Colombia is beginning to face up to the threat of illegal mining with a series of security measures, but to be effective they will also have to overcome the decades of state neglect and poor public policy that have allowed powerful criminal groups to thrive.
In June, authorities announced the creation of a new police unit: the National Unit of Intervention against Criminal Mining (Unimic), to "combat those who are dedicated to the theft, trafficking and illegal sales of mining products in the country." The body will concentrate efforts in departments including Antioquia, Choco and Valle del Cauca, where the illegal mining trade -- and the involvement of criminal actors -- is particularly strong.
Shortly after, the new head of Colombia's Comptroller's Office, Edgardo Maya Villazon, said illegal mining and the environment would be major priorities for the government watchdog. This followed the release of two new reports (pdf - 1, 2) published by the office that highlight the negative impacts of both legal and illegal mining and the need for improved legislation in this area.
The move to create the new force and the attention focused on the issue by the Comptroller are just the latest in a string of initiatives designed to clamp down on a socially and environmentally devastating trade.
Since 2012, security forces have also been attacking the machinery used in illegal mining, under a decree that was recently reinforced when a court overturned a judicial complaint against such measures. As of May, police had destroyed 52 machines in 2014.
Meanwhile, since the creation of the National Carabineers Unit to Combat Illegal Mining in 2010, the body has intervened in around 3,000 mines -- of which over 1,000 were suspended or closed -- and arrested some 5,500 people.
These efforts highlight concern over a trade that in recent years has become a lucrative hive of criminal activity linked to Colombia's most powerful armed groups. According to General Jose Gerardo Acevedo, the head of Colombia's Carabineer and Rural Security Unit, in some parts of the country mining has become more lucrative than drug trafficking for groups such as the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), and paramilitary-criminal hybrid organizations the Urabeños and the Rastrojos. Their involvement is particularly acute in Antioquia and Choco, the departments where the most illegal gold extraction takes place. The FARC are also involved in the coltan trade in the Vichada and Guainia departments.
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In many areas, traditional informal mining has been swallowed up by criminal operations. "Some time ago, mining in Choco stopped belonging to the people," Maria Luisa Mosquera, a leader of the Choco Afro-Colombian community council Cocomacer, told El Tiempo recently, referring to the increasing control of criminal groups and illegal armed actors over what used to be small-scale artisanal mining in the Choco jungle. The result has been an increase in the unregulated use of backhoes, bulldozers, dredges and chemicals like mercury -- which contaminate rivers and destroy forests.
While authorities are unable to precisely calculate the scale of illegal mining or the involvement of criminal groups, officials estimated in a 2011 survey that 63 percent of mining in Colombia was unlicensed, while police calculate that illegal mining takes place in 308 municipalities across 28 of the country's 32 departments.
InSight Crime Analysis
If authorities are to forcefully hit back at the illegal groups profiting from the mining sector, they will have to contend with a long history of failed legislation, state absence in mining regions and inadequate differentiation between illegal and informal mining -- all of which persist to this day.
According to the Comptroller's Office, the government has been unintentionally creating the conditions for criminal actors to become involved in mining for over 30 years, by failing to formalize the mining sector despite a raft of legislation targeting illegal mining operations.
"The state did not manage to gain control over [the country's natural resources] and various programs to formalize the activity consecutively failed, allowing informality and illegality to predominate in the national territory. This provided a more than favorable context for the events that would ensue beginning in the first decade of the 21st century," wrote the office in a report last year.
The "events" in question are the movement of illegal armed groups into the mining industry, an involvement that has been deepening since at least 2003. What began as extorting companies and individuals engaged in mining -- charging fees on both machinery and product -- and carrying out kidnappings of personnel for ransom has since evolved to the point where these groups are themselves exercising control over the extraction process. According to Semana, this is usually done in the name of a third party, allowing criminal groups to mask their involvement. In 2012, the Colombian police estimated the FARC and BACRIM controlled illegal mines in nearly half of Colombia's municipalities, either directly or through extortion.
The history of state failures that has allowed these groups to move in dates back as far as 1970, when Colombia passed the first comprehensive legislation aimed at formalizing the mining sector and opened a process for unregistered miners to request and receive licenses if they fulfilled a set of basic requirements. Through the 1980s and 1990s, several further decrees provided a grace period for unlicensed miners to formalize. A 1988 decree was the first to formally introduce the concept of unlicensed mining as "illegal mining." The licensing process was extended in 2001 and 2010 legislation, and the provision was made that mining operations could not be shut down or penalized while a request was being processed.
However, government mining body Ingeominas failed to process the bulk of requests, meaning those who had applied continued to operate unlicensed but legally protected. Between 2002 and 2010, just 158 mines were legalized. Many miners also applied for licenses purely to take advantage of this amnesty, without any intention of truly legalizing. In the Antioquian municipality of Anori, authorities said in 2012 that they knew of just 20 people who had attempted to see the licensing process through to conclusion.
Another problem was that 2001 legislation opened the mining industry to large companies and reduced the central government's role to that of a regulatory and tax authority. This placed local governments, who often lacked the resources or political will to do anything about it, at the head of the fight against illegal mining and opened the way for corrupt local authorities to act in their own interests -- which in many cases has meant actively or passively allowing illicit mining activity to continue.
It is not just the extraction process that needs to be more closely monitored -- gold and other illegally mined minerals are easily "laundered" and sold on the legal market. Intermediaries sell small quantities from various sources to export companies, and there is little oversight as to where the material is coming from. Once it has been mixed in with legally sourced gold, it is extremely difficult to trace the origins, a phenomenon also seen in Peru's illegal mining industry.
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In 2011, the magazine Dinero blamed this problem on 2010 legislation that gave a broad definition to the term "traditional mining," allowing it to encompass any mining activity that had been taking place for 10 years. The law "favors the laundering of illegal mining through the figure of 'traditional mining,'" it said.
Terminology has also been a problem, with 2007 legislation conflating "illegal" and "informal" mining, and the government fight against illegal mining often doing so as well, says the Comptroller's Office. Meanwhile, a 2010 government legal project that investigated the involvement of illegal actors in mining and would have defined the term "criminal mining" was never approved.
Add to this the lack of government presence in many areas where illegal mining occurs -- often in jungle regions or other zones difficult for security forces to access -- and inadequate controls over the chemicals used in mining, and the prognostic is not good.
While the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos has said battling illegal mining is a major objective, the same antiquated, hole-filled legislation that the Comptroller's Office said created conditions ripe for illegal actors remains in place. It is unlikely "hard" measures -- like destroying machinery or creating new police units -- will have much of a lasting effect if they are not accompanied by changes in the legal and social regimes governing mining.