Mineral thieves in Bolivia are enticing vulnerable workers to rob one of the state-owned tin ore mining companies, in what looks like a significant development in the South American nation’s illegal mining activities.
Known locally as “jukus,” mineral thieves in Bolivia rely on “coyotes,” or recruiters, to form bands of 20 to 30 people to steal tin from the Huanuni tin mine operated by the state-owned Bolivian Mining Corporation (Corporación Minera de Bolivia -- COMIBOL) in the southern cities of Oruro and Potosí, El Deber reported.
Those recruited are charged a $300 fee to become part of the thieving ring. The fee covers the logistics of stealing the minerals and provides access to a password used by the group once inside the mine, which serves as a “lifeline” should the group encounter any adversaries. The stolen tin has a value of $30 per kilogram on the marketplace, according to El Deber.
One recruit said that a company worker at the Huanuni tin mine awaited them at the entrance. This worker provided the aforementioned password in exchange for money, and then showed the illegal miners to a tunnel directly connected to Posokoni hill, one of Bolivia’s richest tin mines. Sacks already placed at various points for the illegal miners to place the extracted tin made the job “much easier,” according to El Deber.
For everything the group collected, one of the workers said he earned $1,700, more than three times the $500 he invested for the coyote and transportation and extraction costs. At their most sophisticated, some of the groups utilize all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), firearms, explosives and trucks that can carry up to five tons of extracted minerals worth some tens of thousands of dollars.
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These bands have also created at least 20 front companies to market the stolen tin and launder the proceeds, according to Bolivian Prosecutor Orlando Zapata Sánchez, La Razón reported.
Officials in Bolivia say that former workers at the Huanuni mine act as guides for these bands of thieves. A member of the local mineworkers union admitted that some workers do help these groups, according to El Deber, but that it is not an institutional practice.
Mineral theft is costing Huanini at least two million bolivianos per month (around $290,000), and between 27 million and 28 million bolivianos (between around $3.9 million and $4 million) annually, according to La Razón.
There is also a cultural side to Bolivia’s illegal mining problem. The Andean nation has some four million Indigenous peoples -- more than one third of the total population. Some community members view the natural resources on the land they occupy as their own, and not belonging to the companies that extract them. “I am not stealing … it is our hill,” one illegal miner said in reference to Huanuni's mineral rich Posokoni hill.
That said, Bolivia's indigenous peoples are represented in various sectors of society, including the presidency, COMIBOL, private mining companies and in the miners themselves, suggesting that the illegal mining problem is likely more closely tied to layoffs within the mining sector and a lack of alternative employment opportunities.
InSight Crime Analysis
Bolivia’s “jukus” have been around for decades and are in fact a part of popular culture. In some instances, songs have been written about these gangs of mineral thieves, and some of the groups have even been given nicknames in movies, such as the “Juku Ninjas.”
That said, the juku problem came to a head last year after an explosion linked to such mineral thieves at one of Huanuni's tin mines killed at least 10 people.
More recently, in early March, an armed clash between illegal miners and members of Bolivia’s armed forces at another Huanuni mine left four people dead.
The latest news on the juku’s modus operandi suggests that they may be growing more sophisticated in the ways they steal precious minerals from state-owned mining companies, which are continuing to expand despite persistent struggles with production.
There are 35 juku groups operating in the southwest departments of Oruro and Potosí alone, according to Bolivia’s Defense Ministry. Several reports suggest these groups employ between 20 and 50 workers.
In some cases, four 50-worker teams have pilfered the same mining site in the same day, suggesting that there may be some larger organized structures managing these illicit activities, according to Página Siete.
In addition, the Huanuni tin mines being exploited in Bolivia are not open-pit, meaning the mining sites are underground and likely have just one entrance to enter and exit. Given this, it seems highly likely that some of the company’s workers could be facilitating the illicit trade, presumably in exchange for some form of kickback.
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Many of the illegal miners who make up these jukus are thought to be former workers laid off by one of the state-owned companies, or simply out of work local miners looking for an income source. These local regions within the departments where most mining in Bolivia occurs -- La Paz, Oruro, and Potosí along Bolivia’s western border with Peru and Chile -- are extremely arid, barren areas where the state lacks a meaningful presence due in part to a lack of resources and other factors. These sites also have few employment opportunities available outside of mining.
Bolivia’s mining industry is hurting and "far from the best of times," according to a 2017 Bloomberg report, which is likely contributing to the presence of such illegal mining activities. “In late 2015, the Bloomberg Commodity Index, a measure of 22 raw materials, reached a 16-year low, and in some cases the prices the miners got were half what they’d been five years before. The prices of a few minerals, including lead and zinc, have bounced back, but others remain depressed,” the report said.
The dire straits of Bolivia’s mining industry may in part be contributing to both the growing sophistication of the jukus, as well as the corruption that appears to facilitate the illicit trade. COMIBOL has for years had a reputation for being corrupt and inefficient.
Even though the armed forces have been monitoring the country’s mines for nearly a year, the work of the jukus continues. The so-called password that these mineral thieves receive allegedly comes directly from the police in exchange for a payment of up to 6,000 bolivianos (nearly $900), according to Página Siete.
“The password is the permission obtained from the police in exchange for a payment ... [and is] done directly with the highest ranking police officer in the company or in the departmental command,” according to one illegal miner.