A multi-year investigation has revealed that up to 70 percent of mining in Colombia is illegal, a statistic that brings home the importance of tackling this criminal industry as part of the country's ongoing peace-building process.
The figures, accessed by El Tiempo, come from a five-volume publication by Colombia's Externado University, which took 93 investigators two and a half years to complete. According to El Tiempo, it is considered to be the most in-depth investigation of its kind in Colombia.
Externado President Juan Carlos Henao said the main issues with illegal mining are financial, since illegally extracted minerals cannot be taxed, and environmental, given that 180 metric tons of mercury that are produced as waste each year, El Tiempo reported.
Henao also said this criminal industry involving multiple illegal armed actors will be an important challenge for "post-conflict" Colombia. The Colombian government and rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) reached an agreement in late June on a bilateral ceasefire, bringing the two sides closer to a final peace agreement.
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Academic researchers told El Tiempo that tackling the industry will require a long-term change in mentality within mining communities, as well as educating local officials about appropriate law enforcement responses.
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The university's figures are further indication that illegal mining will be one Colombia's greatest security challenges should the government and FARC succeed in signing a final peace agreement. The FARC have deep ties to the illegal mining industry, which is one of the guerrilla group's principal source of illicit income.
The illegal mining sector has become a major revenue generator for various other illegal armed groups as well. It is an industry that could be worth $2.4 billion a year, according to government estimates, and last year President Juan Manuel Santos suggested criminal mining is more lucrative than drug trafficking.
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Given these steep profit margins, it comes as little surprise that Colombian groups are already fighting for control of mining areas that the FARC will presumably abandon once a peace deal is reached, most notably in the departments of Antioquia and Chocó.
One such group is the Urabeños, the country's most powerful criminal organization. The Urabeños have most recently been linked to the assassination of at least 17 community leaders in the municipality of El Bagre, Antioquia, over the past six months alone. El Bagre is both an illegal mining and coca-growing hub, and has already been affected by territorial clashes between the Urabeños and the FARC.