Colombia's national police chief, General Oscar Naranjo, stated that the biggest challenge facing his successor is illegal mining, an increasingly important source of funds for criminal groups.
Naranjo, who announced last week that he is stepping down, told newspaper El Tiempo in an interview that fighting informal mining is a far more politically costly than going after kidnappers or destroying coca crops, because many gold miners can question why they are being persecuted when they are exploiting what is essentially a legal product.
In recent years, criminal groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have diversified from their traditional sources of revenue like drug trafficking and kidnapping, and increased their extortion of unlicensed gold mining. In response, the Colombian government launched a mass campaign to crack down on unlicensed mining, to the protest of some communities which have practiced mining for years without official paperwork.
The police chief, who is set to retire this July, said that the departments of Antioquia, Valle del Cauca, Cordoba, and Tolima are the areas most affected by unlicensed mining. The primary groups involved in extorting miners are former paramilitaries, who moved into mining after their drug trafficking networks were badly hurt by counter-narcotics operations, Naranjo added.
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Given the FARC's dependence on the extortion of gold mining in the departments he named, it is curious that Naranjo failed to identify the rebels as one of the key players in the illegal mining trade. It is estimated that mining now constitutes a third of the FARC's revenue after drug trafficking and other forms of extortion. As iWatch News detailed earlier this year, the rebels have also reportedly expanded into coltan mining in eastern Colombia, selling the highly valuable mineral to Venezuela's black market. If Naranjo appeared to ignore the FARC, this could be a reflection of the traditional divide between Colombia's police and military, in which the military is charged with confronting rebel groups like the FARC, while the primary directive of the police is persecuting the neo-paramilitary groups known as BACRIMs (bandas criminales).
The move by criminal groups into illegal mining in Colombia has been well documented over the last year. In January, the National Police declared that BACRIMs such as the Urabeños and Rastrojos and the FARC now control illegal mines in half of the country, either extorting miners or directly running mining operations.
Colombia's mining and energy minister stated in November last year that illegal mining should now be treated as seriously as drug trafficking, something that General Naranjo appeared to imply during his interview. However, while President Juan Manuel Santos' administration have taken some important steps toward combating the issue, for example through the creation of a prosecutor's office focused on environmental crime, the legal framework to tackle illicit mines is still nowhere near as extensive as that against drug trafficking.