Colombia Launches New Efforts Against Illegal Mining Operations

Colombia Launches New Efforts Against Illegal Mining Operations

By Geraldine Cook
February 25, 2016

Colombian National Army Troops, police officers, and Attorney General’s Office agents dismantled a major illegal mining complex that had dried out several kilometers of the San Bingo River. This was the first coordinated effort of the Army’s Special Brigade against Illegal Mining, an elite unit that security authorities formed last October.

Colombian National Army Troops, police officers, and Attorney General’s Office agents dismantled a major illegal mining operation run by the National Liberation Army (ELN) along the San Bingo River, a once fast-flowing waterway in the jungles of the southwestern department of Cauca.

Security forces destroyed five backhoe loaders worth nearly $800,000 (about $2.4 billion pesos) that allegedly belonged to the ELN and halted all illegal mining activities in a 360-hectare area. Repairing the environmental damage caused by the illegal mining operation will cost almost $100 billion pesos (approximately $30 million), according to the Army.

This was the first coordinated effort of the Army’s Special Brigade against Illegal Mining, an elite unit that security authorities formed in October. The Brigade’s mission is to battle the proliferation of illicit gold, coal, emerald, and gravel mines. These illicit operations have replaced drug trafficking as the main source of income for many organized crime groups.

“Drug trafficking is now a part of history,” said Lieutenant Colonel Carlos Eduardo Luque of the Special Brigade against Illegal Mining. “It’s not as it used to be before. Today, the money is in illegal mining.”

A growing problem

Illegal mining has grown exponentially in Colombia in recent years, according to Colombian Military Intelligence. Organized crime groups have increased their income from such enterprises, according to Lt. Col. Luque, and the rising price of gold and the devaluation of the Colombian peso have increased their monetary yield.

Criminal organizations throughout the country have tried to exploit these trends. Some, for example, have extorted miners who are not affiliated with organized crime, providing them with equipment and forcing them to extract precious metals, such as gold and gems, including emeralds. In some instances, organized crime groups directly run illegal mining operations. For example, in December, National Police agents captured 14 alleged members of the Clan Úsuga organized crime group suspected of running an illegal mining operation in the Urabá Gulf region, near Colombia’s border with Panama.

Current numbers are not available, but according to the most recent mining census released in 2011 by the Ministry of Energy and Mines, at least 63 percent of all mines in Colombia operate illegally. The census also stated that when it comes to gold mines, that figure rises to 90.9 percent, meaning that about one out of every 10 gold mines in the country is paying taxes and operating under the minimum legal requirements dictated by the Ministry of Energy and Mines.

The underground gold mines in Buriticá, in the department of Antioquia, are good examples. Canadian company Continental Gold has the only mining permit to operate in the area. Legal miners working for the company extract around 6,000 ounces of gold annually. Meanwhile, illegal miners have dug nearly 900 kilometers of tunnels in the mountain under precarious conditions and have extracted about 60,000 ounces of gold annually, according to Continental Gold records corroborated by the Special Brigade against Illegal Mining.

Those engaging in illegal mining are motivated by money. An illegal miner can earn more than $8 million pesos (approximately $2,500) a month, more than 10 times the monthly minimum wage, and several times more than they could earn as a legal miner or even as an illegal coca producer. Currently, a kilogram of coca – the main ingredient used to make cocaine – can be sold in Bogotá for about $4.5 million pesos (approximately $1,500), while a kilogram of gold can reach prices of up to $90 million pesos (about $30,000), according to Army intelligence.

Criminal organizations like the ELN, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Clan Úsuga, and other so-called BACRIMs (criminal groups) all charge a fee for every ounce mined in their territories, and then an extra fee for any ounce that leaves or for any machinery or any materials that come in or out. Therefore, they can earn around $6 billion pesos (approximately $2 million) a month from a mining complex like the one near the San Bingo River in Cauca – all of it without their men having to mine a single gram of gold.

Environmental damage

The environmental damage caused by illegal mining is also growing exponentially, as the San Bingo River clearly demonstrates. A recent report by the country’s Office of the Ombudsman carried out in six departments reveals that Colombia is losing almost 16,700 hectares of forests to illegal mining every year, and wasting more than 13 million cubic meters of water, the total used on average each year by more than 4,500 U.S. citizens. And that does not take into account the water that is poisoned by the mercury used in the gold mines next to river beds, according to Col. Luque.

This specific illegal activity can all be traced to corruption by some business people, according to Lt. Col. Luque. Colombia has strict laws regulating the import and distribution of the main elements required for large-scale underground or river mining, such as mercury, explosives, and heavy machinery. Nevertheless, criminals procure these elements by corrupting key people in the industries that can legally acquire them.

The reasons are clear: 3.4 kilograms of imported mercury are sold for $7 million pesos (about $2,300), while a kilogram in the black market can be sold for about $12 million pesos (approximately $4,000). As for heavy machinery, it is often illegally insured in such a way that criminals are often repaid for the backhoe loaders and other equipment that are destroyed as part of any Police and Army operations, according to an investigation by the Special Brigade against Illegal Mining.

“Corruption is the backbone of illegal mining,” Lt. Col. Luque said, “and unless we stop it, we won’t have a chance at success.”

The Special Brigade against Illegal Mining is starting an investigation into the importers of mining materials and the entities in charge of overseeing them. It is also preparing new, interagency-coordinated operations that aim to destroy mining equipment, offer financial options for miners, and establish a sustained Military presence that prevents illegal groups from returning.

This is the only way to produce true change and avoid a greater environmental catastrophe, Lt. Col. Luque said. “The real losers of this phenomenon are Colombia’s future generations.”