The defense of the environment and the preservation of natural resources is the primary role of the Brigade Against the Illegal Exploitation of Mineral Deposits. Its focus is to stop criminal organizations responsible for environmental destruction due to the illegal exploitation of mineral deposits to finance their illicit activities.
Its commander, Colombian Army Colonel William Virgüez, spoke with Diálogo about their operations.
Diálogo: What is the Brigade’s mission?
Colombian Army Colonel William Alirio Virgüez, commander of the Brigade Against the Illegal Exploitation of Mineral Deposits: We are part of the Army’s Airborne Division and belong to the land component, which in our case is the Command Against Drug Trafficking and Transnational Threats. The Brigade was created about six years ago and carries out joint, coordinated, and interagency cooperation activities to combat the illicit extraction of mining deposits and to mitigate environmental damage in our country.
Diálogo: What actions do criminal organizations carry out to the detriment of the environment?
Col. Virgüez: Different organized armed groups and criminal groups finance and promote the illicit extraction of mining deposits throughout the national territory, which cause irreparable environmental damage to ecosystems through deforestation, fauna displacement, and the contamination of water resources.
Diálogo: What are the minerals that most attract criminal organizations for their illicit business?
Col. Virgüez: Gold, for which they use mercury, which causes environmental damage to our streams, rivers, and the Colombian Amazon, and in all the mountains because of the use of this substance. There is also coal, the extraction of materials we call silt materials, which are gravels, stones in the rivers, and precious stones.
Diálogo: What are the profits from the illegal exploitation of mining sites for criminal organizations?
Col. Virgüez: I have always compared the profits from narcotrafficking with those from the illicit exploitation of mining deposits, and they are at the same level. As opposed to narcotrafficking, which begins as an illegal activity and ends as illegal, the illicit exploitation of mining deposits can begin as an illegal activity and can end as legal, which is why armed groups are generating, with these illicit economies, a lot of resources.
Diálogo: What kind of coordinated, joint, interinstitutional operations does the Brigade carry out in defense of the environment and the preservation of natural resources?
Col. Virgüez: We are part of the Bicentennial Heroes of Liberty (Bicentenario Héroes de la Libertad) Campaign plan. Our Army has nine major operations, two of which we support. One of the operations is the Pedro Pascasio Martínez, an operation that attacks illicit economies, which is the illicit exploitation of mining deposits. And the other operation is Operation Artemis, which goal is to protect the environment and prevent [further damage].
Diálogo: What results have you achieved?
Col. Virgüez: The results have evolved, especially with the hard work of these two major operations, Artemis and Pedro Pascasio Martínez, which have hindered the economies of illicit groups, because they’ve stopped receiving profits. In 2021, with the help of our Military Forces, the Police, and other institutions, we managed to carry out 315 operations, compared to 76 operations in 2020, which is a considerable increase. Between January, February, and March 2022, we carried out 74 operations, and the goal is to outdo last year.
Diálogo: What strategies does the Brigade use against criminal organizations that impact the environment?
Col. Virgüez: One main strategy is the consolidation of military intelligence with other agencies and state institutions, to work together because it’s really everyone’s problem. We rely on the Attorney General’s Office and other entities to carry out all these operations because we are combating the exploitation of these illicit economies and at the same time, helping to prevent further environmental destruction, because the hectares destroyed to extract a kilogram of gold can take three, four, or five decades to recover according to the machinery used, in addition to the subsoil affected. In 2021, some 1,721 hectares were destroyed by the illegal extraction of mining deposits. In 2022, we’ve had interventions in nearly 379 hectares. In 2021, illicit organizations stopped receiving more than $63 million. And this year, with the operations we’ve carried out, they’ve stopped receiving about $6 to 7 million.