were recognized by Unesco as a World Heritage Site.

Violence has now joined their traditions.

Oriannys Yánez learned this in the early hours of last November 11, when she saw her one-year-old baby boy arrive, covered in blood, at the emergency room of the Juan Germán Roscio hospital in El Callao.

Minutes before, a shooting aroused the neighbors in the center of the town. In that sector, Oriannys' mother lived with the baby, her grandson, after the mother decided to take him out of the nearby sector El Peru, in the outskirts of El Callao, because of the violence.

When the shooting died down, the grandmother opened the door to the room where the baby and his nine-year-old brother were sleeping. She found the older boy with the baby in his arms: "My brother is going to die, he's going to die! A stray bullet pierced part of his abdomen and exited without causing severe organ damage.

This was not an isolated incident. For more than a decade, the triad made up of the Roscio, El Callao and Sifontes municipalities in southeastern Bolivar state, near the border with Guyana, has been a dangerous stretch under the control of armed groups. In 2016, 17 miners were found in a mass grave, after relatives reported their disappearance, in what became known as the Tumeremo massacre. In 2018, another seven miners were killed and left on the side of a dusty road leading to gold deposits. In the last three years, dismembered bodies have been found. The most recent case occurred in September 2021, when passers-by in El Callao found two human heads inside a bag in the center of town.

The 2021 balance sheet of the Venezuelan Violence Observatory found that the worsening socioeconomic conditions in the country had a paradoxically positive effect: violent crime went down: "A massive impoverishment, hardship and loss of purchasing power (…) notably reduced the opportunities for crime." But, when focusing the diagnosis in that area of Bolivar state, a contrary trend is found. Murders and disappearances increased.

El Callao stands out with a rate of 511 violent deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. It is the most violent municipality in the country and registers a rate 11 times higher than the average of violent deaths in Venezuela.

Despite the dreadful figures of violence, it is not always the preferred tool of the unions, which derive their name from the very structure of the construction industry workers, where many of their leaders originally came from, as well as from the informal chain of command that reigns inside Venezuelan prisons.

In the municipalities of Bolivar State where they operate, the unions impose clear rules and have become benefactors through foundations. In specific situations where persuasion does not work, they resort to outrage, intimidation and punishment.

The arrival of these groups to the gold deposits since 2006 was a direct consequence of the militarization strategy implemented during the so-called mining reconversion of President Hugo Chavez, which tried to replace illegal artisanal mining with the State. But this policy foundered in September 2006, with the shooting to death of six miners at the hands of the military in the sector of La Paragua, in the west of the State of Bolivar. Four of the victims were shot in the back. The massacre caused a strong and organized reaction from the miners, and a scandal in the international press. The military force withdrew, but the powers that be encouraged the installation of armed groups to maintain control by force of strategic mining zones.

At one end of El Callao, in the sector known as El Perú, neighbors agree that until eight years ago they lived in relative tranquility. Everything changed when a man from the community, nicknamed Toto, joined forces with others to commit a crime. His family had moved to El Callao during one of the many gold rush explosions. They began with armed robberies and extortion of vaccines from miners. In 2013, their actions escalated.

Today his group dominates all the mines in El Peru, an extensive and gold-rich area. Some of the deposits under their authority are Cuatro Esquinas, La Laguna, Panama and La 45. They live in the mountains and go down to the mining areas only to collect their tithes: 30% of what is produced by miners, millers and for the purchase of gold sands processed by formal companies.

Alejandro Rafael Ochoa Sequea, Toto, is one of the ten most wanted criminals by the Judicial Police in Bolivar State. Two others in the same list are members of his gang: Picoro, arrested in 2020 while hiding in a bunker, and Zacarías, one of the many migrants from the former center of Venezuelan heavy industry, Ciudad Guayana, who have become criminals in the mining areas.

According to what is verified in the database records, between June 2020 and June 2021, the state security forces arrested 72 alleged members of Toto's gang, killed 26 others and retained 28 weapons and more than 800 rounds of ammunition from the gang, from which they also seized drugs, gold, military uniforms and even a notebook with the inventory of their arsenal and the "accounting" records of extortions to miners.

Keeping records of their weapons must be fundamental for this gang with militia pretensions: for example, they have seized a Swedish-made AT4 rocket launcher, one of the most widely used anti-tank weapons in the world. In 2009, its manufacturer, Saab Bofors Dynamics, requested explanations from the Venezuelan government, its client, for the confiscation of three such weapons held by the Colombian FARC.

With this arsenal, there has been no incentive for a truce. Criminals often perceive themselves to be — and in fact are — better equipped than the security forces. The death toll attributed to Toto's gang includes the assassination of former councilwoman Mara Valdez, culturist Carlos Clark, and police, military intelligence and National Guard agents. The violence used by Toto and other local gangs, such as El Chingo and Nacupay, has caused many locals to prefer to sell their homes and migrate.

"People have lost respect for life," says a 61-year-old man, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.

Toto's criminal influence extends to the neighboring municipality of Roscio, where the Tren de Guayana and the gang of Ronny Colomé Cruz, alias Ronny Matón, an heir to oilfields previously controlled by two criminals who were killed: Capitan and Gordo Bayón, also operate. The latter was shot in 2014 as he was leaving the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, seat of the government of Nicolás Maduro, after participating in a discussion of the collective contract of the state-owned Siderúrgica del Orinoco (Sidor).

The Paper House

In the Sifontes municipality, since 2018 the appearance of another criminal gang has been reported. It is known as Run after its leader, Eduardo José Natera, alias El Run or El Pelón. His area of dominance includes the municipal capital, Tumeremo, which he brought under his control after advancing from more rural or jungle areas on the periphery. They call their headquarters La Casa de Papel (The House of Paper), in allusion to the Spanish Netflix series.

It is distinguished by its boldness and violence. He is credited with the April 2020 murder of the commander of the army barracks in Tumeremo, Lieutenant Colonel Leon Ernesto Solis Mares. But his level of control over the area has led him to act, with certain brazenness, through a philanthropic organization, RRR or 3R, with which he carries out community activities such as the repair of roads and electrical installations, and even the donation of food and medicine. The names RRR or 3R were also given to the gang, but now it is customary to call it OR, precisely to differentiate it from the social foundation that was born under its umbrella.

In the area of action of the criminal organization, very close to the border with the Essequibo Territory, the guerrilla presence has also been denounced since 2018. A confrontation around that time between the gang of Josué Zurita, El Coporo, and alleged ELN guerrillas, seemed to confirm not only that version, but also that there were new disputes over territorial control.

Deforested patches where month after month there are more improvised camps, built with columns of felled trees and black plastic roofs. Image by María Ramírez Cabello.

Further south, in the towns of Las Claritas and Kilómetro 88, at the entrance to the Gran Sabana and on the road to Brazil, the clan of Juan Gabriel Rivas Núñez, known as Juancho, dominates, operating together with Humbertico, son of the pran [prison gang leader] Humberto Martes, alias El Viejo, and Darwin Guevara, who is linked to Johan Petrica, one of the leaders of the so-called Tren de Aragua, in all probability the most powerful gang in Venezuela, with international connections. In the nearby town of El Dorado, it is the syndicate of Fabio Enrique Gonzalez Isaza, Negro Fabio, that calls the shots.

The criminals have agreed to a sort of informal governance in the area, which is financed by extorting miners and anyone who carries out any productive activity in the surrounding area. "They exercise a higher role of force than the police and military authorities," says an inhabitant of Las Claritas, who considers that the town "is like an open prison."

In Las Claritas, both command and business are clear to anyone seeking to prosper or just survive. Beneath the ground is the largest gold reserve in the country. It is precisely there where the government of Nicolás Maduro has insisted on promoting a project to industrialize the production of gold, copper and silver, together with the Canadian Gold Reserve. But the force of the apparent chaos and the underlying regime of the unions has so far prevented the construction of the two projected plants.

In the Gran Sabana itself, mining is proceeding at a hectic pace in the community of Ikabarú. There the government legalized a gold mining block in which indigenous communities participate. This should work as a deterrent for the syndicates.

However, in December 2019, the killing of six people in Ikabarú set off alarm bells. Subjects dressed in black entered the village and shot at a group of men in the center of the community. Among the victims was an indigenous man. Since then, there have been increasingly insistent reports of an incursion by the El Ciego syndicate, which controls, together with El Sapito, the La Paragua oilfields, much further west, in the Angostura municipality.

Criminals take advantage of the deteriorated road from Amazonas to the northern and southern municipalities of Bolivar to traffic drugs. Image by Sergio González.

Other Traffic

It is hard to believe that any business can thrive on the winding, mostly dirt road connecting Amazonas with Bolivar. There are no services and the state is absent. The houses along the way are empty shells and, in the heat, there is no place to cool off. Only the huge boulders, as if set in the earth by a giant, distract the eye.

But, yes, a business manages to thrive in that barren stretch, even if it is illegal: the database clearly shows a drug trafficking corridor by land. More than half of the military procedures carried out in Cedeño municipality, one of the 11 in Bolívar state and adjacent to Amazonas state, are linked to drug seizures.

In April 2019, Elvin Bolivar and Marlon Yeison were arrested in a military roadblock of the National Guard, five hours from the capital of Puerto Ayacucho, capital of Amazonas. They were traveling in a van in which they were hiding 19 kilograms of marijuana, of the "crispy" type — grown in greenhouses and more potent — inside the doors, on the dashboard and on the roof, according to the military report. One of the men had a Colombian identity card. Authorities reported that the drugs came from Colombia.

In four other military reports in the database, whose seizures total 78 kilograms of drugs, the detainees were traveling from Puerto Ayacucho to Ciudad Bolívar or Puerto Ordaz, both cities in Bolívar state, on the banks of the Orinoco. They hid marijuana or cocaine in different compartments. The route then continues to Tumeremo, Las Claritas and Santa Elena de Uairén, on the border with Brazil.

In January 2020, dressed in military uniform, Elis Lugo traveled from Puerto Ayacucho to Ciudad Bolivar with 376 kilograms of marijuana on his person. The 47-year-old man carried an accreditation as a so-called Army Brigadier General. In addition, he was traveling in a white Toyota Land Cruiser pickup truck, without license plates, similar to those of the military fleet.

Elis Lugo usurped military functions to move 376 kilograms of marijuana. Photo by GNB CZ N°62 Bolívar.

This had allowed him to move smoothly along more than 400 kilometers of road. At the Maripa checkpoint, near the mouth of the Caura river in the Orinoco, as later reported by the Public Prosecutor's Office, Lugo refused to get out of the vehicle and demanded that the military officials notify his superior of the procedure. When he was discovered, he fled. The National Guard shot at the rear tires of the vehicle and managed to catch him a kilometer and a half away. The 5th Prosecutor's Office of the city of Bolivar charged the false general with illicit trafficking of narcotic and psychotropic substances and five other crimes.

The movement of large amounts of cash is another of the findings of the data, which shows how the gold booty continues to be taken advantage of in southern Venezuela. In 2021, even with the confinement confinement due to the Covid-19 pandemic, three quarters of a million dollars in cash were seized.

The largest seizure occurred in June. Jose Alberto Reyes Chueco was arrested in San Félix, eastern section of Ciudad Guayana, with $650,000 in cash. The National Guard reported that Reyes Chueco was part of the criminal organization El Dorado, dedicated to "the commercialization of weapons of war in mining areas of the state." From his phone, screenshots of WhatsApp conversations were extracted with the exchange of images of weapons and ammunition.

The second largest seizure, for $74,550, is also connected to El Dorado, but the town of that name, in the Sifontes municipality, is one of the mining areas controlled by armed groups. The loot was in the hands of Yolbill José Gámez, an officer of the Bolivar State Police.

Gold, drugs, mining equipment and supplies, weapons, other minerals, contraband merchandise: the Guayana area, once a promise of progress and wild discoveries, is now a highway for the illicit business of organized crime.

(*) This is the second installment of a series investigated and published simultaneously by and El País, with the support of the Pulitzer Center's Tropical Forest Research Network and the Norwegian organization EarthRise Media.

Jorge Luis Cortés, Cristian Hernández, Javier Lafuente, Ewald Scharfenberg, Guiomar del Ser, Fernando Hernández, Ana Fernández, Eliezer Budasoff, Alejandro Gallardo, Luis Sevillano, Ignacio Catalán, Vanessa Pan, Yeilys Márquez and Pablo Rodríguez participated in the design, programming and editing of the algorithm, map, research and edition.

You can also find this report, written in Spanish, on the website for the El País newspaper.


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