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The Venezuelan Government Says It's Found 17 Missing Gold Miners in a Mass Grave

Locals say the miners were killed two weeks ago by a local gang leader seeking to control gold, iron ore, and coltan mining in the Tumeremo region. The authorities were initially reluctant to admit that anything had happened.

by Alicia Hernández
Mar 17 2016, 12:08am

Imagen por Fabiola Ferrero/El Estimulo via AP Images

Venezuela's authorities say they have found the bodies of 17 missing people, most of them gold miners, in a mass grave in the same general area from which they disappeared nearly two weeks ago.

Attorney General Luisa Ortega told a press conference on Wednesday that 14 of the 17 bodies had been clearly identified, and that all of them had been shot dead. She said the mass grave was located 15 miles from the place where the group was attacked while walking towards the Atenas gold mine, in the Tumeremo region in the south of the country.

The area is rich in gold, iron ore, and coltan, and has been mined by locals and people from other nearby regions for decades in small scale "artisanal" operations.

The attorney general insisted that the investigation has only confirmed the existence of 17 victims, despite initial reports that 28 people were missing.

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Uncertainty over the numbers was fuelled by the government's initial reluctance to acknowledge that anything had happened to the miners after their relatives said they had gone missing. This prompted families of the disappeared to block the main road that connects the southern part of the country with Brazil for five days.

Francisco Rangel Gómez, the governor of the the state of Bolívar, where Tumeremo is located, responded to the blockade by alleging it was part of a political conspiracy against the government. "Once again, irresponsible politicians are seeking to cause unrest in southern Bolívar," he tweeted. "All information on murdered miners is FALSE."

The Venezuelan army violently broke up the demonstration on the fifth day, according to protesters. "The dispersed us with warning shots in the air and armored vehicles," Jonathan Rodríguez told VICE News. "Nobody cared."

It was only days later that the authorities began to take the problem seriously.

The Attorney General said during Wednesday's press conference that police are now looking for three people suspected of being behind the attack on the miners, including Amilton Ulloa, alias El Topo.

Locals say El Topo, who is from Ecuador, has controlled illegal mining in the region since 2007, allowing almost anybody to extract gold as long as they pay him a quota, and building up a gang that now has around 1,000 members. Relatives of the miners told VICE News that he is responsible for the attack against the miners, and that this isn't his first crime.

"El Topo wants to call the shots," one witness of the attack said, asking not to be named for security reasons. "He wants to control all the miners."

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Additional reporting by Alan Hernández

Follow Alicia Hernández on Twitter: @por_puesto

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