EspañolThe Amazonas region is almost unknown even to Venezuelans themselves, and even fewer know that it’s the second largest state in the country, and that it shares a border with Colombia to the west and Brazil to the east. Cue alarm when a military report revealed that members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were active in the region, exploiting copper and coltan mines to generate income for the rebel group.
Such activities are hard to locate, as the region’s 177,617 square-kilometer area is almost entirely covered by thick jungle, and contains a population of barely 178,670 inhabitants, according to data from Venezuela’s National Institute of Statistics.
But according to the National Guard “Intelligence Information Summary” dated January 2015, “high command has knowledge of the presence of guerrilla columns between the San Fernando de Atabapo and Santa Bárbara del Orinoco sectors” engaged in illegal mineral extraction.
Amazonas state Governor Liborio Guarulla confirmed the presence of the guerrilla to the PanAm Post, and reported that the situation has been denounced on repeated occasions in the National Assembly — but that the government has taken no steps to remove the guerrilla elements.
“Along the length of the river Atapo, they’ve come to count up to 24 launches that are washing the sand on the riverbed with mercury to extract oil. This has contaminated the fish, it’s changed the course of the river. The Venezuelan authorities have looked the other way, with the exception of a commission from Colombia that turned up at one point and burned some of the launches,” Guarulla reported via telephone.
“This has continued in an blatant way, but now it’s not only gold mines at the La Neblina hill or the source of the Orinoco river: they’re now exploiting the mines of the Manapiare municipality, which is the other side of the Yapacana. The people who are coming to exploit these mines are linked to the Colombian guerrilla and miners,” the state governor added.
No Man’s Land
The appendixes of the military report refer to clashes between the military and Colombian guerrilla that have left soldiers wounded, as well as warning that military units based in the region have received threatening phone calls by FARC commanders seeking to extort them.
Coltan’s value has increased dramatically in recent decades, thanks to the mineral’s use in the manufacture of key parts for electrical products and smartphones. A compound of columbite and and tantalite, it’s also desperately sought after by international firms who need it to manufacture cooling units.
According to Guarulla, high levels of corruption and the institutional crisis besetting Venezuela have led to environmental and security situations like the current case going unnoticed by those who don’t live in the region.
“The big business of the moment in Amazonas state is illegal food and fuel trafficking; the National Guard is distracted with these issues, and not concerned with mining or the sovereignty of our state,” he lamented.
Colombian authorities have reported several skirmishes with FARC fighters in the state’s border area with Colombia. In November 2014, the Colombian army captured Juan José Rivera Suárez, reportedly a senior FARC officer, along with a shipment of coltan and uranium thought to have been extracted from Venezuela.
On September 29, 2014, members of the National Anti-Extortion and Kidnapping Unit of Amazonas received a radio message, informing them of a call that Lieutenant Colonel Carlos Ramón Noguera Romero, a local air force commander, had received. The man on the other end of the line identified himself as “Commander Chaca” of the FARC, and asked Romero “to make a contribution, to avoid inconveniences.”
Ten days previously on September 19, a Bell 412EP military helicopter came under fire from a group of roughly 50 individuals who were detected in the immediate environs of the Moya mine. In the ensuing exchange of gunfire, the military managed to wound one of the fighters.
The National Guard document specifies that the firefight began around 13:45, and that the situation was brought under control by 14:50, with the interlopers able to hold off the Venezuelan soldiers for over an hour.
The army were able to capture one Baudilio Antonio Montoya Hernández after he was wounded in the back. Also injured were soldiers Sanderson Peña Álvarez and Josue Montiel Castro.
It was after this jungle skirmish that soldiers began to receive phone calls demanding money, specifically from a telephone number with an area code belonging to the Venezuelan capital, Caracas. Comandante Chaca repeatedly demanded payment to avoid future attacks by the units he claimed were under his control.
The authorities have been unable to identify where the call was made from, as the reported number isn’t registered with any telephone operator in Venezuela. As such, it’s believed that the phone calls were made from a satellite phone from Colombia.
One of the military briefings, referring to the “situation of the offending groups,” reports that residents of the indigenous community of “Laja Liza y Cupaben, in Atures municipality, observed the presence of foreigners in the area … and that these foreigners worked together to extract coltan illegally.”
The files further identify one Richard Pérez as being tasked with buying the coltan extracted from the mines in Amazonas. They also detail that FARC members are paying Venezuelans to work in the mines, bringing economic dividends to the communities in the area.
The military officials add that the extraction of minerals in the area is carried out in day and night shifts, and that all of the extracted resources are shipped onwards via the region’s river network.
More than Five Commanders
Venezuelan military authorities have previously signaled that five FARC commanders are operating out of Apure state, which borders Amazonas state on its southeast side.
But the latest leaked reports indicate that the irregular groups engaged in illegal mining in Amazonas state are strikingly well equipped, with vehicles, speedboats, and a sophisticated logistical system, including portable mining equipment.
Regional Command No. 9 has designated 261 soldiers to patrol the region’s airspace and rivers where the greatest deposits of coltan can be found, principally around the Pozón Babilla hill, to prevent the illegal elements from operating.
However, some have alleged that the illicit miners are operating with the knowledge and even complicity of senior Venezuelan military officials. Venezuelan journalist Sebastiana Barráez has reported on the situation since 2013, warning that at least seven FARC encampments exist in the region. Barráez routinely argues that the army is completely aware of of the presence of irregular groups and their mining activities.
The first reports of the penetration of outside groups were aired in Venezuelan media in 2010 in an investigation carried out by local daily El Nacional. At that point, the miners received up to 100 bolívares (US$25 at the time) for every kilogram of coltan they extracted. The latest military report only mentions that the current going rate for the mineral is “very expensive.”
Guarulla suggested that the problems facing his state could worsen, due to the scrapping of the Venezuelan Environment Ministry in September 2014. The Ministry was formerly responsible for processing the repeated complaints of illegal mining activity in the south of the country.
“If it was impossible to control the situation while the Ministry existed, now that there’s no one to take charge, we’re defenseless against the violation of our sovereignty and the exploitation of our natural resources, and without any authority to put a stop to it,” the governor concluded.