El Callao, Venezuela – The collapse of a steel rock that pounds the dark gallery echoes as 43-year-old Darwin Rojas crashes into a small corner. He is muddy, sweaty and breathing heavily, crushing stone by stone around him.
Fifty metres underground, the air is warmer than at the surface. The humidity is overwhelming and you can smell the smell of dozens of men who have already spent half of their day here, in one of the hundreds of gold mines at the bottom of the jungle in southern Venezuela.
Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves, but gold is increasingly its lifeblood. In the vicinity of the mines, gold has replaced the almost worthless bolivar, with even the cost of a haircut quoted in gold. In Caracas, he allowed Maduro to buy the army’s loyalty from his struggling government. And abroad, Venezuelan gold is sold by the tonne, one of the country’s last means of exchange.
To extract the precious metal, these men must turn the rocks into dust from sunrise to sunset, under the brutal domination of a network of violent gangs and corrupt state-sponsored military, say several witnesses and a high-ranking military source who know the security situation in the Orinoco Mining Arc.
“Just like blood diamonds[in Africa], gold that is extracted from Venezuela, outside any protocol, is bloody gold,” said General Manuel Cristopher Figuera, former head of Venezuela’s intelligence services.