A report, published by the Human Rights Council, found that gold, diamond and bauxite mines in the area known as the Orinoco Mining Arc are mostly under the control of organised criminal or armed groups that impose their own rules through violence, exploitation and extortion, beating and even killing workers.
Nearly 150 people are reported to have died in or around the gold mines from March 2016 to 2020. According to reports, bodies of miners are often thrown into old mining pits used as clandestine graves.
Miners, including young children, are not given employment contracts and are exposed to mercury contamination and malaria.
The UN investigation found that Venezuelan military forces have not only failed to prevent these crimes but have also participated in about half of the incidents.
“Authorities should take immediate steps to end labour and sexual exploitation, child labour and human trafficking, and should dismantle criminal groups controlling mining activities,” said the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet.
"They must also investigate, prosecute and punish those responsible for human rights violations, abuses and crimes," she added.
On Wednesday Maduro's representative to the UN, Jorge Valero, rejected the report.
“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,” he told the Geneva UN forum.
The Orinoco Mining Arc, an area of about 42,800 square miles in the Venezuelan Amazon, was created by a Maduro decree in 2016 in an attempt to promote legal mining. The socialist regime increasingly relies on gold mining to cover its costs as US sanctions on the nation's oil sector have severely decreased their income. Chinese and Russian companies currently have joint ventures with state-run companies in the area, as reported by the Associated Press.
Venezuela's Central Bank says the government has bought more than 17 tonnes of gold from artisanal miners between 2016 and 2018, some of which they have sold to the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.
Human Rights Watch has previously said the Venezuelan regime is turning a blind eye to criminal control of the region.
“Poor Venezuelans driven to work in gold mining by the ongoing economic crisis and humanitarian emergency have become victims of macabre crimes by armed groups that control illegal gold mines in Southern Venezuela,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.
“It is critical for gold buyers and refineries to ensure that any Venezuelan gold in their supply chains is not stained with the blood of Venezuelan victims.”
Venezuelan human rights and environmental groups have said that legal and illegal mining are rapidly decimating Venezuela's Amazon, with the country being the only one where rainforest deforestation rates increased between 2000 and 2013.