The Colombian government has kept up with its vow to forcefully curb illegal mining that organized armed groups carry out, causing irreparable damage to the environment.
The results are telling. For example, on May 10, the National Police reported the destruction of 32 mining production units in Tutendo, Certegui, and Rio Quito, Chocó department, valued at $2.8 million. These machines are not only a costly investment for criminal groups, but also require meticulous coordination to smuggle them into mining operation locations.
In late March, the Navy reported that in a joint operation in Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca department, two mining production units worth more than $21,000 were also destroyed, putting a stop to criminal mining operations in that area.
On March 7, this time in the department of Antioquia, the government reported the destruction of a significant amount of machinery and materials used in illegal mining — without providing the exact data. Days prior, also in Antioquia, authorities reported the destruction of 40 illegal mines.
According to data from the Ministry of Defense, between early August 2022 and early February 2023, Colombian security forces took actions in nearly 1,000 illegal mines, seizing and then destroying hundreds of machinery and equipment for illegal extraction, such as backhoes, dredges, pumps, motors, as well as seizing large quantities of liquid and solid inputs, Colombian news site Portafolio reported.
“The armed groups of the Clan del Golfo are the ones who have a presence in these zones and profit from the environmental damage that is generated in these areas,” Colombian Marine Corps Major Johann Guzmán, commander of the Marine Infantry Battalion No. 21, told Diálogo.
According to Maj. Guzmán criminal groups employ the inhabitants of these areas, who under pressure work in the mines with the supplied machinery. “Obviously these are jobs under the direction of these groups because in the end they are the ones who profit and collect the gold that’s extracted,” Maj. Guzmán added.
Illegal gold mining has long been plaguing Colombia, its ecosystems, and communities, and while the country banned the use of mercury in mining in 2018, the highly toxic metal continues to be widely used during the extraction process for gold.
In addition, “the use of machinery without any type of control in these areas, generates deforestation, and affect water sources, because dumping chemicals such as cyanide and mercury, which are used to process this type of materials, contaminate the rivers,” Maj. Guzmán said. “This damages riverbanks and the rivers into which they also flow, directly affecting the communities that live on these riverbanks, and this is evidenced by the diseases that the people who consume this contaminated water suffer from.”
For the armed groups, illegal mining is a business that is more lucrative than narcotrafficking. “Compared to the illicit cocaine business, where a kilogram of coca can be in the Colombian market for around $1,075, a kilogram of illegal gold is in the order of $5,300, which has caused this business to skyrocket; and today it is contaminating [the environment] in a critical way,” Delegate Comptroller of the Environment Gabriel Adolfo Jurado said as he presented a summary of his agency’s activities in late July 2022.
According to data from the Navy, throughout 2022 and up to late April 2023, authorities captured 82 people involved in illegal mining and seized 11,438 kg of metals, including 454 kg of gold, 54.2 kg of mercury, 2,142 kg of tin, 8,777 kg of coltan, and 10 kg of copper.