Colombian publications Verdad Abierta website and its partner Semana magazine have published an article looking at the ways unlicensed gold mining is feeding the armed conflict in Northern Antioquia, Colombia.
In the area known as Bajo Cauca, miners could be extracting up to 28 tons of gold each year, an industry worth billions of pesos thanks to record gold prices on the global market. InSight visited this area in July and found it to be very similar to the "Wild West" described by Verdad Abierta. Many of Colombia's neo-paramilitary groups - the Rastrojos, the Urabeños, the Paisas and the Oficina de Envigado - all have interests in the area and are looking to expand into mining. The 36th Front of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is also very active here, and charges tax on every bulldozer that enters their territory. Verdad Abierta estimates there are 2,000 bulldozers within a territory of 8,500 squared kilometers along Bajo Cauca's rivers. During InSigh Crime's visit, we counted 25 in a 10 kilometer radius alone, representing some pretty hefty profits for the 36th Front. Multiple sources confirmed to Insight that the average tax charged is between three and eight million pesos (between about $1,650 and $4,500) per machine.
Northern Antioquia has long been a key region Colombia's conflict. Not only did the National Liberation Army (ELN) first appear here, but so did Carlos Castaño's first paramilitary armies. There were dense fields of coca cultivations here (and still are, especially in the northern part of the Anorí province), but farmers were hit hard by a long campaign of aerial and manual eradication. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Antioquia's coca cultivations dropped from 10,000 hectares to 4,500 between 2008 and 2009. Many coca farmers used to supplement their income by panning the rivers for gold during the summers, but now rely almost totally on mining to survive.
However it now looks like the Santos administration is prepared to take a more active role in "legitimizing" the mining industry. Security forces announced that in September, they have shut down 40 unlicensed mines operating in the Córdoba province, an action repeated by police in the more southerly Valle del Cauca province. There have also been recent reports that drug kingpin Daniel Barrera Barrera, alias El Loco, also collects income from mines across the country, and even jailed paramilitary leader Carlos Mario Jiménez, alias Macaco, is thought to control a mine in Bajo Cauca. These kinds of actions are probably only going to increase in the future, perhaps even in Bajo Cauca, and we will also probably see more gold mining concession sold to Colombian and multi-national companies.