By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - Some gold, diamond and bauxite mines in the Venezuelan Amazon are largely controlled by criminal gangs who exploit, beat and even kill workers, a United Nations investigation has found.
Venezuelan security and military forces fail to prevent crimes and have participated in some violence against miners, the U.N. human rights office said in a report on Wednesday.
"Authorities should take immediate steps to end labour and sexual exploitation, child labour and human trafficking, and should dismantle criminal groups controlling mining activities," Michelle Bachelet, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement.
Her deputy Nada Al-Nashif presented the findings, on the area known as the Orinoco Mining Arc, to the Human Rights Council saying: "According to first-hand accounts received by the Office, a large portion of mining activities remain under the control of organised criminal or armed elements that impose their own rules through violence and extortion."
Venezuela's ambassador, Jorge Valero, rejected the report in a speech that did not specifically mention mining.
"It is clear that there is manipulation and double standards at play here with a view to try to attack a sovereign state and expose it," Valero told the Geneva forum.
The U.N. report said that 149 people were reported to have died in or around the mines from March 2016 to 2020, with security forces implicated in half of the incidents, adding that the government had not replied to its request for information.
"According to accounts received ... bodies of miners are often thrown into old mining pits used as clandestine graves," the report said.
The miners, who include young children, lack employment contracts and are exposed to mercury contamination and malaria, the report said.
It called for the government of President Nicolas Maduro to regularise mining activities and ensure that they meet international legal and environmental standards.
Created by a government decree in 2016, the area of some 42,800 square miles (111,000 sq km) in the Venezuelan Amazon is equivalent to 12 per cent of national territory.
Gold, diamonds, coltan, iron and bauxite are mined.
Venezuela's central bank has not published data on gold and mineral exports since 2018, the report said.
The Maduro government has supported small-scale mining since 2016 to bring in revenue amid an economic crisis. Operations have expanded as the United States has increased sanctions.
Criminal groups have become more active since concessions for foreign mining companies were terminated in 2011, the report said.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Alexandra Hudson and Alex Richardson)