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The golden age

TOPSHOT - A health worker wears protective gears at the Mpondwe Health Screening Facility in the Uganda border town with the Democratic Republic of Congo, on June 13, 2019. - A grandmother in Uganda has died from Ebola, health officials said on June 12, 2019, the second fatality in the country since a major outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo crossed the border. (Photo by ISAAC KASAMANI / AFP) (Photo credit should read ISAAC KASAMANI/AFP via Getty Images)


A man uses a 5,000 bolívar note to inspect gold he has mined and melted in a makeshift forge. One gram of gold is worth five times the monthly minimum wage

“This is not a mining story,” says photojournalist Ignacio Marin of his long-term project documenting the lives of those searching for gold in the rainforests of Venezuela. “It is about the new reality of a country and people who will do anything to survive.” The photojournalist has spent months documenting the gold rush that has gripped the southern Venezuelan state of Bolívar in recent years. In 2012 around 40,000 miners worked in official mines in the region. Today between 300,000 and 500,000 men, women and even children dig for gold, mostly in unlicensed ‘wildcat’ mines.

Venezuela has some of the largest untapped gold and coltan reserves in the world, but gold fever only really took hold as traditional industries collapsed. “People didn’t care about gold because Venezuela had oil,” explains Marin. “During the Arab Spring oil was well over $100 a barrel. All the money was in oil.” But the worldwide collapse of oil prices – the price per barrel in early March 2020 dropped to $35 – combined with Venezuela’s corruption, ongoing political crisis and US economic sanctions has turned what was once the wealthiest nation in South America into the poorest: its GDP has more than halved since President Nicolás Maduro took office in 2013.

When most sectors of the Venezuelan economy collapsed along with the oil industry, the promise of gold drew would-be miners to Bolívar state. Towns such as Tumeremo near the mines in the west have swollen to accommodate the new arrivals, while the state’s rainforests and protected national parks have been pockmarked by unlicensed mines under the control of criminal gangs and foreign militias. “While mines have traditionally been run by transnational corporations, now the riches of gold have caught the attention of armed gangs, crime syndicates and foreign guerrilla organisations like Colombia’s National Liberation Army,” says Marin. “At the same time, Maduro’s regime has found in gold a lifeline for funding his isolated government. All these actors are invested in gold mining and, in their own ways, they are all desperate.”

Daniel, 19, rests in a makeshift camp built around Las Parcelas mine. He has been a miner since he was 16, when he dropped out of school

The miners 

With mines often located hundreds of miles from the nearest town, workers live in tented communities for months at a time. Mercury used in the mining process frequently poisons nearby rivers, sanitation is poor and mosquitoes swarm around the camps. “Miners contract malaria several times a year,” says Marin. “Despite hours of backbreaking work, most miners only have one or two meals a day, mainly just rice. Accidents are common, and so are shootings by gang members.”

Among the hundreds of thousands of miners working in Bolívar state, Marin got to know a man nicknamed ‘El Mono’ – ‘The Monkey’. Originally from Maracaibo, some 1,400 kilometres away, El Mono travelled the length of the country to work in the mines. “Maracaibo was a very wealthy city just a few years ago and now it’s one of the most fucked-up cities in Venezuela,” says Marin. “There are blackouts, violence, unemployment is high. He [El Mono] told me ‘The mine demands a huge amount of work and risks, but what can I do? I came so my family can survive.’”

One gram of gold is worth the equivalent of five times the monthly minimum wage and Marin says that over the course of five months of digging miners can uncover up to 20 grams of gold. Not that they get to keep it all. “They have to pay the crime networks,” he says. “They have to pay bribes. They have to pay to exchange the gold into cash. They have to pay everyone. So, once they are done, they typically have five grams of gold worth $230 left, which is nothing after five months working in a mine.”

‘El Mono’ works inside a gallery at Las Parcelas mine. He travelled over 1,400km from his hometown to search for gold

A miner melts gold over a fire

The criminals

“The locals have a saying: the area is ruled by ‘the law of gold and lead’,” says Marin. “The gold from the mine and the lead from the guns. This place is almost lawless; the police have largely been replaced by gangs and armed groups. They administer their own justice.”

According to human rights group the Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia, the Bolívaran city of Municipio Sifontes had 199 violent deaths for every 100,000 people in 2018 – a homicide rate double that of Caracas, the world’s most violent capital city. “This is the most dangerous place in Venezuela,” says Marin. “And when you consider how dangerous this country has become, that’s really saying something.”

As the gold rush intensified, so too did the violence, as rival actors battled for control of the mines. In March 2016, 28 people – including miners and cooks with no connection to criminal activity – were killed in a single camp. “Only two people were spared so they could tell people what had happened,” says Marin. “The corpses were loaded onto a truck, which was driven to the nearest town’s main road with blood spilling from its sides. No one dared to stop it.” Marin met Anaís Montilla, the mother of three miners killed during what became known as the Tumeremo massacre. “She told me that ‘a massacre like this can only be done because of the greed for gold’,” he says.

What Marin found particularly shocking was how normalised the violence has become and how casually it is administered. “I saw videos of people being cut with chainsaws, people lining up to be shot in the hand – the punishment for stealing. The crazy thing is how calm everyone is. It’s like a transaction – you can just hear the shooter saying ‘next’.” Shortly after Marin arrived in Bolívar, a human head was left inside a bag at the main square of mining town El Callao. It was delivered along with a list of demands by the local criminal gang. “There was one demand that metal dealers looking to drum up trade could no longer shout ‘gold’ in the street because it’s really annoying,” says Marin. “You have a guy being decapitated over this [a noise complaint]. This is how crazy the situation has gotten.”

So bad is the violence that many opt for life in the areas controlled by Colombian militias, which have crossed the border to profit from the gold trade that is now, according to a report by the Colombian Security Service, more profitable than cocaine. “The militias are more organised,” says Marin. “People prefer them because if you stick to the rules, you’re safe. But under the malandros (thugs), it’s just madness.”

There is little faith in the government’s ability to help. “The power it exercises in Caracas doesn’t apply here,” says Marin. “The people here believe it doesn’t affect them. It is a state within a state and the crime syndicates rule it. Them and the army.”

Men suspected of belonging to a crime syndicate are corralled during a police raid in a bar in the mining town of Tumeremo

Anaís Montilla, mother of three of the miners killed during the Tumeremo massacre in March 2016 at the Atenas mine

A man pays a debt in gold to a local ‘businessman’. This sort of social event has become a meeting point for gang leaders to show off their control, collect bribes, or settle disputes.

The army

Venezuela has been ravaged by hyperinflation. In 2018 inflation rates in the country exceeded one million percent and one gram of gold was worth 7.4 million bolivars. Despite a number of monetary overhauls and the introduction of two new banknotes within a year, the situation remains volatile. “Hyperinflation is out of control,” says Marin. “I was speaking to a woman who had a pineapple in her hand, and she told me, ‘I bought my house for what I’ve just paid for this pineapple’.”

The government refuses to accept that the bolívar is effectively worthless, and the salaries of civil servants and the armed forces reflect this state of denial. “The government pays what they say is the right rate,” says Marin. “But that rate is nonsense. They say $1 is worth six bolívars, when on the black market
a dollar is worth half a million bolívars. A few years ago a salary of a million bolívars a month was a good amount of money. But now it’s just $2.”

According to Marin, with the currency so unstable gold has provided a way for the army to be funded. “They are the ones that control the roads into the mines,” he says. “So, you pay to use the road. They don’t have their hands dirty with the actual killing, but they are taking a huge number of bribes just to allow the machinery, the people, the miners to reach the mines. Between the gangs, the militia and the army you have a very complex network of bribery, shared interests and shared goals. Outside the towns, they collaborate. When they are inside the towns,
they are enemies.”

Soldiers guard a checkpoint at the entrance of Tumeremo. President Maduro’s government depends on wealth from the mining industry to stay afloat

Unlike much of the country, the shops and restaurants in Tumeremo are busy with customers and full of goods

The towns

While the informal mining camps are characterised by poverty, Marin found that Bolívar’s established nearby towns, such as Tumeremo, are thriving. “Travelling through Venezuela, most of the towns I saw were shells,” he says. “The industries have collapsed. The shops are closed. Then you get to these mining towns and it’s a completely different story. People are eating in restaurants, the shops are open. There’s fuel, there’s medicine. That’s because at the top the gold industry is very profitable: the criminals, the army and the Colombians are making good money and they want to live well.”

According to Marin, gold mining doesn’t just support the region – it props up the entire country. “The gold is what is keeping Maduro’s government afloat,” says Marin. “Oil was 95 percent of Venezuela’s economy and they are producing less of it than ever, so now it relies on gold.” According to research by Bloomberg, Maduro’s government sold 40 percent of the country’s gold reserves in 2018 alone to fund government spending. In an attempt to cut off the government’s revenues, the US imposed sanctions on state-run gold mining company Minerven, but illicit gold sales continue. While a lot of gold is smuggled out of the country to Colombia or nearby Caribbean islands, which have recently seen remarkable spikes in gold exports for countries with no gold mines, most of it makes its way to Caracas.

“The gold goes from the mines to the towns, where it is sold to metal traders,” says Marin. “It eventually makes its way to Minerven, which melts it down into bars which the army transports to Venezuela’s central bank. It is then exported to countries like Turkey in exchange for consumer goods.” Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is one of the few international leaders to publicly back Maduro’s regime. In 2018 Venezuela exported almost $900 million worth of gold to Turkey and the official line was that it was to be refined there and returned to Venezuela, but there is no record of re-exportation. Instead, critics believe the gold is moving through Turkey into other markets such as the EU. To combat this, Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who has claimed the title of acting president, disputing Maduro’s election victory in 2018, has urged the EU to officially label Venezuela’s exports as “blood gold”, but the EU has not specifically prohibited the trade of Venezuelan gold and the flow continues.

Back in Bolívar, those at the bottom of this gold chain see little hope. “After months of digging, miners arrive in town with some money,” says Marin. “Within a week they’re often broke again. They drink, they visit sex workers, they gamble at the cockfighting rings. They spend five months in the mines and if they come out alive, they’ll spend whatever little they have within one or two weeks, and then back to the mines. It’s like a merry-go-round.” A merry-go-round with no way off. “It’s best summed up by a phrase I heard everywhere in Bolívar,” says Marin. “‘Lo que la mina da, la mina toma’, ‘What the mine gives, the mine takes away’.”

A group of men shout during a cockfight in the mining town of Tumeremo


Alejandra, 19, Sara, 19 and Genesis, 20, get ready before beginning their night of sex work


A nugget of gold is tested for quality by a metal dealer. These private buyers resell the gold to official wholesalers

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