Colombian Army Deals Major Blow against Illegal Mining in 2016

Serious environmental crime committed by criminal organizations and individuals causes irreversible damage to the environment.
Julieta Pelcastre/Diálogo | 9 January 2017

Transnational Threats

Aerial photo of an illegal mine located on a tributary of the Magdalena River, between the departments of Santander and Bolívar, shows the environmental damage to the surrounding area. (Photo: Col. Christopher Muller, commander of the Office of Security Cooperation, U.S. Embassy – Bogotá)

Almost a year after the start of operations to crack down on illegal mining, the Colombian Army’s Special Brigade against Illegal Mining has dealt a major blow to criminal organizations dedicated to this environmental crime that degrades ecosystems throughout the country.

The Colombian Army’s Special Brigade against Illegal Mining executed an operation against this crime. (Photo: Col. Christopher Muller)

In a joint operation with the Colombian Navy, Air Force, National Police, and the Office of the Attorney General, the brigade applied all its capabilities to capture 872 people involved in this crime. This coordinated effort took place from January 1st to November 30th 2016 in 26 of the country’s 32 departments.

Illegal mining pollutes important sources of water and is actually more harmful to the environment than the damage caused from the pollutants used in illegal drug production. During the operation, 171 bulldozers and excavators, 89 dredgers, 317 motors, and 240 water pumps were disabled. The soldiers also found 4,330 gallons of fuel in places used for illegal mine excavation.

In August 2016, members of the Army's 3rd Division, the Marines, the police, and agents from the Attorney General’s Office seized 25 backhoe loaders and two dredgers used to cut down a huge swath of pristine forest in search of gold in the Timbiquí River, in the Valle del Cauca department on Colombia’s Pacific coast. The mining was controlled by the National Liberation Army (ELN, per its Spanish acronym), and yielded around 18 kilos of gold per day.

The operation conducted in the Valle del Cauca department has gradually led to a reduction of illegal mining in Los Farallones de Cali National Park, according to the Colombian Army. In October, following a month of coordinated efforts, the Army restored the natural flow of several tributaries that feed into the Cali River, such as La Mina tributary, which had been diverted towards the Pacific by illegal mining operations in order to pan for gold.

The United States government reaffirmed its support for Colombia in the fight against this scourge. In September 2016, Colonel Robert Wagner, senior U.S. Department of Defense officer to Colombia, visited the Special Brigade against Illegal Mining, which was established in October 2015 to gain first-hand knowledge of the crime problem caused by criminal organizations.

During the meeting, Col. Wagner and Colonel Federico Mejía Torres, commander of Colombia’s Special Brigade against Illegal Mining committed to training and sharing information on the execution of military operations against groups dedicated to illegal mining.

Last March, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced its support for responsible mining programs in Antioquia and Chocó. The program, Oro Legal (Legal Gold), calls for the restoration of 11,500 hectares of land destroyed by illegal mining. This program is a continuation of the BioREDD pilot program implemented from 2011 to 2013.

“Our assessment may be positive, but there is still a long way to go,” Col. Mejía told Diálogo. “Armed crime groups, criminal gangs, and organizations such as ELN, and some dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia who refused to adhere to the peace treaty, as well as the Gulf Clan, continue benefitting across the length and breadth of this country from the extortion that comes from the illegal mining of this mineral in order to maintain and expand the economics of their organizations.”

According to the report Alluvial Gold Exploitation, issued by the United Nations in June, Colombia has more than 78,000 hectares, spread over 17 departments, which have been ruined by illegal mining. Seventy-nine percent of the affected land is concentrated in two departments – Antioquia and Chocó.

Illegal mining is also concerning because it can be used as a money laundering opportunity for other illicit operations

“We might be up to about 127,000 hectares ruined by the effects of illegal mining,” Col. Mejía said. “Unlike cocaine, extracting gold from underground is not illegal. While a kilo of cocaine costs $2,000 on the Colombian market, a kilo of gold costs $40,000.”

According to an article published online by InSight Crime on August 6th, 87 percent of metal manufacturing organizations in Colombia operate outside the law, with many of them under the control of illegal armed groups.

“Although illegal and criminal mining is a very complex problem, the government must be heavy-handed; it must be very strong in the fight against criminal mining,” economist Álvaro Pardo told Diálogo. Pardo is director of Colombia Punto Medio, an interdisciplinary group of experts specializing in the extractive industry.

According to Pardo, 8 million people in Colombia have been displaced by violence. Many of them use mining as a means of survival. “The same rules that are applied to criminal mining cannot be applied to that kind of person.”

Col. Mejía confirmed that the operations “are not focused on capturing those small-time prospectors who see gold as a means of subsistence,” but rather on capturing those who “are behind the whole chain of criminality devoted to illegally extracting gold and other minerals.”

The brigade works with state entities, agencies, and institutions to confront illegal mining in order for them to observe the scourge directly, on the ground.

“The outlook for operations against this type of crime could become encouraging if the country's institutions, agencies, and entities acted with due transparency to crush and eradicate each one of the links in the chain that the illegal mining industry comprises,” Col. Mejía emphasized.

The Brigade against Illegal Mining develops department-level strategies to attack each one of these links independently and, as such, attack the organizational structure that is behind the illegal and criminal mining taking place throughout the country. These strategies will be implemented in 2017.

Col. Mejía’s team has proposed environmental control platforms which use drones or unmanned airplanes equipped with special software to anticipate, mitigate, control, and create response capabilities to address problems that could harm the environment.

“Even though the government has achieved some successes in some places, this problem runs so deep that it is impossible to tackle it or reduce it in the short term. We need to rely on a judicial framework that is suited to stopping illegal and criminal mining in this country,” Pardo said.

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