Ecuadorean Army Wages Enduring Campaign against Illegal Mining

The Ecuadorean Armed Forces work with the National Police and civilian institutions to counter illegal mining.
Alex Ormaza/Diálogo | 8 June 2018

Transnational Threats

Members of the 62nd Jungle Battalion Zamora keep watch as a Mining Control and Regulatory Agency official post a notice prohibiting further use of a machine for illegal mining in the Chapintza district, Zamora Chinchipe province, April 11, 2018. (Photo: 62nd Jungle Battalion Zamora, Ecuadorean Army)

The Ecuadorean Army is engaged in an enduring frontal campaign against illegal mining, focusing on the country's southern provinces. On May 4, 2018, the 62nd Jungle Battalion Zamora, the Loja Military Intelligence Detachment, and the Mining Control and Regulatory Agency (ARCOM, in Spanish) seized equipment and material used for illegal silica extractions. The activities threatened to contaminate the Nangaritza River in the province of Zamora Chinchipe. Authorities didn’t make any arrests, however, ARCOM neutralized dredges and vehicles used to excavate the river.

“All of this is aimed at preventing illegal mining projects,” said Ecuadorean Army Lieutenant Colonel Carlos Jácome, commander of the 18th Mechanized Cavalry Group Cazadores de Los Ríos. “We seek to preserve the country’s natural resources through these operations.”

In the same province, members of the 62nd Jungle Battalion Zamora, the Zamora Military Intelligence Detachment, the Ecuadorean National Police, and ARCOM conducted another operation on April 11th. Authorities uncovered heavy machinery used in illegal open-pit mining. ARCOM disabled and posted notices to discontinue the use of a backhoe, two water pumps, and an ore sorter.

“Threats in the area are not limited to illegal mining; they also include activities such as trafficking in hydrocarbons, psychotropic substances, arms, ammunitions, and explosives,” Ecuadorean Army Lieutenant Colonel Freddy Cabascango Ponce, commander of the 62nd Jungle Battalion Zamora, told Diálogo. “Illegal mining in particular is a high-risk activity. That’s why we fight it.”

According to Lt. Col. Cabascango, illegal mining is linked to child labor and pollutes rivers and aquifers, threatening the local ecology. Criminal organizations also work informally, bypassing government authorization and disregarding necessary safety inspections and rules.

Challenging terrain

The jungle and mountainous terrain of the Zamora Chinchipe province holds great mineral wealth, a magnet for criminal gangs operating in the area. The area is located in southeast Ecuador, with approximately 10,500 square kilometers in the Amazon Basin.

Army Lieutenant Colonel Freddy Cabascango Ponce (right), commander of the 62nd Jungle Battalion Zamora, heads a joint, interagency operation to counter illegal mining. (Photo: 62nd Jungle Battalion Zamora, Ecuadorean Army)

In the same province, the Nambija mining district sits at an altitude of 2,600 meters. The region is home to more than 10,000 people per square kilometer—most work illegally.

To reach the area, one must navigate through dirt roads etched into precipices where illegal miners dig with no regards for safety protocols. They set off dynamite, with no regard for geological or environmental impact studies. The area is also highly prone to landslides.

“We have a detachment assigned to this area that carries out constant patrols and works with the civilian authorities and the police,” Lt. Col. Cabascango said. Security forces also have to fight the trade for illegal lumber and protected animal species.

Campaigns of 2018

As of mid-May 2018, the 62nd Jungle Battalion Zamora logged 10 operations in Zamora Chinchipe that interrupted illegal work and confiscated machinery then turned over to civilian authorities. In the Chinapintza area, service members seized dynamite and rolls of fuse used for detonations. In the Nangaritza, Shincata, Naguipa Bajo, Nuevo Quito, and Zumbi regions, the battalion confiscated backhoes, water pumps, dredging equipment, fuel, and precious wood, among others.

“I drew heavily on all the knowledge acquired during my military training [to detect] those mining illegally and those breaking the law in any way throughout the Ecuadorean Amazon,” Army Second Lieutenant Andrés Alfaro, who served in the 62nd Battalion for three years, told Diálogo. “We overcame obstacles and successfully carried out our operations thanks to the continuous training our service members receive.”

In April and May ARCOM conducted 15 interagency operations in cooperation with the Army, police, and other civilian institutions to crack down on illegal mining in the province of Zamora Chinchipe. Authorities arrested 16 people linked to illegal mining. The 62nd Jungle Battalion Zamora participated in 10 of these operations.

In other parts of the country during the same period, Army units helped ARCOM perform 349 inspections to monitor and identify illegal mining operations. The inspections resulted in the seizure, destruction, or shutdown of more than 100 machines and equipment. The numbers are encouraging—from January to June 2015, ARCOM only logged 55 control operations.

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