Colombia’s gold mining industry has historically been rife with criminality, creating an immense black market for the precious metal. Criminal organizations including the National Liberation Army (ELN), dissident groups of the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and other criminal gangs exploit Colombia’s large gold reserves, financing multiple criminal activities, such as the illegal arms trade and money laundering.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), illegal mining exploitation in Colombia covers more than 64,000 hectares, 27,589 of which are located in indigenous community territories, InSight Crime, an organization that studies organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean, said in a September 2021 report. Gold from Colombia accounts for 2 percent of the world’s gold production, but more than 70 percent of the gold extracted in Colombia is produced by illegal armed groups, the Organization of American States (OAS) Department against Transnational Organized Crime (DTOC) says in a February 2022 report.
The global demand for gold and the significant increase in its international prices have emboldened Colombia’s criminal groups to expand illegal gold mining operations, effectively harming Colombia’s environment and indigenous populations by conducting irresponsible extraction practices in Colombia’s natural reserves and rivers, poisoning water sources that Colombia’s inhabitants use, and sowing terror among the population.
Criminal groups such as former FARC dissidents use exploited gold to fund the groups’ illicit agenda, launder money on an industrial scale, making this activity more profitable than drug trafficking, the OAS DTOC found. The criminal groups largely operate without government-approved permits or in areas that have yet to be approved for mining, InSight Crime indicated.
Criminal groups, as well as small-scale illegal miners, use mercury, a highly toxic substance, during the extraction process, allowing it to be released into the environment, Colombia’s water sources, and enter the food chain. The indigenous communities as well as other animals around these water sources that rely on fish as a primary source of protein expose themselves to mercury poisoning, which has been linked to irreversible health issues such as neurological and reproductive problems.
The World Resources Institute, a Washington D.C.-based, global environment nongovernmental organization, in a late 2020 report, found that illegal mining had invaded nearly 400 indigenous lands, threatening hundreds of indigenous tribes. According to the National Organization of the Indigenous communities of the Colombian Amazon (OPIAC), The native tribe of Witotos in southeastern Colombia, is “slowing dying” from the high levels of mercury, conservation news site Mongabay reported.
In addition to water pollution, illegal mining operations create multiple environmental problems, such as air and soil pollution through the release of chemicals and the mass deforestation around the areas in which these operations exist. Since 1990, more than 5.4 percent of the Colombian surface has been deforested, according to the OAS DTOC. For example, deforestation affected more than 2,000 hectares within the Chiribiquete National Park in the Colombian Amazon — Colombia’s largest national park — between September 2021 and February 2022, a significant increase compared to the 1,948 hectares between 2019 and 2020, Reuters reported. For Rodrigo Botero, director general of the Colombian organization Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS), the numbers suggest that deforestation is rampant. “I predict that definitely there is once again growth in deforestation in the Amazon region versus in the previous year,” he told Reuters.
The violation of human rights is also common where illegal gold mining operations occur. The use of extortion, violence, and forced labor have been reported. Illegal mining, and the actions of criminal groups such as the ELN, ex-FARC dissident groups, and other gangs contribute to the increasing wave of displaced people within the country, the OAS DTOC report indicates. The primary victims of this displacement are indigenous communities. The face offs between members of indigenous communities, who fight to protect the environment and their natural resources, and criminal groups often result in death threats, with 117 indigenous environmental activists murdered in the last decade in Colombia, international nongovernmental organization Global Witness found.
In April 2021, Governor Sandra Liliana Peña Chocué of the La Laguna Siberia indigenous reservation and leader of the Nasa people was gunned down. Peña Chocué was a prominent figure for Nasa people’s rights, who spoke out against illegal mining operations and drug trafficking within their territory. Armed groups and criminal organizations that engage in extractive practices and drug trafficking have been targeting the Nasa people to gain control over their lands, a July 2022 report from the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner indicated. In early 2022, four Nasa leaders were killed, the report added.
The destruction of Colombia’s vital water sources, coupled with the violation of indigenous people’s rights, has created a massive situation for the Colombian government. As criminal groups and criminal enterprises continue to engage in illegal gold mining and encroach upon the territories of indigenous communities, the rates of displacement and violence will increase.
The Colombian government, however, has been stepping up the fight against illegal mining, raiding mines and destroying equipment left on site, including taking steps to combat the export and sale of illegal gold. The Colombian Military Forces, for instance, have an Army brigade dedicated to the fight against these illegal operations, known as the Illegal Mining Brigade.
In September 2021, Colombia’s Attorney General Francisco Barbosa Delgado and representatives in Colombia of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), signed a memorandum of understanding to create a unit against deforestation and environmental crimes, the Attorney General’s Office of Colombia said in a statement. The unit will aim to ensure the environment’s protection and maintain law and order in the regions where illegal mining operations occur.
For his part, Colombian President Gustavo Petro, during an August 2022 security council meeting, said that his administration would crack down on illegal mining, stating, “Illegal dredge that is found, dredge that is dynamited immediately.” The new mining policy, Petro said, will focus on the environment and have local communities at the center of all relevant security forces operations, digital news site MINING.com reported.