Watch CBS News

Collapse of illegal open pit gold mine in Venezuelan jungle leaves multiple people dead

At least 16 people died when the mud wall of an illegal gold mine collapsed in the jungles of southern Venezuela, officials said Thursday, revising down an earlier figure. The incident happened Tuesday at the "Bulla Loca" mine in the state of Bolivar, a seven-hour boat ride from the nearest town, La Paragua, where family members waited anxiously for news.

Officials gave conflicting accounts of the number of dead.

Illegal gold mine collapses in Venezuela
Members of the Venezuelan National Guard gather at the bank of Guacara River Port on Feb. 21, 2024 following the collapse the day before of an illegal gold mine in La Paragua, Bolivar, Venezuela. REUTERS TV / REUTERS

The Bolivar state's secretary of citizen security, Edgar Colina Reyes, said 16 people were dead. In a video, President Nicolas Maduro put the toll at 15, with another 11 injured.

"I convey my condolences to the families and friends of these people who unfortunately died in this accident," Maduro said on state television.

Earlier in the day, Yorgi Arciniega, mayor of the Angostura municipality, told AFP that about 23 bodies had been recovered, including 15 that had arrived by boat in La Paragua and about another eight on their way.

Deputy Minister of civil protection Carlos Perez Ampueda published a video of the incident on X and referred to "a massive" toll, though providing no numbers. 

Some 200 people were thought to have been working in the mine, according to officials.

The video showed dozens of people working in the shallow waters of an open pit mine when a wall of earth slowly collapses on them. Some managed to flee while others were engulfed.

Miner Carlos Marcano, 71, called the situation at the mine "terrifying."

In La Paragua Wednesday, he told The Associated Press, "One would not want a colleague, a human being, to die like that. Some of us made it. There are a few wounded, but there are still a number of dead who have not been rescued and are buried there." 

Mayor Arciniega, who had earlier spoken of 15 people injured, said four had been brought by boat to La Paragua by Wednesday afternoon to receive treatment.

Colina Reyes said the injured were being transported to a hospital in the regional capital Ciudad Bolivar, four hours from La Paragua, which is 460 miles southeast of the capital Caracas.

Waiting for word

Relatives waited on the shores for news of their breadwinners.

"My brother, my brother, my brother," cried one as he saw a body being taken off a boat.

Illegal gold mine collapses in Venezuela
People gather at the bank of Guacara River Port on Deb. 21, 2024 while waiting for information on miners following the collapse the day before of an illegal gold mine in La Paragua, Bolivar, Venezuela. REUTERS TV / REUTERS

"We ask that they support us with helicopters to remove the injured," a woman waiting for news on her brother-in-law, a father of three, told AFP.

Reyes said the military, firefighters and other organizations were "moving to the area by air" to evaluate the situation.

Rescue teams were also being flown in from Caracas to aid in the search.

"We are evaluating the damage and doing a rescue analysis," added Ampueda.

In December last year, at least 12 people were killed when a mine in the Indigenous community of Ikabaru, in the same region, collapsed.

"Bound to happen"  

The Bolivar region is rich in gold, diamonds, iron, bauxite, quartz and coltan. Aside from state mines, there is also a booming industry of illegal extraction.

"This was bound to happen," resident Robinson Basanta told AFP of the unsafe working conditions of the miners, most of whom live in extreme poverty.

"This mine has yielded a lot of gold. ... People go there out of necessity, to make ends meet," he said.

Activists denounce "ecocide" in the area and the exploitation of children who work long hours without protection.

In the past year, the Venezuelan Armed Forces evicted some 14,000 illegal miners from the Yapacana National Park in the neighboring state of Amazonas.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.