The northeastern Maracaibo Basin in western Venezuela was deformed by Paleogene thrusting and an associated tear fault (Burro Negro right-lateral strike-slip fault zone), related to Paleogene oblique collision between the Caribbean and South American plates. Two different tectonic models have been previously proposed for the thick Paleogene depocenter located along the northeastern margin of the Maracaibo Basin. The first model proposes that the depocenter is a foreland basin controlled by southwestward-directed overthrusting during a late Paleocene–middle Eocene oblique collision between the Caribbean and South American plates. The second model, supported by data presented in this study, proposes that the asymmetric Paleogene Maracaibo sedimentary wedge was controlled by strike-slip displacement along a right-lateral tear fault, separating southeast-directed thrust sheets to the east (Lara nappes) from a more stable platform area to the west (Maracaibo Basin).

Regional seismic lines recorded to 5 s two-way traveltime reveal the structure of the asymmetric Paleogene depocenter in the northeastern part of the Maracaibo Basin. The approximately 100-km (62-mi)-long Burro Negro fault is a right-lateral strike-slip fault separating less deformed, inner- to outer-shelf rocks of the western Maracaibo Basin from highly deformed, deep-marine rocks of the eastern Maracaibo Basin. Seismic lines northeast of the Burro Negro fault zone show elongate, subsurface basins bounded by partially inverted reverse and strike-slip faults filled with about 3 km (1.8 mi) of Oligocene and Miocene clastic marine sedimentary rocks. Structural highs of Eocene rocks are characterized at depth on seismic reflection lines by chaotic seismic reflections that underlie the more coherently stratified Oligocene and Miocene subbasins. We interpret these structural highs as steeply dipping fault zones and shale diapirs activated during Eocene–Oligocene oblique plate convergence.

The geology and overall structural configuration of the northeastern Maracaibo Basin and the Burro Negro fault zone support its origin as a right-lateral tear fault. In our model, the Burro Negro fault zone accommodated southeastward migration of the thrust front in the deep-water area east of the fault in the present-day Falcón region. The Paleogene clastic wedge of the Maracaibo Basin exhibits many common features of a classic foreland basin, including onlap onto an arch or forebulge located near the center of the present-day Lake Maracaibo. This paleogeographic coincidence of the Burro Negro fault zone and the Maracaibo shelf edge suggests that the paleotrend of the South American passive margin prior to collision was serrated in map view. West-to-east migration of the Caribbean–South America oblique collision formed progressively younger, parallel tear faults to the east of the Maracaibo Basin that may have formed by the same tectonic process as the Burro Negro fault zone.

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