Colombia announced the seizure of 400 kilos of illegally mined tungsten in the east of the country, highlighting how its criminal groups are increasingly controlling illicit mining operations and have diversified into minerals other than the main earner, gold.
Colombia's Navy seized 400 kilograms of illegally mined tungsten ore on August 15 in the area of Caranacoa, Guainia province, near the Venezuelan border. The shipment was being transported along the Inirida river by two men.
According to the navy's press release, it was the second seizure of illegal tungsten this year in Colombia, after authorities confiscated more than 5 tons of the mineral in the neighboring province of Vichada in May.
No information was released on who may have been responsible for the illegal mining operation.
InSight Crime Analysis
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) released a report in March detailing how Guainia and Vichada were hotspots for the illegal mining of coltan and tungsten, with guerrillas controlling the mining sites, paramilitaries controlling the trafficking routes, and drug traffickers moving the minerals out of the province. A ton of coltan can reportedly be sold illegally for some $500,000. Guerrilla groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) may be illegally extracting tungsten for use in the construction of projectile explosives, according to Santiago Martinez of the Universidad de los Andes.
Police told the ICIJ that one of the trafficking organizations involved in mining operations in Guainia was the Cifuentes Villa clan, an organization accused by the US of working with the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel as one of the groups' biggest suppliers of cocaine, as well as laundering money for them. The clan reportedly operated a mine near Puinawi National Park, one of the areas in the region with the highest concentration of illicit mining.
Guainia's state police commander also told the ICIJ that boats carrying illegally mined minerals regularly move back and forth between Colombia and Venezuela. Though Venezuela is a source of precious metals, some criminal groups, particularly the FARC, are believed to move coltan into Venezuela where a "regulatory vacuum" means that the trade is legal. This has allowed criminal gangs to step in and control the black market.
Colombia's criminal groups have experience in illegal mining operations, with many involved in the clandestine gold trade. The FARC are alleged to control many illegal mines in the country, charging fees for machinery used in mining operations. This can reach $1,600 per backhoe. The Rastrojos operate in a similar fashion, taxing miners around 10 percent of their daily profits.
The government has been making efforts to combat illegal mining in the last 12 months, including the creation in January of a special prosecutor's office to tackle environmental crime. However, it will likely have to do a great deal more to effectively combat the problem, which former police chief Oscar Naranjo said was the biggest challenge facing the country.