Just across the river from Etheringbang, Colombian guerrillas from the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and the Venezuelan mafias known as “sindicatos” battle for control of Venezuela’s illegal gold mines. The Guyanese miners conduct their operations in the shadow of these armed groups.
The report describes how boats carrying supplies to the Guyanese mines must pass three checkpoints, controlled respectively by the ELN, the sindicatos, and Venezuelan security forces. At each, extortion payments are charged at gunpoint.
With an army of only 3,500 men, Guyana lives in fear of an armed incursion. Guyanese security officials interviewed for the report express concern that foreign military intervention in Venezuela could cause criminal armed groups to move their operations across the border, sparking a crisis for Guyana’s security.
Already, in November 2018, sindicatos raided one of the Guyanese mines, entering into a firefight with local mine owners. The ELN has an encampment almost within sight of Etheringbang, where it has controlled cross-border movements for for at least two years.
In 2017, Venezuelan congressman Williams Dávila visited Anacoco island, on the Guyanese side of the Cuyuní River close to Etheringbang. His intention was to proclaim Venezuelan sovereignty over the Essequibo region, which Venezuela lays claim to and considers to be under Guyanese occupation. The delegation was stopped at a checkpoint by heavily-armed ELN guerrillas.
To Bram Ebus, author of the Crisis Group report, the incident was a stark demonstration of the true balance of power in Essequibo.
“It was a reality check for them to know that really, it’s the ELN occupying that region,” he told InSight Crime.
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The vulnerability of the Guyanese miners is exacerbated not only by the region’s remoteness, but also by the ambiguous legal status of their own operations. These factors force them into an uneasy symbiotic relationship with the armed groups on the Venezuelan border, creating an open door for cross-border criminal economies.
Although Essequibo is internationally recognized as part of Guyana, Venezuela’s territorial claims have discouraged foreign, large-scale investment in the region for several decades.
As a result, Guyanese mining operations tend to be small and isolated, lacking the resources to develop reliable supply infrastructure. They are therefore dependent on the criminal groups that smuggle necessary supplies across the Venezuelan border.
“All the Guyanese miners get their fuel from Venezuela, because it’s closer and much cheaper,” Ebus told InSight Crime. “If you take a lancha from Etheringbang up and down the river, you see all these farms on the river bank with 50 drums of fuel stacked somewhere. The biggest business at the three checkpoints is taxing all the drums of fuel.”
Though most Guyanese mines have some kind of legal title, the industry lacks formal regulation, giving it many of the hallmarks of illegal operations, Ebus said. The use of mercury is widely tolerated.
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According to Ebus, reports of gold pricing are contradictory, making it unclear to what extent Venezuelan gold is entering the Guyanese supply chain, or vice versa. Some sources claim that the metal can fetch a higher price in Venezuela, where President Nicolás Maduro is increasingly dependent on the resource to keep his cash-strapped administration afloat. Others claim that Guyana provides a convenient destination to launder illegal Venezuelan gold.
With no meaningful border checks between the two countries, there is little to prevent the commodity being smuggled in either direction.
Other cross-border criminal dynamics include human trafficking and prostitution.
To the miners of Etheringbang, desperate Venezuelan women sell “survival sex” for fragments of gold. Meanwhile, larger and more lucrative prostitution rings are run by criminal networks on both sides of the border.
“In Georgetown, I know someone who owns a hotel, a Guyanese man,” Ebus said. “He’ll send messages to San Felix or Puerto Ordaz in Bolívar state [Venezuela], saying I need so many women, of such an age, and the Venezuelans send them to him.”
Ebus is clear that although such trafficking flows may be directed by Venezuelans, they are also reliant on Guyanese handlers in the ports along the Cuyuní.
Corruption also permeates the Guyanese police in towns such as Etheringbang.
“Local miners all have to pay the police in gold,” Ebus said. “The police are walking around in plain clothes, drinking beers, wearing big necklaces and rings. One time [I saw] a guy from the Venezuelan National Guard come over to Guyana to have a few beers with the local officers.”
The Guyanese army claims to maintain a presence along the border, but keeps at a safe distance, knowing themselves to be hopelessly outnumbered by the forces on the Venezuelan side. Unable to rely on state protection, the Guyanese mine owners are resorting to arming themselves through private security contractors.
“These are like Guyanese mercenaries with big weaponry, trying to defend mining interests on the Guyanese side,” Ebus explained. But he described their main role as guarding against low-level theft, doubting they could offer more than symbolic protection against an organized Venezuelan attack.
“For now, I don’t see the possibility of a big escalation,” he said. “This is just the new law and order in that neck of the world.”
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