BOGOTA, Colombia—As oil revenue for Venezuela continues to stagnate, the Maduro regime is more reliant than ever on illegal gold exploited from lawless jungles in the south of the country, according to a recent report and leading experts on the topic.
The coveted mineral is being exported through an elaborate global network from the crisis-stricken nation to Europe, the Middle East, and the United States, where its origin is unidentifiable, an investigative project created by five media outlets across five countries has revealed.
The report, “Venezuela, the Smugglers’ Paradise,” details how the gold is carried from mines in Venezuela run by armed gangs in the country’s mineral-rich “mining arc” in the south, under the watch of the Venezuelan National Guard, smuggled across the porous Venezuelan-Colombian border by desperate migrants fleeing the country, then shipped to the United States and Switzerland under false papers. It’s then sold to some of the countries’ biggest refineries, and could end up in the products of the world’s largest companies, such as Apple or IBM.
The United States is working on sanctions to combat the trade as the billions generated from the illegal gold empire have now become so valuable to corrupt Venezuelan elites that regime leader Nicolás Maduro may not be able to survive without it, Douglas Farah, president of IBI Consultants who also researches the topic, told The Epoch Times.
Concealing the Origin
Maduro legalized the exploitation, previously outlawed, of the country’s Orinoco region in 2016 to make up for dwindling oil revenue. The move has succeeded in generating new funds for the regime as officials tax those who participate in the illicit business, but so has violence, as different armed groups war for control of increasingly valuable mines and trafficking routes.
The gold is ostensibly sold by small groups to the state, but in reality, most is smuggled out on foot, or in boats, cars, and small planes to fetch better value abroad.
After making its way through guerrilla and military checkpoints, the gold reaches the Colombian border, where it is concealed by desperate migrants or allowed passage by bought-up officials. It is then purchased by one of hundreds of gold vendors at the bustling border hub of Cúcuta, Colombia, sent on to the country’s major cities where false papers are created, labeling the gold Colombian, then sold in Miami—and from there, to some of the largest refineries in the United States.
A second key route involves the Dutch Caribbean islands of Aruba and Curacao, 19 and 43 miles away from Venezuela, respectively.
The report’s interviews with customs and government officials, gold traffickers, and ex-Venezuelan government officials highlighted the pivotal role of the islands, whose lax controls allow the origin of the gold to be wiped before being sent to global markets.
Arriving directly via small planes from Venezuela, the gold bars pass through the islands “in transit” and are shipped by private, or in some cases commercial, aircraft to Europe, the Middle East, and the United States.
Government sources concede that at least 90 percent of the gold passing through the islands in recent years is Venezuelan, according to the report, which says 160 tonnes (176 tons) of Venezuelan gold have passed through the islands since 2014.
“The amounts of gold that have been transported through the Dutch Caribbean are staggering and definitely were higher than what we expected,” said Bram Ebus, one of the journalists who led the investigation.
The trade has ballooned to such a degree that it’s now critical to the survival of Nicolás Maduro, Farah says.
Under Maduro, the country’s economy has tanked, and many basic goods have become widely unavailable or unaffordable due to rampant hyperinflation; at least four million people have fled, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency.
“Our work shows that gold is now more important than the drug trade for the survival for the Maduro regime,” Farah said. “The laundering of illicit products and the ability to move illegally mined gold to the world market are fundamental to Maduro’s survival. Without the resources to pay the military leadership and maintain a privileged business class, the regime would fall.”
A vast labor pool of hundreds of thousands of illegal miners to extract the goods, and a wide, lucrative market in which the product is untraceable, has made the product more valuable to Maduro than cocaine.
The United States is working on sanctions to combat the illegal trade, but blocking official routes could push the practice further underground, benefiting the armed gangs who profit from it, such as Colombia’s ELN guerrillas who are expanding rapidly into the country.
“With a product that is illegally mined but not illegal to sell on the world market, finding ways to cut off the flow is very difficult,” Farah said. “It isn’t like dealing with a substance like cocaine that is universally defined as illegal.”