Illegal mining left a bare, pitted and contaminated mountain. The State -through its ministries of Energy and Environment- has not taken care of the environmental liabilities. Photos: Luis Argüello / PlanV
The inhabitants of Buenos Aires still remember the early morning of Sunday, June 23, 2019. That day there was a shooting that lasted six hours and caused terror in the village. They say that the first attack was supposedly against a group of Venezuelans. The perpetrators, however, were Colombians. The shooting spread to houses near the mountain where the mine was opened. There were chases and more shootings that terrorized the town. The murdered, people say, were thrown into the creek next to the mine. More than one source consulted by PlanV believes that there may still be bodies there.
Almost two years after the incursion of 2,500 policemen and 20 prosecutors to evict the illegal mines in this mountainous sector of the northern highlands of Ecuador, two trials on these crimes have been sentenced. With them, testimonies of miners and police officers came to light about the violent executions that took place in Ecuadorian territory, which are reminiscent of the cruelties of the armed conflict in the neighboring country.
The presence of armed groups forced former president Lenín Moreno to sign, on July 1, 2019, the Executive Decree N.812 to declare a state of exception in this territory, said a source who requested anonymity. The Government ordered a massive operation to remove thousands of people from the mines, including nationals and foreigners, who arrived to work there. In this large group, armed people posing as miners left the mines, said the same source.
Panoramic view of Mina Vieja. The destruction left by illegal mining is visible.
The story of the violence generated by the armed groups is detailed in the investigations of the crime suffered by Nayenberth Alejandro F.M. He was killed on June 23 in the Mina Vieja, one of the three mines in this mountainous area. According to documents in the judicial system, his body had six bullet impacts and stab wounds. He came from Venezuela to Ecuador. In 2019, a family member traveled from his native country to recognize his remains. She was able to do so thanks to a heart-shaped tattoo on Nayenberth's leg.
Read the first part of this report: BUENOS AIRES HAS NOT YET CLOSED THE MINING WOUNDS
According to the police report, the foreigner belonged to an armed group and was in charge of security at the mines. But he was killed by another similar group. One of his attackers was identified and brought to trial. He is Colombian, from Valle del Cauca, and was 23 years old at the time of the events. He was arrested together with another Colombian, who was in possession of military clothing. The defendant is being held in the Santo Domingo de los Tsáchilas prison.
TESTIMONIES OF MINERS AND POLICE OFFICERS HAVE COME TO LIGHT ABOUT THE VIOLENT EXECUTIONS THAT TOOK PLACE IN ECUADORIAN TERRITORY, REMINISCENT OF THE CRUELTIES OF THE ARMED CONFLICT IN THE NEIGHBORING COUNTRY.
In this case there was a witness who recounted the violence with which the Venezuelan was killed. He said that one day the accused asked the Venezuelan for "weapons and money" and then opened his stomach with a knife. This coincides with the record of the removal of the body, where the following was recorded: "knife cut in the thorax and abdomen with exposure of the intestines".
The witness affirmed that the attacker belonged to a Colombian armed group. The foreigners shot the victim, wrapped him up and took him out of the mine tied to the cables of a pulley. The agents found the body tied with ropes to two wooden boards, in the form of a stretcher.
In the Old Mine, several pulleys were installed to move the rocky material from mountain to mountain. Even the mine workers hung on them to cross quickly from one point to another. This mechanism was also used to rescue several of the wounded that were injured in the shooting that Sunday.
In the illegal mines of Buenos Aires, pulleys were installed to pass the mineralized material through cables from mountain to mountain. Almost two years after the eviction of these illegal mining settlements, these structures are still in place.
Some of these pulleys are still installed in the mine and they are lost in the horizon. PlanV accessed this place after almost two years of these violent events. From Buenos Aires to the mine it is an hour's drive on a gravel road. Then it is necessary to walk between one and two hours through a steep trail in the middle of the mountain.
Machinery and tools of all kinds were abandoned after the eviction. Inhabitants of Buenos Aires believe that illegal miners still visit this place to take the mineralized material that the State did not remove.
Discotheques, clothing stores, brothels and pool halls were installed in the Mina Vieja, according to a sex worker who gave her version to the Attorney General's Office. There are still the remains of precarious rooms made of wood, many clothes and tools such as drills, power plants and wheelbarrows.
Huge quantities of clothing and kitchen utensils were left in the Mina Vieja. Brush has invaded the precarious wooden structures that served as houses, dining rooms and brothels. Seven obsolete power plants also remain on site.
She also told what happened on the day of the shooting. She said that on that Sunday, at approximately 4:00 a.m., she heard many gunshots that stopped around 10:00 a.m. She said that there were "many dead", that they tied people up and buried them in the same mine. According to the witness, guerrillas also died in the confrontations. She said she had seen "bodies lying all over the place". "It is estimated that there were about 30 dead, all this to regain power and to be able to collect everything," he added.
The charges she refers to are the so-called vaccines, a term used to refer to extortion. The leaders of these groups began to demand royalties from the miners for their activities in the area in exchange for protection and security until they left Buenos Aires. They charged stores, restaurants and brothels. These fees ranged between 8% and 10% of the resources generated by the businesses. One resident recounted that on one occasion these groups tried to bring order to a hen house and the villas, but the people went on an eight-day strike against these measures.
The economic power of these groups is visible. Inhabitants and authorities remember the large amount of 50 and 100 dollar bills that circulated in this region. Telecommunications antennas were even found in the mines. "You could tell that the Colombian group had strong economic backing because they had satellite phones," said one source. This advanced communication in a mountainous area allowed them to alert operations or the arrival of the security forces. When the authorities arrived, they only found the people who were carrying the material or punding boulders.
THE ECONOMIC POWER OF THESE GROUPS IS VISIBLE. RESIDENTS AND AUTHORITIES RECALL THE LARGE AMOUNT OF 50 AND 100 DOLLAR BILLS THAT CIRCULATED IN THIS REGION.
The rise of the ‘commanders’
The same witness explained to investigators that the first group that came to control the mines was from the neighboring country and was armed. Allegedly it was the Colombian guerrillas.
According to the investigations revealed in the trial, there were more crimes. Before the Venezuelan, another man had been killed, an Ecuadorian national who was allegedly related to alias 'Guacho'. Alias 'Guacho' was a dissident of the Colombian guerrillas and the Attorney General's Office identified him as the perpetrator of several crimes on the northern border.
The Ecuadorian - the first one who came to control the mines - had the alias 'el comandante'. His body was extracted from that mine. According to judicial records, the Venezuelan José Javier C.M., alias 'the doctor', allegedly murdered the Ecuadorian to take over the leadership of the Mina Vieja. He then hired his own nationals for his security, such as Nanyenberth Alejandro F.M. and Anthony de Jesús I.R., known by the alias 'the Arab'.
The crime against the Ecuadorian was known in Colombia, according to court records. In the audios of the Colombian defendant's phone, it was found that he was ordered to move to Ibarra and then to La Merced de Buenos Aires. He crossed into Ecuador through Lago Agrio, from the Colombian department of Putumayo.
In an audio, which was found in Whatsapp chats, the Colombian tells that he arrived in Buenos Aires to take charge of an armed group and intelligence work. He said he was earning very well and that he needed more people "to be able to work."
His group killed the three Venezuelans in the early morning hours of June 23, according to court documents. All, according to a protected witness, were riddled with gunshots and had cuts to their abdomens that exposed their intestines. The armed group also passed the body of 'the Arab' through the pulley. After burying the victims, they presented the Colombian as the 'new commander' in an assembly with the miners who were in the sector. A witness called this group the "real guerrillas".
In the trial, the Colombian defendant was attributed with these statements that were recorded in another audio: "We killed a few people, nothing gets past you, how are you going to send an old m..., we had to open fire, m..., we took eleven rifles, machine guns, we took out dead men, we killed a few people".
In a following audio, the defendant said that he had managed to "coronar (crown) the route" and that they took out the people who were there. After the shooting, the rest of the Venezuelans escaped to the mountains. The Colombian said that for his good work he had been promoted to the rank of 'commander'. In the cell phone, the agents found photographs of the perpetrator dressed as a military man, with rifles and grenades in a vest.
A police agent said that on the Colombian's phone there were more Whatsapp audios, where he mentioned having participated in the armed confrontation and that he killed ten people. In another conversation he says the following: "Look, now the military is coming up, we can't shoot them, we can't do anything with them, but don't worry, honey, all our things are buried, all our weapons are already hidden.
In less than two years, the illegal miners created a mini-city on the mountain. They used wood, plastic and zinc panels for their installations.
DURING THE TRIAL, THE COLOMBIAN WAS ATTRIBUTED WITH THESE STATEMENTS, WHICH WERE RECORDED IN A WHATSAPP AUDIO: "WE KILLED A FEW PEOPLE (...) WE TOOK ELEVEN RIFLES, MACHINE GUNS, WE TOOK OUT DEAD MEN, WE KILLED A FEW PEOPLE.
Cries for help
Police personnel arrived in Buenos Aires to investigate the events of June 23, 2019. An agent told the trial that he and his group knew that on that night there were people wounded with rifle-type firearms, in addition to the murdered Venezuelans.
The police officer affirmed that on July 4 they proceeded to evict the people who were in the Old Mine because, between the 1st and 4th of that month, they heard screams and requests for help. In the early morning of July 3, according to the policeman, there were gunshots. Special Army and Police forces arrived at the mine.
The uniformed officers lifted two more bodies in this mining sector, which were found inside a cyanide pool with the same violent features as the others: bullet impacts and cuts in the abdomen. Uniformed officers arrived at these remains because of the bad smell coming from the pit, which at first was thought to be water.
According to a confidential source, this was a very difficult place to investigate because the armed groups were very drastic with people who gave information and killed those who did so.
The judge of the Criminal Judicial Unit of the canton of Urcuquí sentenced the Colombian to 10 years in prison for the murder of Venezuelan Nanyenberth Alejandro, according to the written sentence issued on March 18. He was also prosecuted for the murder of another of the Venezuelans, 'the Arab'. But on April 6, a court declared him innocent because there was insufficient evidence. In that case, the witnesses - mostly foreigners - had left the country.
In front of Mina Vieja, another mountain was also invaded. In total, there were three illegal mines in this sector in the north of the country. The sites are still deforested.
The case of military miners and loopholes in the law
After the military and police operation in July 2019, 12 cases were opened against 25 people. But for illegal mining, the Attorney General's Office opened more than 50 cases, in which military personnel were also involved.
In November 2019, the Prosecutor's Office reformulated charges against five military personnel - including corporals, a lieutenant and a captain - because the amount of illegal mineralized material they were transporting did not exceed 10 tons. The police had arrested four of them a month earlier, on October 14, while in Quito there were strong demonstrations against the elimination of gasoline subsidies. The group tried to move 259 bundles of rocks with minerals without permits and in a military truck. The material weighed 10.64 tons. For that amount, the sanction they received corresponded to artisanal mining.
Under the Organic Integral Penal Code (COIP), artisanal mining is punished with one to three years of imprisonment. Other types of mining are punished with five to seven years in prison. According to the Mining Law, artisanal mining is that which produces up to 10 tons per day in subway mining of metallic minerals such as gold. While small-scale mining goes up to 300 tons. According to judicial records, the vast majority of cases have been sanctioned for artisanal mining because judicial operators do not have the capacity to bring down the large amount of material from the mountains surrounding Buenos Aires.
A GROUP OF MILITARY PERSONNEL TRIED TO MOVE 259 PACKAGES OF ROCKS WITH MINERALS WITHOUT PERMITS AND IN A MILITARY TRUCK. THE MATERIAL WEIGHED 10.64 TONS.
The police have had to load the mining material to bring the evidence to the in-crime hearings. But they do not have dump trucks or 'bathtub trucks' to lift this rocky material. Without sufficient evidence for the judges, the defendants have received minimal sentences. "We lack logistics and adequate means" to push the investigations forward, said a source close to these inquiries.
In the judicial records, there is the version of one of the soldiers, who said that he received a verbal order from Captain José Luis F.P. to leave in the military truck from the Buenos Aires coliseum to kilometer 13 of the road in the same parish. At that point, the four soldiers met five civilians, who asked if they were coming on behalf of the captain. A soldier answered yes and the men - without saying anything - loaded the packages into the truck. Later, at a police checkpoint, they were apprehended.
In one of the military men's devices, chats were found. One of them, dated the day of the arrest, says: "Prepare the truck, don't say anything to anyone, let's go back, confirm, Tite, eat it faster and let's go, we have to leave as soon as possible, you copy me. In an audio, according to the expert opinion, the captain said the following on September 25 in a chat with other soldiers:
Captain: How much do you offer, for the 1.000 I ask 40.000.00 as the Ayalas, that says Chutu, or what do you think, right on boss (sic);
Captain: I don't know, speak or shut up (sic);
In other chats the following conversation is recorded:
Lieutenant: The deal fell trough...
Lieutenant: Hold it until late, the doses are arriving, he says the guys are in Ibarra bringing it (emojis of money)
Lieutenant: This is screwed up, they come to tell me that he has paid 5 truckloads to the police; Captain: Yeah
Lieutenant: Sends a sticker that says 'we're screwed'
Captain: Yeah i think so
Police: They beat us to it, shut up little man
There was little collaboration from the Armed Forces in this case. An investigator of the Mining Crimes Unit said that his entity sent a letter to the General Directorate of Human Resources of the institution to indicate the date that the vehicle was assigned for official use, who was the head of the command post, and which military servant was in charge in the parish of La Merced de Buenos Aires. But there was no response.
Three of the four imprisoned soldiers accepted the abbreviated procedure and accepted the charges. They were sentenced to four months in prison, but since they were held in preventive detention, at the time of sentencing they had already served that time, so they were released. One of them was absolved. The fifth member of this group is the captain, who is at large and is awaiting trial. All of them were discharged.
Translated by Manuel Novik