This article is a version of the texts originally published by Morelia Morillo on her blog Las Crónicas de la Frontera. The original versions were published under the titles Tumeremo vela sus 28 sobre la Troncal 10 and Un volteo y mucho dolor. This version is published by Global Voices with permission.
At five o'clock on the morning of Saturday, March 5, 2016, the men and women in Tumeremo (a town in Bolivar state, near the border with Guyana and Brazil) woke up to confront the pain from the previous night.
Without identifying themselves, because here everyone is afraid of the destructive power of “El Topo”, they say they will close the Troncal 10 road until the 28 persons who disappeared in the Atenas mine will come back. At least four of the missing are women.
Hendry Norberto Bonalde, aka “El Topo”, is the leader of one of the four criminal gangs that control the mines in Bolivar state. About six years ago his gang, and other gangs, moved to the South of the state to seize control of the deposits. The Fundo Atenas is a rural area of grassland and savannah where recently there was an unexpected and prolific discovery of gold. Trocal 10 is the only road that links the deep South of Venezuela to the rest of the country.
At dawn, the mourners began to walk through the town on the narrow streets, filled with houses and stores close to each other, until they reached the public transportation terminal. Then, they stretched a rope between the ends of the road to block the traffic. It is a vigil in the middle of the street. With coffee, tears, hugs and condolences. An Evangelical Christian prays through a megaphone.
Waiting in line there are primarily heavy transport vehicles: gasoline and gas tankers, trucks with timber, with gas, with various types of merchandise, and just a few personal vehicles; given the blockade, most of them returned to their departure point or passed through during those few minutes when the mourners lift the barrier, early in the morning or at dawn, out of consideration for the users of the Troncal 10 road.
“People are not to be blamed, a woman gave birth inside a bus,” one woman told me.
The people do not demand justice or compensation, but simply plead for the remains of their neighbors, their friends, their brothers, their husbands to be returned. A woman had her three children killed. They want to give them a Christian burial.
After six days of civic protests, the authorities forcibly cleared Troncal 10. According to the deputy in the National Assembly, Americo de Grazia:
Hay un soldado en cada esquina, pero sin rastro de los 28 desaparecidos
There's a soldier on every corner, but no trace of the 28 missing
The massacre at Tumeremo
The massacre had happened during the early hours of Saturday, March 5. Those who managed to get out of Atenas, halfway between Guasipati and Tumeremo, described the massacre from which they miraculously escaped.
Desperate, dirty, with ragged clothes, sweaty, in tears, carrying their shovels and pans, they recounted how the men of El Topo's gang put up several checkpoints between El Frío and Atenas, stopped those who wanted to pass, took their gold and shot those who resisted.
After the killing, El Topo's crew would have butchered the bodies with a chainsaw and then put the remains on a dump truck's platform so they could take them to Hoja de Lata, the mine of “El Topo” (located in the area disputed by Guyana and Venezuela).
In Tumeremo few people are willing to give statements. Those who agree to speak out do so in groups and without identifying themselves. A neighbor explains:
Cuando uno se pone a hablar, viene uno de los que trabaja para él y manda a callar a uno inmediatamente. Ese, El Topo es un colombiano, paramilitar, dueño de aquellos lados de Hoja de Lata.
When someone starts talking, a person who works for El Topo comes and shuts the person up immediately. This individual, El Topo, is a Colombian paramilitary who owns those sides of Hoja de Lata.
Francisco Rangel Gómez, the governor of Bolivar state, denied that these events happened. He said that this was a media campaign from the opposition which intends to make “invisible” the three years of “legacy of Chavez“, the three years that have passed since his death.
Francisco Sucre and Ligia Delfín, deputies for Bolivar state, requested that the Governor Rangel Gomez be questioned for his “irresponsible” attitude:
El sur de Bolívar se ha convertido en una especie de “tierra de nadie” bajo la complacencia de Rangel y de funcionarios policiales
The South of Bolivar has become a kind of “no man's land” under the indulgence of Rangel and police officials.
Meanwhile, at a checkpoint of the Bolívar State Police (PEB), a policeman explains to a citizen who requests information:
Si usted es venezolano, debe saber que toda esta zona está tomada por los llamados sindicatos.
If you are Venezuelan, you should know that this whole area is taken by so called unions.
This is how the armed gangs who demand money or gold for one's life are called here.
In front of the terminal, the families, friends and neighbors of those 28 men and women who left for work on Friday, March 4, 2016 and haven't returned since are still there. Under the saman tree, the bereaved spread a white banner were they have been placing photos of the missing: José Armando, José Ángel and Néstor de José Ruiz; José Gregorio and Junior Romero; Mary Dalia and Marielis Ruiz; Luis Díaz; Javier Cáceres; Cristóbal Heredia, Carlos Carvajal, Ángel Trejo, José Nieves; Gustavo Guevara; Róger Romero and Jairo, without surname. Right there, a girl with a gold tooth laments that some people believe what's going on at Tumeremo is a political act:
Solamente somos un pueblo herido por la desaparición de sus familiares y aquí estamos libres de presión, el que quiere acompañarnos, puede acompañarnos”.
We are just people hurt by the disappearance of our relatives and we are here free from pressure, anyone who wants to join us can do so.”
However, there are those who, for fear of reprisals, prefer to stay locked in their homes.
She admitted that it was not the first time this happened, although in the past there were not so many victims or people from the town.
Se sabía que existía, gente de afuera que venía a arriesgarse la vida en una mina, pero estos son hijos de Tumeremo.
It was known it happened, outsiders who came to risk their lives in a mine, but this time they are the sons and daughters of Tumeremo.
After days of waiting, she just wants those responsible for her family's tragedy to bring back the bodies of the victims:
Así sea un montón de arena al cual abrazarse
Even if it's just a pile of sand to embrace