In mid-August, the Colombian Army conducted a joint operation against illicit mining in Ayapel, Córdoba department, with the Colombian Air Force (FAC, in Spanish), the National Police, and the Colombian Office of the Attorney General. The Clan del Golfo armed group ran the illegal mining operation.
During the operation, the Colombian forces captured 17 individuals and destroyed three dredges, three engines, and three mining production units. The Army valued the equipment at more than $800,000, and estimated the alleged criminals made about $100,000 monthly with the illegal business.
The joint, interagency operation conducted under the Agamenón II military and police campaign is the toughest blow to Clan del Golfo’s funding sources so far in 2018. It’s the ninth operation against illegal mining this year in the northern region of western Colombia.
“Illegal mining in Colombia is thought to be the second driver of funding for armed groups,” Army Colonel Carlos Alberto Montenegro Maya, commander of the Brigade Against Illegal Mining (BRCMI, in Spanish), told Diálogo. “In the illegal market, a kilo of cocaine hydrochloride in Bogotá can cost more than $1,900, while a kilo of gold is worth more than $4,500.”
“The Ayapel operation started a few months ago [in March] with investigations,” Col. Montenegro said. “We began collecting evidence; we did some intelligence meetings in the Montería area [in Córdoba department] with the Office of the Attorney General, the military unit, and the Police; and we began coordinating how to best conduct the operation.”
The Army and FAC’s intelligence led the units to several strategic illegal mining locations. The goal of the combined forces was to catch those carrying out the illegal mining work.
“The operation was coordinated with the Police and their aircraft,” Army Lieutenant Colonel Rafael Hernández Oyola, environmental adviser at BRCMI, told Diálogo. “We have national jurisdiction because we’re a special unit. We always go to the areas and operate with regional troops or special units.”
About 150 service members and Police agents took part in the operation under the command of Col. Hernández. Units infiltrated the area with land vehicles and a FAC C-295 turboprop tactical aircraft, as well a Black Hawk helicopter from the Police and another from the Army, serving as support aircraft to remove the units after the operation.
Authorities brought the captured individuals to the local Office of the Attorney General for prosecution. The Police explosives team disabled the equipment onsite.
The last operation against illegal mining took place in the Ayapel Marsh. Extending more than 54,000 hectares, the Córdoba wetland was declared a protected area in February 2018 under the Ramsar Convention of 1975, an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands.
The Ayapel Marsh is a place of abundant biodiversity. Home to more than 350 species, it’s essential to fish reproduction and bird migration. However, illegal mining affects its fragile ecosystem. According to the Army, Clan del Golfo’s illicit operation damaged about 640 hectares.
“Open-pit mining operations are very close to rivers where extractions are made. Dredges are used to move large quantities of the earth’s crust, damaging forests, trees, and everything around,” Col. Montenegro said. “[With the use of mercury] the damage is huge, as it leaves blue or green pools that are only seen when flying over. These are mostly mercury sediments that last for many years. It could take hundreds of years for the land to recover.”
A complex problem
Illegal mining enriches transnational criminal organizations and affects the environment and the local population. Miners, who are forced by armed groups to work illegally, or join the “group with the financial muscle,” according to Col. Hernández, pollute the area and risk their health through mercury exposure.
According to the latest report available, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 2014 Environmental Performance Review on Colombia, mining towns in Antioquia department have the highest levels of mercury pollution in the world. Low-income people who work in illegal mining are the most exposed to dangerous substances, the report indicates.
To confront the problem, the Colombian government passed Law 1658 in 2013, giving the mining sector five years to implement new technologies and clean alternatives to gold extraction. Since July 2018, the law bans the use of mercury in mining.
Although environmentalists welcomed the law’s approval, deterring the use of mercury in criminal groups will be harder. The price of the substance used to extract gold is on the rise since the third quarter of 2018. Authorities, however, will continue to face cases of mercury use, as in the Ayapel Marsh.
“Four or five months ago, when mercury was legal, a kilo cost almost $100. Now that it’s illegal, a kilo costs about $420,” Col. Montenegro concluded. “It’s a very complex problem.”