It was an advertisement in this newspaper on Thursday which drew public attention to the situation facing Guyanese miners in the Cuyuni River. It will perhaps be remembered that the Cuyuni for a substantial portion of its course separates Guyana from what has been for some time Venezuela’s most lawless state, namely Bolívar. As is the case on our bank of the river, it is a mining area, and has always attracted a large number of Guyanese, as well as Brazilians in more recent times. It has too long been a centre for cross-border corruption, with cheap fuel from our western neighbour for many years leading the list of smuggled commodities. Without that cheap fuel, Guyanese would find mining difficult, particularly in the Wenamu River.
In an attempt to stamp out the illegal trade, the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez withdrew the military from his country’s frontiers, including the Cuyuni, and replaced them with the National Service. They too, however, became so corrupt, that he was forced to revert back to the army. There have been various allegations of extra-judicial killings on their part, particularly against Brazilian miners, and at this stage it is clear they are not in full control of the state any longer, even though now under Maduro, patroll-ing duties are shared with the National Service.
Of course, the situation everywhere in Venezuela at present is quite different from what it was when Chávez was alive, and Miraflores’s writ no longer reaches fully to any part of our border. The anecdote from Whitewater in our North West earlier this year will perhaps be recalled, when some Venezuelan soldiers appeared on Guyanese soil bearing their little tin of sardines, which was all they had left to eat because no provisions had been sent from Caracas for them in a long time. The Venezuelan bureaucracy in the peripheral areas simply does not function normally any longer.
It is no news to anyone that whenever there is a power vacuum, someone will step in to fill it, and in the case of the Venezuelan frontier zones contiguous to our boundary, the force which has set itself up as a kind of mafia is a group – or more likely groups – of local bandits known as sindicatos. They are not confining their thuggery to their own nationals, or even those located only within Venezuelan land space, but have extended their attentions to our miners.
According to the advertisement inserted by ‘Concerned Miners’ a sindicato gang has set up a camp about three miles below Eteringbang on the Cuyuni River and has been stopping all boats transporting fuel and rations to mining camps and demanding gold and money. They appear to make no distinction between Venezuelan and Guyanese vessels. “This Sindicato Gang is heavily armed,” the advertisement reads, “and would fire at our boats if we do not stop. They also have boats and would drive up behind us if we do not stop.”
The ad goes on to relate that another gang has established its camp at Butanamo, which is about twenty miles further down the Cuyuni, and is involved in the same practices.
In our edition yesterday, we reported one of the miners affected as telling us that the situation had deteriorated about two months ago. “It is getting real tough for us in this area,” we quoted him as saying, “Every time we pass there, these men want their two pints, meaning we have to give them 1/5 an ounce of gold.” In addition, they had to pay the sindicatos at every other camp they had established.
Our reporter also reported him as making clear that the situation had got worse because the Brazilian miners paid up, and was quoted directly as saying that “They are very intimidating. They come after you if you drive past them, and they have high-powered weapons.” Furthermore, according to our report, the Venezuelan military and National Guard do not help the miners.
The ad did not specify on which bank of the river the sindicatos had established themselves, but Commander of ‘F’ Division of the Guyana Police Force, Kevin Adonis, told this newspaper that they were stationed on the Venezuelan side. If so, one can only presume that the Venezuelan armed forces are deliberately turning a blind eye to the smuggling trade, if they themselves are not actually profiting off it, as happened in the past. It may be, however, that our miners are labouring under the illusion that the river itself comes under Venezuelan jurisdiction, which it does not; for the length of our shared border, the entire waterway is Guyanese territory. As such, therefore, it is for the Guyanese military to take action against the sindicatos when they are out on the water, not the Venezuelan military. In fact, any appearance of our neighbour’s armed services on the Cuyuni would require the prior permission of Guyana.
It would seem that the Guyanese authorities had received information about the presence of sindicatos in the area, but Commander Adonis said he was not sure whether they were soldiers or members of gangs, and they could not conduct a thorough investigation because they were on the Venezuelan side. This would not explain why they were not stopped by our police on the water, unless the Commander too erroneously believes that this is Venezuelan terrain or he is afraid to do so on the grounds of a lack of appropriate weaponry or thinks it should be a Guyana Defence Force operation.
For his part, the Administrative Manager of the Guyana Gold and Diamond Miners Association Avalon Jagnandan quite rightly said that this was a matter of national security, and the government needed to act.
The truth of the matter is that you are not in charge of your border if thugs can menace and blackmail your citizens, and are in a position to hound them out of the area. You are also not in charge of your border if bandits can ply your river at will, stopping any boat which they feel like, demanding payment. You are certainly not in charge of your border if the gangsters who are perpetrating all of these illegal acts are encamped only three miles downriver from your main army and law enforcement base. Just what, one wonders, is going on?
Apart from the odd piece in the state-owned Guyana Chronicle, last week’s advertisement was the first more comprehensive account of what the Guyanese miners working on their own side, are facing. Has the government called in the Venezuelan Ambassador, lodged a complaint with Caracas, alerted the UN Secretary General and his representative, Dag Nylander, to the Venezuelan gangs terrorizing the Guyanese mining community, and possibly Indigenous villages as well? But most of all, what is the GDF proposing to do about this situation?
At the end of February this year, President David Granger visited a number of border villages. In Kaikan the Ministry of the Presidency quoted him as saying: “Frontier communities are guardians of Guyana’s territorial integrity and national security. They are our first line of defence against any attempt at incursions and invasions.” The Ministry press release also referred to a number of “terrorising encounters” the village had had with the sindicatos, and said, among other things, that the residents welcomed the boosting of security in the area by the GDF.
So if the GDF is boosting the security of frontier villages – as indeed it should – why is complementary action not being taken in relation to mining communities and on the Cuyuni River itself? There is no such thing as protecting some parts of your border and ignoring others, and then assuming that everyone will be safe with such a spotty approach.
And what is happening at the GDF base at Eteringbang? Does it not function any more? Has the army ceased to patrol the River Cuyuni on a regular basis as it used to do? Perhaps it is time the Head of State visited there as well, because there is clearly a problem in the area.