Colombia Army and police shut down illegal mining and fuel refining operations

The Colombian Army on June 12 dismantled a clandestine fuel refinery in the department of Nariño, in the municipality of Barbacoas.
Isabel Estrada | 31 July 2014

Transnational Threats

Illegal mining: Two members of the Department of Nariño Tambo Police Department guard three men who were charged with illegally extracting rocks from a local mine. Security forces also confiscated tools valued at more than $400,000. [Photo: Colombian National Police]

The Colombian Army on June 12 dismantled a clandestine fuel refinery in the department of Nariño, in the municipality of Barbacoas.

The Army operation was part of a broad campaign by Colombian security forces to shut down illegal fuel refineries and illicit gold and mineral mining operations by organized crime groups and the terrorist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as well as the National Liberation Army (ELN). Such illegal operations not only provide funds for criminal and terrorist groups, they also damage the environment.

Mining represents 2.3 percent of the GDP of Colombia, which in 2012 amounted to $369 billion (USD).

As of mid-June, Colombian security forces had seized 87 kilos of illegally mined gold and one kilo of platinum, according to the Ministry of Defense. Security forces have seized most of the illegally mined gold and platinum in Antioquia, Chocó and Valle del Cauca.

Army shuts down illegal fuel refinery

The successful operation to shut down the illegal fuel refinery in Barbacoas was conducted by the Battalion Selva 53, led by Colonel Francisco José Gonzáles. Soldiers destroyed the refinery after finding a fuel valve which tipped them off to the illegal refinery, which was operated by the FARC group known as Daniel Aldana.

Daniel Aldana operatives were stealing and processing crude oil from the Trans Andean pipeline.

The FARC relies on criminal enterprises, such as illegally refining fuel, to arm itself and finance its terrorist activities, said Néstor Rosanía, Director of the Colombian Center of Studies of Security, Defense and International Affairs (CESDAI). The FARC once relied primarily on the production and trafficking of cocaine, but has broadened its criminal portfolio.

“They figured out that gold, illegal mining and stealing fuel generates good income to buy weapons and explosives to be used in their terrorist activities,” Rosanía said. “The commercialization of gold and fuel is active and fast, while the coca leave takes a long process from planting to placing the drug in the market. The FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN) are diversifying their illegal activities to finance their operations. Natural resources have become strategic resources for these criminal organizations.”

The FARC and other organized crime groups also extort legitimate miners. They charge miners an entry fee of up to five million pesos for one piece of heavy machinery and then a monthly charge of two million pesos to continue working.

In Norosi, a town in the department of Bolívar, organized crime operatives reportedly charge legitimate miners a 50 percent “tax” on any minerals they extract.

The Army is continuing to intensify its operations throughout the country to capture members of the FARC and other organized crime groups who steal natural resources to buy weapons and explosives.

Colombian National Police operations

In addition to ongoing Army operations, the Colombian National Police (PNC) is also dismantling illegal mining operations by organized crime groups, primarily through its Comprehensive Intervention Strategy against Illicit Exploitation of Mineral Deposits.

On May 29, in Nariño, members of the Tambo Police Force, in coordination with the police from Sandona, captured three suspects, 60, 52, and 48 years old, who were allegedly illegally extracting minerals from a local mine. They also seized a series of tools that were valued at $435,000. The suspects were handed to the local Prosecutor in el Tambo, to be tried for illegal mining.

Colombia’s government is taking an aggressive approach against illegal mining not only because of the high economic and environmental cost, but also for the human toll it takes. Organized crime groups have no regard for the well-being of the miners who extract natural resources. Illegal mining operations are dangerous for the people working in them.

For example, on April 30, an illegal mining site collapsed in Santander de Quilachao, killing at least 16 miners.

A new security initiative

On June 24, the Ministry of Defense announced that a new unit to fight illegal mining was ready to begin.

The National Unit of Intervention against Criminal Mining (UNIMIC) will involve police and representatives from the ministries of Defense, Interior, Environment, Mines and Energy to combat those who try to illegally extract, traffic and sell mining products.

Cooperation between different government agencies is a good idea, according to security analyst Rosanía. The FARC, ELN and other organized crime groups are working together to advance their criminal enterprises.

“Today, the FARC are doing business with their former enemies. The criminal gangs are sharing routes and logistics with the FARC,” Rosanía said. Gathering intelligence on how these criminal enterprises are mutating will help security forces fight them successfully. ”

Government determined to fight illegal mining

During a 2013 press conference, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón said the government was determined to crack down on illegal mining operations.

“Illegal mining not only affect the environment and damages Colombia’s natural resources but at the same time generates an economy to launder cash or finance terrorist activities. We cannot permit these actions to continue, and for this reason we must fully combat this illegal activity,” Pinzón said.

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