Blow to Illegal Mining in the Colombian Amazon
By Myriam Ortega/Diálogo December 18, 2018In early November, the Colombian Armed Forces dealt a blow to illegal mining in the Colombian Amazon by dismantling a criminal gang that illegally exploited mining sites. Three simultaneous joint operations with the Colombian National Police’s Judicial Police resulted in the capture of six members of the criminal ring and a dredge boat.
A year of intelligence work enabled the Colombian Army to follow the movements and actions of the criminal gang Los Mercurio and identify its members. According to the Army, the ring operated in Tarapacá, Amazonas department, on the banks of the Putumayo and Cotuhé rivers, which flow through Peru and Colombia.
“The goal was to go after the leaders of this structure,” Colombian Army Colonel Carlos Ernesto Marmolejo Cumbe, commander of the 26th Brigade based in Leticia, Amazonas department, told Diálogo. “This is what we worked on this whole year .”
The operations were carried out in the village of Tarapacá and in the city of Leticia at the same time. Troops of the 50th Jungle Infantry Battalion assigned to the 26th Army Brigade led the captures with the support of the Colombian Air Force’s (FAC) Amazonas Air Group, the National Police, and the Office of the Attorney General.
“On the 8th [of November], the operations were carried out simultaneously. Soldiers arrived at these people’s houses and arrested the four individuals [in Tarapacá],” Col. Marmolejo said. “Likewise, in Leticia, the Judicial Police located the house of the other two persons, and captured them.”
One of those arrested is the organization's leader, Omar Verano, alias El Mechudo. The criminals are accused of illegal exploitation of mining sites and environmental pollution with dangerous solid waste, among other crimes.
“The process included capturing them and transporting them to Leticia and then turning them over to the Prosecutor’s Office with all the evidence against them, so they could be charged,” FAC Colonel Osman Eucardo González Ortiz, commander of the Amazonas Air Group, told Diálogo. “Everything went as planned.”
On the same day, units of the 50th Jungle Infantry Battalion and riverine elements of the Amazon Coast Guard Command carried out an operation on the Cotuhé river. The joint operation resulted in the seizure of a dredge boat that the criminal ring used to dredge the bottom of the river.
“On the same morning, we did a riverine tactical maneuver toward the site and intervened the boat,” Col. Marmolejo said. “Only the infrastructure was there, but by seizing it, we reduced this criminal organization’s capabilities.”
According to Col. Marmolejo, alias Mechudo’s capture weakens the criminal structure significantly and will prevent its reorganization. The officer said that the Army dealt blows to the organization on several occasions, but “they would come back and regroup.”
“I think there are some remnants on the Peruvian side of the Cotuhé river,” Col. Marmolejo said. “Anyway, we are very alert [in the event] they try to cross to the Colombian side.”
The operations were conducted as part of the Victoria Plus Plan—the Colombian Army’s strategic roadmap—and the Diamond Plan, an offensive at a national level against criminal groups. In the Diamond Plan’s first 100-day review on November 17th, the Colombian government reported that more than 57,000 criminals had been captured, over 300 of whom were members of organized armed groups and gangs.
Protecting the environment
Illegal gold mining in Colombia is the main cause of deforestation, with more than 24,000 hectares of forests destroyed in 2014, according to the latest report of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, Colombia: Alluvial Gold Exploitation, published in June 2016. The results did not point to Amazonas department, but the eastern departments of Chocó and Antioquia as some of the most affected areas. However, the problem is regional and benefits transnational criminal organizations that pollute the environment and the population, exposing them to dangerous substances such as mercury.
“These criminal organizations are indifferent to the environmental damage dumping mercury in the river basin causes,” said Col. González. “We counter crimes against the Amazon, crimes against the environment.”
So far in 2018, the 26th Brigade was able to capture 19 dredges, 10 wooden boats, nine outboard engines, seven compressors, and five diving suits, among other material used for the illegal extraction of gold in combined and joint operations. Authorities also captured more than a dozen criminals.
“Each one of us [institutions of the Armed Forces] has distinctive capabilities, since the only way to act decisively against individuals that generate violence, illegal groups, and organized criminal gangs is to integrate all our forces,” Col. González concluded. “We have to work together as a joint front so that criminal groups cannot escape.”