BOGOTA, Colombia—The slaying of at least seven people at a remote gold mine in the state of Bolivar, Venezuela, is being attributed by local media and a local opposition politician to the leftist Colombian guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN).
The incident at Los Candados mine near Tumeremo on Oct. 15 is the latest episode of a spike in similar attacks in recent years, and supports evidence that ELN is expanding its presence in neighboring Venezuela.
Four men and three women were confirmed killed in the attack. Images showing how the individuals appear to have been executed at gunpoint were published on social networks by Américo De Grazia, an opposition congressman.
The lack of any statements by the Venezuelan government, the remote jungle location of the incident, and the fact that many families of the victims are either afraid to denounce the killings, or live far away, make it difficult to establish a precise death toll. Reports from local media suggest that the death toll might be as high as 16.
According to De Grazia and local reports, the attack was carried out by the ELN. De Grazia and other prominent opposition figures accuse Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s administration of supporting the ELN to dislodge other armed groups and take a cut of the profits from the mine.
Violence in the Orinoco “mining arc,” one of the largest gold reserves in the world—which spans central Venezuela and includes the Los Candados mine—has surged in recent years as political instability increases tensions and encourages competition from armed groups to control illegal mines. Twelve recorded massacres in the state of Bolivar over the past two years have led to at least 107 deaths; most victims are poor miners caught up in the turf wars.
“The rapidly changing dynamics of the last year imply much more conflict over territorial control, as armed groups are increasingly competing with each other,” said Bram Ebus, a consultant for International Crisis Group and researcher on illegal mining for InfoAmazonia.
Ebus added that entire massacres often go unreported due to their remote location, and “most victims will be lost in jungle graves.”
Security analysts believe the expansion of the ELN into Venezuela is contributing to the rise in violence. Founded in 1964, Colombia’s second-largest Marxist guerrilla group—after the recently demobilized FARC—is believed to be sheltered in Venezuela by Maduro. Opposition figures have criticized Maduro for being complicit in the group’s illegal activities.
The ELN’s operations often follow narco-trafficking routes or valuable assets such as illegal mines across Colombia’s porous borders.
“It remains difficult to determine just how well established” the ELN is in Venezuela, according to Insight Crime, a research foundation dedicated to security issues in Latin America and the Caribbean. But ELN’s activity, some 900 miles away from Colombia’s border, “could mean it is poised to enter into another war” in the search for new economic opportunities.
Venezuela continues to be mired in ever-worsening political and economic turmoil, with hyperinflation predicted to reach one million percent, and with widespread food and medicine shortages..
The country’s collapse has led to a surge in violence that’s been widely denounced by human-rights advocacy groups.
Across the border, Colombia’s inability to fill power vacuums left by the FARC have led to a strengthening on the part of ELN and other armed groups. Borders and remote regions of Venezuela are particularly vulnerable to these groups, due to the lack of state presence and the strategic value of these areas for trafficking contraband.