Army tackles wildcat gold mines in Venezuela jungle

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez on Sunday ordered troops to crack down on wildcat miners who use mercury, chain-saws and high-pressure hoses to strip gold from beneath the South American nation’s jungles.

Venezuela’s southern forests contain some of Latin America’s largest deposits of gold. Industrial mining is scarce in the region, but hundreds of local miners have devastated tracts of forest in the past few decades.

“This is a crime that we cannot keep on permitting. Look at how the jungle ends up,” Chavez said, pointing at a photograph of a treeless expanse of red earth.

He deployed soldiers in the southern state of Bolivar to tackle the miners, who live in chaotic camps and villages known for prostitution and drunken machete fights.

Chavez said he was prepared to use more troops if necessary.

“This has to end, without killing anybody, without torturing anybody, just applying the law,” he said on his weekly TV show. “We cannot allow capitalist mafias, both national and international, to keep destroying our homeland.”

Previous attempts by the Chavez government to stop the mining led to violent protests by the miners and were ultimately unsuccessful in stopping the practice.

Venezuela has been slow to develop its precious metals and gemstone deposits, with only one private foreign company, Russian-Canadian Rusoro currently extracting gold. A state-run firm also owns mines.

The socialist Chavez has repeatedly said he plans to strengthen the state’s participation to develop the sector in partnership with allies such as Russia and Iran. Mining could help diversify Venezuela’s export income away from its main product, oil.

“We are going to exploit gold, we would have to nationalize all of this, take back and finish with the concessions,” Chavez said.

Earlier this month, the attorney general’s office said it was investigating whether the deaths of a group of Yanomami Indians were caused by mercury run-off from illegal mining camps.

Reporting by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Bill Trott