Venezuelan officials Monday said they could not confirm allegations that as many as 28 gold miners were killed in the country’s remote eastern jungles, even as the opposition accused the government of a cover up.
In a televised interview, Gov. Francisco Rangel Gómez of Bolivar state said the military and search parties had been in the mountainous area since Saturday but had not been able to confirm the reports.
“So far, there’s not any indication that someone has died,” he said. “I’m not saying no one died or that we won’t discover that someone died — that’s very different.”
Authorities are also working with family members of the missing, many of whom are from the community of Tumeremo, to try to pinpoint their location, Gómez said.
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People who claim they witnessed the attack told local media that they were confronted by a gang trying to take over the mine. They also said that law enforcement may have been involved.
Over the weekend, Rangel said that a “presumed” confrontation between gangs was being investigated.
Juan Jose Coello told the Associated Press that he last spoke with his son on Friday, shortly before he left for the mine.
“I’m not asking for justice. Right now, I’m just asking that they return the body of my son, so I can give him a Christian burial,” he told the agency.
Venezuela’s opposition has accused the government of trying to sweep the problem under the rug.
“The national government is always trying to deny things,” Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles said in a statement. “They don’t want to acknowledge anything that’s happening.”
Henry Ramos Allup, the president of the National Assembly, went further.
“Unbelievable,” he wrote on Twitter. “Twenty-eight miners are assassinated by the armed forces in Tumeremo and Governor Rangel Gómez denies it.”
Venezuela’s cash-strapped government has been trying to exert more control over the mining sector. In December, President Nicolás Maduro passed a decree requiring gold miners to form private-public partnerships with the administration. To that effect, Rangel said authorities have been taking a census of the estimated 6,000 to 7,000 wildcat miners near Tumeremo.
As in neighboring Colombia, gangs and criminal groups have found a lucrative source of funding in illegal mining operations.
Last year, the governor of Venezuela’s Amazon state said Colombian guerrillas had taken over gold-mining operations there.
Americo De Grazia, an opposition legislator from Bolivar, said 17 of the 28 missing miners are from Tumeremo and its vicinity and that they range in age from 19 to 31.
He also said there had been more than two dozen mass killings in the state in recent years, but that many have gone unnoticed.
“The difference here is that we have grieving families,” he said in a statement. “What we cannot stand for today is the complicit silence of the country and we cannot be indifferent to the suffering of those fathers and mothers.”