BOGOTÁ — Illegal mining in Colombia is reportedly overtaking coca as the principal source of income for FARC guerrillas and newly formed armed groups known as “bandas emergentes” — especially in regions of the country where precious metals and minerals are found and the state presence is thin.
Illegal gold mining is prevalent in about 340 of Colombia’s 1,102 municipalities, said Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is present in 87 of those 340, the National Liberation Army (ELN) in 30, and other criminal gangs in another 118, Pinzón told reporters.
In mid-June, 67 pieces of heavy mining machinery allegedly belonging to the FARC were seized in the northern department of Córdoba, while in the jungle regions of Guainía and Vaupés, authorities confiscated 32 tons of coltan — a dull black metallic ore dredged from nearby rivers.
Gold, coltan and tungsten are among the minerals mined illegally in 25 of Colombia’s 32 departments, representing a new and lucrative source of income even as coca cultivation falls, authorities say. And while the practice is nothing new here, observers say the extent to which it has spread and the magnitude of its economic yield is causing a stir — leading President Juan Manuel Santos to launch an offensive against such activity in eight departments.
“This type of intervention is a necessity because the machinery used in this way is causing enormous damage to the country. We are not launching an offensive against mining in general and much less against artisanal mining. This is an operation against illegal groups,” Santos told reporters.
Guerrillas extort local miners throughout Colombia
Soon after the president’s statements, the Medellín newspaper El Colombiano published images of Colombian Air Force aircraft attacking and destroying machines used to excavate land in the department of Antioquia.
More than 2,000 pieces of heavy machinery are being used for mining in the departments of Bolívar, Córdoba and Cauca as well as in national parks and other protected areas, said Gen. Leonardo Pinto of the Colombian Army’s Nudo del Paramillo task force.
The guerrillas and other armed groups charge miners an entry fee of up to five million pesos ($2,650) for one piece of heavy machinery and then a monthly charge of two million pesos ($1,060) to continue working.
In Norosi, the town in Bolívar department where in January ELN rebels kidnapped a Canadian engineer working with the mining firm Geo Explorer, armed groups supposedly charge a 50 percent tax on any minerals extracted from the ground.
Pinzón conceded that it won’t be easy to crack down on such practices, given the difficulties in reaching remote locations where the state presence is slim and where illegal groups are active in mining. He said the illegal mines are also displacing civilians living nearby — not to mention causing grave environmental damage.
“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.