What Tumeremo Massacre?

If the Boliviarian government has its way, one of the largest massacres of Venezuelan civilians in recent history will soon be swept under the rug, along with all the other disasters of the country. Indeed, the impending electrical blackout of the country—the shutting down of the Guri Dam’s hydroelectric system which provides some 60% of the nation’s energy is just days away—is only matched by the news blackout of the country’s catastrophic problems. Journalists and other media workers on March 30, 2016 protested all over Venezuela against censorship and the closing of independent daily newspapers. They point out that twenty-one independent, non-government dailies have closed down in Venezuela in the three years Maduro has been president. And when there is no independent press, critical information about the performance of the government, or massacres like the one in Tumeremo, Bolívar, Venezuela, are easily, and quickly, covered up. Those that dare report on the incident might well face severe recriminations such as those that came down on David Natera, publisher of the Correo de Caroni right after the paper began reporting on the Tumeremo massacre.

Residents of Tumeremo, in the area of Sifontes, near the contested zone bordering on Guyana, claim that 28 miners were murdered on the evening of March 4, 2016 by a gang led by “El Topo” (The Mole). “El Topo” is the nickname of Jamilton Andrés Ulloa Suárez, an Ecuadoran miner-turned-gangster who lives from “taxes” on local miners in the shadowy world of the gold mining, and in some cases evidently directly controls the mining itself.

The bodies of the victims were reportedly murdered execution-style, then brought through town, escorted by a a truck of the largest national police force, the Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas, CICPC, and then through three military checkpoints where there were reports of the presence of Bolivarian Intelligence (SEBIN) officers. According to some eyewitness reports, some of the bodies had been sawn up by chainsaws before being taken away for disposal in nearby mine shafts.

The absence of any reports on the massacre in the left press is disconcerting: the popular pro-government site, venezuelanalysis.com made no mention of it, nor, to my knowledge, have reports on the massacre of Tumeremo come out in other international left sites. Contrast this with the impact the 2014 disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa students in Mexico had, and continues to have, in left media…

Telesur offered a sparse five-paragraph story after 17 of the bodies were recovered, under the title “Venezuela: Miners Killed in Dispute with Paramilitary Units.” The  headline is controversial in at least two respects. Given that the miners were murdered execution style, all shot in the head with their hands tied behind them, the idea of a “dispute” and exchange of hostilities is, at best, inappropriate. Secondly, calling the murderers “paramilitary units” is ingenuous at best, and more appropriately manipulative, fitting the killings into the government narrative that attributes the country’s problems to external forces or internal “fifth columns:” the (U.S.) imperialists, the internal “oligarchy” or, in this case, the Colombian paramilitaries supposedly operating in the country.

This narrative breaks down, however, with Tumeremo. One has only to look at a map to find Tumeremo in the far east of the country, nearest to Guayana, and not too far away from Brazil. For the Bolivarian narrative about “paramilitaries” in “dispute” in Tumeremo to have any credibility, the government would have to explain how (and why) such shadowy forces could have penetrated so far into the country without being detected by their “crack” police forces of the SEBIN and CICPC or the “glorious” FANB.

The PSUV Governor of the State of Bolívar, Francisco Rangel Gómez, when first asked about the massacre adamantly denied it. “Absolutely nothing has happened,” he said, then he conceded that perhaps there had been an “armed confrontation” between gangs. Representatives of the national government also at first attempted to cover up and deny the massacre.

The military (FANB, Bolivarian National Armed Forces) has long been known to be in control of gold mining in the region, with a particularly powerful role granted it in 2010 when Chávez “gave them “the task of stemming Venezuela’s growing problem with illegal mining activities in the south eastern part of Bolívar state.” That the FANB (now evidently in collusion with the CICPC and SEBIN) are working closely with “prans” or Venezuelan gangs appears to be an open secret in the Bolivarian government, given the reports of complicity in the Tumeremo massacre between the CICPC, the SEBIN and the FANB, and the attempts of the Bolivarian government and its allies to sweep the massacre under the rug.

On the other and, opposition National Assembly representatives from the region, especially left party La Causa R (LCR, The R(adical) Cause) members Américo De Grazia and Andrés Velásquez, have taken risks to publicize the massacre and bring the perpetrators to justice. They called on Governor Francisco Rangel Gómez to appear before the national Assembly on March 29th, but he refused, calling it a “media show.” But the real “media show” appears to be the government investigation of the massacre, which took ten days to go into the mines and recover the first seventeen bodies of the slain miners. Eleven more bodies are reportedly somewhere down in the mines like Hoja de Lata (Milk Leaf), a mine under control of El Topo where four bodies were recovered and which Governor Rangel Gómez just a few days before the massacre had qualified as “a model mine.”

De Grazia and Velásquez are backed by others in the opposition-controlled National Assembly, and they seem determined to get to the bottom of the massacre, and the ten other massacres that have taken place over the course of as many years. But it appears they’ll have to fight the Bolivarian police, the intelligence services, the military, as well as the state and national governments to get there.

Clifton Ross can be reached at clifross1(at)yahoo.com. His most recent book, Home from the Dark Side of Utopia (2016, AK Press) is a memoir of his experiences among revolutionary movements in the Americas, including the Bolivarian process of Venezuela. Read other articles by Clifton.