On 6 May 2016, gang leader Jamilton Andrés Suárez Ulloa, also known as El Topo, was killed by Venezuelan intelligence. El Topo was the mastermind behind the death of a group of miners in south-eastern Venezuela in March 2016.
On 4 March 2016, 28 miners disappeared near the town of Tumeremo in far south-eastern Venezuela at the borders of Guyana and Brazil. Family members reported the miners did not return home from work at an artisanal gold mine. Families immediately accused El Topo, a local gang leader, of killing their relatives.
43-year-old Jamilton Andrés Ulloa Suárez, known as El Topo (The Mole), was born in Ecuador. A Colombian citizen, El Topo received paramilitary instruction and served in Colombian rebel groups, before entering into Venezuela in 2002. After the death of his brother in 2009, El Topo took over the leadership of an armed group operating in the state of Bolivar, along the Venezuela/Guyana/Brazil border. El Topo’s gang was one of the criminal groups seeking to control the illegal gold, diamond, and coltan mining in the region.
Artisanal mining in Venezuela
Artisanal gold mining is a key economic activity in the south-eastern Venezuela. Many foreign companies once operated mining concessions in the gold and diamond-rich region, but most of those projects have either been cancelled or rendered inactive in recent years. Located in the jungle and of difficult access, the area has been taken over by local gangs which continue profiting significantly from illegal mining and a weak state presence. Armed confrontations over gold deposits are common.
The 28 artisanal miners’ disappearance occured shortly after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s creation of the Arco Minero del Orinoco (Mining Arch of the Orinoco River), which seeks to dismantle illegal mining networks and assert greater government control over mining in Bolívar state to help offset falling oil revenue. In February 2016, Venezuela’s President signed three decrees with international companies to boost the quantification and certification of mineral reserves of gold, coltan and diamonds located in Arco Minero del Orinoco, “in order to have a starting point for mining exploitation,” and promote the development of this area that covers 111,000 square kilometres at the south of the Orinoco river in Bolívar state.
Initially, state authorities strongly denied that any massacre took place, saying local police investigated reports of a shootout, but found no bodies at the mine. The ruling socialist party officials accused opposition “irresponsible politicians” of wanting to stir unrest and trying to discredit the government’s campaign to root out illegal mining.
Families and other locals, including witnesses of the attack, demanded further investigation and blocked the main road connecting the region to the border with Brazil. Opposition politicians accused the state government of complicity in the miners’ disappearance, which was one of two dozen similar incidents that have taken place over the past decade.
Government denials fuelled the rumours suggesting a state-monitored “cleansing” in the area in order to allow multinational gold mining companies to enter the region. According to those rumours, El Topo’s and other criminal bands operate in the area with the complicity of regional officials, state police and Venezuelan intelligence.
The common grave
Amid growing public anger, Venezuelan air force troops were deployed in the remote jungle area within a couple of days. On 14 March, Venezuela’s Attorney General announced that search teams have retrieved the remains of 17 missing gold miners. The bodies were located in a mass grave 5 meters (16 feet) deep into the Amazon jungle. Investigations indicated that the motive for the massacre was a fight for control of a territory rich in gold, diamonds and other minerals.
An arrest warrant was issued for the leader of the gang accused of the killings – Jamilton Andres Ulloa Suarez. El Topo was killed three weeks later by a task force primarily made up of intelligence officers.