Struggle of powers and anarchy: the origin of the tragedy in the La Paragua mine in southern Venezuela

Puerto Uraima, where you board another ‘curiara’ (canoe) to reach the port of ‘Bulla Loca’. The river journey lasts between 30 and 40 minutes. Photos Pableysa Ostos




With a few things on his back he left the mine and the gold behind, his main reason for being there. He is one of the survivors left by what happened at the ‘Bulla Loca’ mine, in La Paragua, on February 20th. The memory is clear in his mind. “I was working when I felt the earth shake. I got stuck on one of the walls, so to speak.”

By Pableysa Ostos/Correspondent

“There were companions near me, who asked to be pulled out, but it was difficult, since I was bleeding from my nose and mouth. My companions managed to get me out, little by little moving through the earth,” said the miner, who preferred to protect his name for security reasons.

After what happened he stayed helping to remove bodies until this Thursday, February 22nd, when he left the mine. The journey back to La Paragua is not easy for those who live in Bulla Loca. First, they must take a motorized curiara at the port and are charged 2 grams of gold ($104.89 per person). Then they arrive at the port of Uraima and walk along a trail until they reach another riverboat’s point, where they pay 2 grams of gold again to reach La Paragua, which is about 3 hours away.

But to the journey, which is already rugged in itself, is added that water in La Paragua River is very low and this forces the boatmen to maneuver very carefully in certain sections to avoid scraping the boat against the stones.

The military handle everything

Another of the stories that we collected at was that of a woman, who since last Wednesday shuttled between the hospital and the port of Guacara. Five of her relatives were in the mine, including brothers and nephews. She warns that the mine had already “given them the message that something was coming.”

“My nephew stood on this side, dirt ran, he stood on that side, dirt ran, that was going to fall, that was going to fall now. And this collapse occurred, because they poured water on it and of course it weakened the earth and it gave way. That person who did that should be investigated,” denounced the woman, who until Thursday, February 22nd, was still in the port of Guacara waiting for the rest of her family.

She explained that it was the first time that her relatives went to this mine to work. They had gone into Bulla Loca about 20 days ago. “On Wednesday two came out. A curiara left there at 9:00 in the morning and two managed to get here. Three stayed there, because they did could not board the curiara.”

She reveals that, in the first instance, it was difficult to find out about her relatives, because they (the military) had ordered the Wi-Fi in the area to be turned off, which has a cost of one gram per hour, that is, about 5 dollars. “That is an indigenous community. Of course, they need permission from the captain. And the captain here (La Paragua) called (the mine) to turn off all WiFi. And then the people filled the house there and he had to turn it on again,” the woman said.

She reported that on the day of the events about 5 curiaras left after 8:00 at night to provide support, but 4 hours later they were back “because they took away their gasoline up there, they didn’t let them. There were more than 10 boatmen who wanted to provide support to go up to help the people and they did not give them gasoline. The military are the ones who run everything here, they are the ones who run that fuel (gasoline) station, they are the ones who run everything here in the town.”

The route

Getting to the ‘Bulla Loca’ mine is not easy. One must take a motor driven curiara in Puerto Guacara, which costs 2 grams of gold, equivalent to about $104.89. This journey can take between 3 and 4 hours, depending on the water level in the river.

When you get to Uraima, you take a trail, which takes about 30 minutes to walk. You can also take a “toyoyero” (4 by 4 rustic vehicles), which charge to transport you to the Uraima port, where you take another curiara to the ‘Bulla Loca’ port, this costs between 1 or 1.5 grams of gold. The distance from one place to the other is 30 to 40 minutes. When you arrive at the port of Bulla Loca, you must walk about 30 more minutes to enter the mine.

“The whole journey becomes longer, because the river is dry (low) and the curiaras are almost hitting the stones,” said one of the boatmen.

With the tragedy that occurred in the mine, the port of Uraima was hosting more than 30 people, who were waiting for the benevolence of the boatmen and even the other passengers to be able to return to La Paragua. “They are charging me two gold grams, when I did not reach that. I brought almost nothing from the mine,” said another survivor.

On the afternoon of this Thursday, February 22, some soldiers arrived at this port to inform that they would send 10 boatmen, who would give them fuel, oil, among other things, so that they could transport people for free to La Paragua this Friday, the 23rd. of February. During our return by curiara from Uraima, we were able to observe 4 of these boats. In these only a boatman and his assistant were on board.

Why Bulla Loca?

Near La Paragua there are mines, which are about 10 minutes away in curiaras, but the low level of the river made those mining areas inoperative, which made many migrate to Bulla Loca, since it had “better conditions” to extract the gold material. .

Bulla Loca is a mine that has been operational for less than 2 years. The relatives of the workers explained that for months, many of those who work there were waiting for the work permit, which is authorized by the Indigenous Captain General (Pemón) Andrés Solís, who, according to what the relatives denounced, collected a gram of gold for each permit granted.

They emphasize that all access to the mines is authorized by Solís, who was not seen during our stay in the town. “He went to Puerto Ordaz, fleeing,” it was rumored outside the La Paragua hospital.

What happened in Bulla Loca?

On this Friday morning, February 23rd, the Governor of Bolívar State, Ángel Marcano, gave an official report from the government hangar in Puerto Ordaz. The previous two were given from La Paragua. From there he assured that there were 16 dead and 16 injured, while another 208 people were rescued.

But the version given by the witnesses is very different to the official one. They reported that that day tempers flared in the mine. “People had already been waiting 15 days to be given the ‘vire’ (a chance or authorization) and nothing happened. So we had to break in to be able to work, because many already had up to two days without food and the ‘bodegas’ were not ‘fiando’ (store credit, selling on credit, allowance), because without work how can they be paid back?

“The ‘paleros’ (miners) ‘se revolucionaron’ (revolted, became aggressive), because they had already been told for days that the ‘vire’ was for Tuesday, then Sunday and that’s how the days went by. That day after 9:00 in the morning, the machine owners and the indigenous people were supposed to give the access signal, then came evening, and spirits warmed up in the ravines. People started coming down to dig. There was no ‘vire’ as such, the ‘paleros’ ended up invading that pit to extract material,” said a survivor.

They added that the collapse was caused by “an indigenous ‘captain’ who owned a machine, and other owners were upset because they were not allowed to sweep and finish their cut, and they began to pour water into the ravine,” which is made up of kaolin (a mineral used to manufacture ceramic materials, a type of clay) and when water falls on it, it cracks.

The system at the Bulla Loca mine is that these companies use machines (high pressure pumps) to “sweep” the earth and make its cut (collect material to extract the gold). After this, they give way to the indigenous people to go in and finally, the criollos (all those who are not indigenous) go in, these are the “paleros” as they also call the artisanal miners (who use pans) so that they “rebusquen” (scour, scrub out).

They claim that only on the first night after the incident they recovered some 21 lifeless bodies. “There are more people there. And dead people who are not even going to be dug out, because people continue working that pit and if they get a body, they throw dirt on it and continue, that is the truth. The government is not interested in knowing the number of deaths there. Until this Thursday we had counted 31.”

Meanwhile, many families maintain the hope of finding their relatives alive, but everything indicates that the search efforts by the authorities seem to have come to an end.