A massacre in a mining area of Venezuela’s southern Bolivar state and public reaction to it has put into relief the government’s ever more tenuous monopoly of legitimate violence, as well as changes and opportunities for human rights advocacy in the new political context.

The summary execution of seventeen (and possibly twenty-eight) gold miners by a mining mafia took place in an area with scarce presence of the state other than the Venezuelan military. In the first days of rumors and outcry, Bolivar state governor Francisco Rangel Gómez’s (United Socialist Party of Venezuela—PSUV) vigorously denied a massacre had taken place. State media echoed this denial suggesting it was “virtual massacre” used by the opposition to destabilize the Maduro government.

A couple of years ago this might have buried the case. But in this case, the denunciations of an opposition legislator, protests by family members, and the involvement of the Ombudsman’s Office as well as the Attorney General pushed forward a public investigation.

The first to publicly denounce the massacre was opposition deputy Américo De Grazia. He said that families in Tumeremo were protesting that some of their family members had not come home from an illegal mine in the area called Atenas since Friday, March 4.

An unnamed witness told De Grazia he had seen at least 28 people -17 of whom the witness could personally identify as residents of Tumeremo –being shot, dismembered, and disposed of in an unknown location. He also mentioned a local criminal gang leader called El Topo as being responsible. In his declarations De Grazia also hinted at the complicity of state security forces operating the area.

On March 5 Rangel Gómez declared he had investigated into the matter already and had come to the conclusion that a clash between rival mining gangs had in fact taken place near Tumeremo, but that there were no reports of deaths or injuries. He said no bodies had been found in the area and that therefore no massacre had taken place. He also said that he would take unspecified legal actions against De Grazia for spreading false rumors to “terrorize the population.”

But family members’ persistent protests in Tumeremo seemed to have forced Governor Rangel Gómez to back track from his initial swift denial. On March 7 he reported that army units were in the area, guided in their search by witnesses and families of the supposed disappeared miners, but insisted that no bodies had been found. He also claimed that the affair was part of a “political play by the right-wing, who is profiting from the illegal mining in the area.”

Similar accusations against De Grazia were also made by PSUV deputy Hector Rodríguez in the National Assembly. He said that the opposition deputy is part of the “gold mafias” operating in the area. “It’s all a media show created by the opposition with the aim of attacking the government and the National Bolivarian Armed Forces,” declared Rodríguez during a debate on March 8 over the issue in the National Assembly.

De Grazia responded by accusing the government of having “sown the area with criminal gangs (pranato).” The National Assembly debate ended with the naming of an investigative commission, presided by De Grazia, to look into the event. Only opposition deputies formed commission since the pro-government parliamentary block declined to participate.

In March 7 the Ombudsman Tarek William Saab said that his office would conduct an investigation into the matter. On March 9 he gave a press conference to report the preliminary results of that investigation. Saab said his office was part of a “mixed commission of the highest level,” directly appointed by President Maduro consisting of: the Ombudsman office, the National Bolivarian Armed Forces, the Interior Ministry, the investigative police force (CICPC), and other unspecified state security forces. (Critics ask why the Ombudsman’s Office shouldn’t need to be appointed to a “special commission” by the president in order to conduct its investigations).

Saab personally travelled to Tumeremo on March 8 to interview relatives of the disappeared miners and witnesses of the alleged massacre. He said the whereabouts of the miners are still unknown, but that there are reasons to believe that in fact “punishable offences” could have been committed in the area. He also cryptically mentioned that he suspects the “participation of criminal elements, even of some Colombian nationals.” He also said that there will be no impunity in this case, that his office will “clear the events denounced by relatives,” and that detentions will soon be made.

Saab told local press on March 11 that despite initial fear of local residents to collaborate with the investigations, the declaration of two key witnesses had led authorities to an area where they had found “material evidence that has allowed for the confirmation of the fact that criminal acts have been committed.” Saab also confirmed the information provided by Ortega Díaz that the prime suspect was a person from Ecuador. He again insisted that there will be no impunity and that authorities will get to the heart of the matter soon.

That same day the Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz posted Twitter (@lortegadiaz) that her office has issued an arrest order for a person of “Ecuadorian nationality,” allegedly related to the event, and that five vehicles were being investigated as they had presumably been used by those responsible for the disappearance of the miners. According to Ortega Díaz, twenty-seven families of the miners have been interviewed so far and they are “collaborating with the investigations.”

On March 16, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz reported that the bodies of seventeen people with gunshot wounds had been found in a mine.

On March 18, the Minister of Interior, Peace and Justice, General Gustavo González López, declared that a suspect named under the alias El Goliat had been arrested. The other lead suspect, El Topo is still at large. González López said that the Tumeremo massacre had been the result of a conflict between the rival gangs of the two named suspects “for the political control of the area.”

The minister also suggested the gangs were really “paramilitary” groups linked to politics: “There is a political and economic network that receives funding from paramilitary activity.” Attributing violence in Venezuela to paramilitary activity has been a common rhetorical move used by the government over the past year, effectively making a citizen security problem into a national security problem and attributing it to Colombia and rightwing extremism in the process.

Of course government opponents have also been quick to blame State officials. Ex-governor of Bolivar and opposition leader Andrés Velásquez declared the massacre was the result of a plot between criminal gangs and corrupts local state officials. He also hinted at a payments made to the army by illegal miners to turn a blind eye on their activities. Indeed the entire area is controlled by military and other security forces.

The former director of human rights group PROVEA suggested that Governor Gómez Rangel should resign and be investigated because he lied to the country and is responsible for the massacre either by omission or complicity.

The Venezuelan Episcopal Conference (CEV) issued a press release on March 12 denouncing what it calls the “lack of immediate response” by authorities, the “conduct of Bolívar State officials, who have tried to divert the denunciations by accusing the disappeared of being presumably linked to criminal activities,” and the repression of protests because of the event. The CEV has called for the creation of a “truth commission” to investigate the matter.

The coalition of human rights NGOs Foro por la Vida has also strongly criticized the government for its handling of the affaire. In a press release issued on March 12, the organizations claim that the distrust shown by local communities to government institutions is justified by the negligence by the government in the face of constant denunciations of illegal actions in the area by “irregular groups,” but also by “at least five instances of state security forces (CICPC, the Army, the National Guard, and the SEBIN).”

Human rights activist Marino Alvarado, in an opinion piece published by PROVEA, drew out several lessons learned in the Tumeremo case. He emphasizes the importance of the courage shown by relatives of the victims in openly denouncing the massacre and the solidarity of many national and international groups. He also praised the role played by a National Assembly acting as an independent power, the courageous claims by Deputy De Grazia, and the quick and positive reaction by the General Attorney and the Ombudsman’s offices in the case.

But Alvarado also level criticism against the government for its initial reaction: “First they disqualified those denouncing the case. Then they said, using the official State media, that it all had been a virtual massacre. And then, when it became impossible to hide the truth, they rushed several hypotheses, all of which, of course, rule out any possible participation of state officials, police, or militaries.”