LATIN AMERICA

Colombian armed groups turn to illegal gold mining to raise funds

Authorities carried out operations at 655 mines and arrested more than 1,500 in 2014

Colombian police shut down an illegal quarry in Soacha.
Colombian police shut down an illegal quarry in Soacha.EFE

Colombian rebel groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) have turned to illegal mining, especially gold mining, to finance their campaigns. Gangs such as Rastrojos and Úsuga, the country’s largest criminal organizations, also benefit from the business. In 2014, the Colombian government seized illegal gold mining assets worth $26 million.

During his end-of-year report for 2014, Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón said authorities had confiscated 739 kilograms of gold, a 6,700-percent increase on the previous year. In 2013, the state seized only 11 kilograms. Officials also destroyed 90 mechanical diggers last year, up from 45 in 2013, and arrested 1,757 people in connection with illegal mining. His official statement reports that operations were carried out at 655 illegal mines, almost 10 percent more than in 2013.

There is a criminal ring around gold. From machinery to the gold itself, to the buyer, to the chemicals used”

According to government records, Colombia produces about 46 tons of gold each year. Citing official sources, an article published in El Tiempo newspaper said rebel groups and criminal organizations get a 17-percent cut of the business, or about eight tons, which means the assets confiscated (9.2 percent) only represent a small slice of their profits. According to the newspaper, one kilogram of gold buys 96 firearms.

In 2010, Colombian police created a task force dedicated to the fight against illegal mining to work hand in hand with the Prosecutor General’s Office. In August 2014, its director, Brigadier General José Gerardo Acevedo, told Semana magazine that most of the mines were located on public land in inaccessible areas, which presents a challenge for authorities. “There is a criminal ring around gold. From machinery to the gold itself, to the buyer, to the chemicals used. There is prostitution, child abuse – because there are children working in the mines – displaced people and invasion of local cultures,” he said.

In 2014, most of the assets seized were found in Cauca in southern Colombia, Bolívar in the north, and Chocó in the northwest – regions where there are large armed groups and both underground and above-ground mining. Pinzón also reported seizures of 166 tons of cocaine, 349 kilograms of heroin and 300 tons of marijuana. “These cocaine seizures are estimated to be a $5.4 billion loss for organized crime organizations,” he told journalists at a press conference.

Despite the large amounts confiscated, which will prevent these groups from being able to launder the profits to finance their activities, the government’s efforts come up short given the scope of the business. Minister Pinzón told local media outlets that the fight against illegal mining was even more arduous than the fight against the drug trade because authorities lack the legal tools to combat criminals who engage in these activities.

Translation: Dyane Jean François