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News / Nation & World

Collapse of illegal gold mine in Venezuela lays bare feelings of abandonment in rural communities

By REGINA GARCIA CANO, Associated Press
Published: February 23, 2024, 10:53am

LA PARAGUA, Venezuela — The collapse of an illegally operated gold mine in a remote area of central Venezuela has exposed the sense of abandonment felt by small or rural communities bypassed by a quasi-economic renaissance seen in the South American country’s capital and cities.

People in La Paragua, the closest community to Bulla Loca, an open-pit mine were dozens of men and women worked at any given time, repeatedly expressed frustration with the government Thursday as funerals began for some of the victims of Tuesday’s collapse.

With at least 16 people killed, the accident Tuesday is one of the worst in Venezuela’s poorly regulated mining industry, which has grown in response to the dwindling of oil production in the OPEC nation. And the government’s slow response felt like an insult to people who have gone from mine to mine over the years in search of the income they cannot find in La Paragua.

“It is disrespectful because (President) Nicolás Maduro said on national television that he had sent everything that the people of La Paragua needed, and we want everyone to know about the vile lie that they made against our people,” Yulimar Soto said, referring to the president’s comments Wednesday about the collapse.

Soto was among dozens of people who gathered Thursday outside a restaurant where they believed the state’s governor, Ángel Marcano, was dining. The group demanded to speak with the ally of Maduro, and at one point banged on a vehicle parked outside. Intelligence service agents with assault weapons and police responded to the scene.

Officials have said 16 people were also injured in the collapse of the remote Bulla Loca mine, which had been in operation for only a few months. People returning from the mine either by boat or government helicopters said the number of deaths was likely much higher because people were still thought to be trapped and the days are passing.

Venezuela’s economy came undone last decade as a result of deep mismanagement of state revenues, corruption and economic sanctions. But after Maduro’s administration eased currency controls and people adopted the U.S. dollar as unofficial currency, Caracas, the capital, began to see restaurants, furniture stores, skyscrapers, entertainment venues and more open up. A-list concerts returned in 2022.

But few outside Caracas have benefitted.

La Paragua is dusty and poor, with mostly one-story homes and businesses. There are a few gold exchange businesses where miners can sell the gold they find.

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Venezuelans practically consider gasoline a birthright since their motherland has the world’s largest proven oil reserves. But In La Paragua, sitting next to a river by the same name, people buy gasoline from street vendors as the only station in town suffers from chronic shortages. And the bag of subsidized food the government hands out does not come once a month, like in many Caracas neighborhoods.

“Do you know what forces us to get in there?” said Margara Sanchez, whose brothers-in-law, uncles and cousins work at the mine. “The need that the people of La Paragua are experiencing. The only livelihood that the town has is mining. Help is needed!”

Area residents once worked in agriculture, but that ended when financing dried up as a result of Venezuela’s economic crisis and fuel and seeds virtually disappeared.

The government in 2016 established a huge mining development zone stretching across the central area of the country to supplement flagging revenue from its dominant oil industry, which has seen production decline to near its lowest levels in decades as a result of mismanagement, corruption and, more recently, U.S. sanctions.

Since then, mining operations for gold, diamonds, copper and other minerals have proliferated. Many are wildcat mines, operating on the margins of the law.

Despite brutal conditions and the presence of criminal gangs, ordinary Venezuelans continue to flock to mining centers in hopes of getting rich quick and escaping poverty.

Alicia Ledezma, a representative of the Indigenous community where the mine is located, said that all the injured miners had been evacuated by Thursday night but that as many as 20 individuals could still be buried.

Every resident of La Paragua seems to know someone who works at the mine. As funeral processions took place Thursday, people on the streets commented on the deceased who had just been driven by. They joined neighbors at the cemetery and waited by the river to see if any friends were arriving by boat after abandoning the mine, perhaps for good.

“I have all my friends there,” Sheila Reyes said. “La Paragua is a small town, so we are all friends.”