Authorities in Colombia have dismantled a network of illegal mining operators allegedly working for drug trafficking group the Urabeños, providing further evidence of how the country's criminal organizations are deepening their involvement in unregulated gold mining.
On December 3, Colombia's national police captured 14 alleged members of the Urabeños in the department of Choco, near the border with Panama, reported El Pais.
The suspects allegedly ran an illegal mining network that authorities estimated was capable of producing at least six pounds of gold per week, representing a value of approximately $4.3 million this year. Over the past three years, this gold brought in average returns of $17.2 million once sold. Profits were reportedly shared between mining operators, gold sellers, and the Urabeños.
Among those captured was Jose Genaro Murillo, a former mayor of Sipi, Choco and the alleged head of the network. He is suspected of having ties to "Sebastian," the Urabeños leader supposedly in charge of overseeing the group's illegal gold mining interests in the region of Uraba.
The other detained suspects are reportedly legal representatives of mining companies and owners of mines that worked for the Urabeños.
InSight Crime Analysis
The arrests appear to corroborate information obtained during recent fieldwork by InSight Crime, which found that criminal groups have increased their involvement in illegal mining operations. These groups have long profited off illegal mining by charging miners extortion fees, but authorities say they are now investing in and regulating the mines, and using local frontmen as administrators.
The Urabeños are no exception. Colombia's most powerful criminal group, the Urabeños have diversified their criminal portfolio to include illegal gold mining, in addition to illicit activities such as drug trafficking and extortion. Their involvement in illegal gold has been most apparent in the department of Choco, a stronghold for the group and a resource-rich region.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Gold
Gold not only provides a source of revenue for criminal groups, but also a means of laundering dirty money. Once extracted, contraband gold is typically sold to exporters, who then introduce it into the legal market by providing false accounts.