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Despite deadly risks, Venezuelans flock to gold mines to escape economic crisis

  • Miners enjoy a laugh while deep inside Venezuela's La Camorra Gold Mine, owned by the Hecla Mining Company of Idaho.

    Miners enjoy a laugh while deep inside Venezuela's La Camorra Gold Mine, owned by the Hecla Mining Company of Idaho.  (This content is subject to copyright.)

  • A banner with photos of several missing miners hangs on a tree near Tumeremo, Venezuela, March 8, 2016.

    A banner with photos of several missing miners hangs on a tree near Tumeremo, Venezuela, March 8, 2016.  (ap)

José Nieves is a 38-year-old father of two. He is a native of Barlovento, a coastal zone in the center of Venezuela, but for the last three years he has been working almost 500 miles away in Tumeremo, a mining town in close to the border with Brazil.

“I just see my family every three months, but in one week of work in the mines I earn 25 times the salary that I used to have as a construction worker in Barlovento,” Nieves told Fox News Latino.

Every year more people from around Venezuela move to the Sifontes municipality in the state of Bolívar, where most of the mines are, to make money. They do that despite the lawlessness –gangs control much of the area – and mosquito-borne diseases common there.

“In all the towns around Sifontes, the population right now is around 400,000. Of that, 160,000 are people from Miranda, Zulia, Anzoátegui, Mérida and every other Venezuelan state. We also have some people from Brazil and Guyana,” Erick Leiva, head of the Sifontes Chamber of Commerce, told FNL.

Thelmo Fajardo, a representative of the Union of Southern Miners, explained that newcomers begin to work as assistants to the miners while they get experience on the job.

“They receive from 5 to 10 gramas of gold in a week,” Fajardo said.

Gramas are the unit in which miners measure gold in Venezuela. They are a small piece of the mineral that weighs around 100 grams. Right now a grama is sold for more than 27,000 bolívars – around $51 at the countries exchange rate for non-essential goods.

Since the beginning of 2016, the price of gold worldwide has increased, climbing from $1,060.85 an ounce to a high of $1,292.87 at the end of April – a 21.8 percent jump in value. It has since slid back down to $1,215.15.

In Venezuela, the current monthly minimum wage is 15,000 bolívars, a little over half the value of one grama.

“After the newcomers gain experience, they can become part of a vaga – an association of miners that work a mine,” Fajardo said.

Nieves is part of a vaga. He and his associates pay a percentage of the gold they find to the “bosses,” other miners who rent the necessary equipment and control the mine.

“Depending on how much we get, we give them 30, 40 or 50 percent. They use part of that to pay criminal gangs that profit from extorting miners,” Nieves told FNL.

At the beginning of the year there were three big gangs that used control all the mining territory. Now those groups have splintered into smaller gangs, and there are in battles between them, Leiva told FNL.

In March, Venezuela was shocked by the news of a massacre of 17 miners near Tumeremo, the capital of Sifontes.

Jamilton Ulloa, a criminal lord known as “El Topo” (The Mole) was identified by authorities as the intellectual author of the slaughter. He was killed by the police on May 7.

Leiva and Fajardo both believe that the rise of the criminal gangs, which started operating in the region ten years ago, was caused by the lack of regulation of artisanal mining, which is illegal in Venezuela.

“If this activity was regulated and miners could sell the gold they find to the government, there would be more order. [The government] could even tax miners and invest the money into making Sifontes a better place to live,” Leiva said.

Even though mining creates a lot of money for the region, the streets of Sifontes are bad shape, hospitals are not properly functional, electricity fails and there’s inadequate sewer and garbage service.

And violence is an increasing part of daily life.

“I kept working despite what happened in March, because that’s normal around here. To save yourself, you have to avoid problems with anyone and pay gangs what they want,” Nieves said.

But not everyone is lucky. Marianella Venunzio, also from Barlovento, lost a nephew in August 2015 in Tumeremo.

“He worked there for more than four months. One day he called his mom and told her that he had made enough money to buy her dream house. Days later, a friend called to say that he was dead,” Venunzio told FNL.

They went to Sifontes to look for his body, but gang members told them he had been burned and buried in a pit inside a mine. The family pressed for more information at a local newspaper and a radio station. After receiving death threats, they had to return to Barlovento.

“We don’t really know if he is dead,” Venunzio said. “We went to the police, but they didn’t even open an investigation.”

But people keep going to the region with the dream of making big money to overcome the country’s economic crisis.

“Gold is the money of the devil, and that’s why it demands blood,” Leiva told FNL. “For every person that dies in the mines, ten more show up looking for work.”

Franz von Bergen is a freelancer reporter living in Caracas.

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