Authorities in Colombia say the threat of illegal mining could exceed that of drug trafficking, a questionable claim that fails to take into account inherent differences between the two criminal industries.
During a political debate in Congress on November 3, Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said "criminal mining is a threat equal to or greater than drug trafficking," reported El Espectador. Villegas added that Congress should therefore pay greater attention to this issue.
In late July, President Juan Manuel Santos declared "war" on criminal mining, saying that it generated more income than the illicit drug trade. Santos stated revenue from illegal mining is being used to finance other criminal activities, such as human and drug trafficking.
InSight Crime Analysis
Villegas' statement that illegal mining poses an equal or greater threat than drug trafficking is somewhat dubious. This is due to several reasons, the primary one being the inherent differences between the natural resources driving these respective criminal industries in Colombia: gold and coca crops.
Unlike coca crops, gold is a finite resource. Once there is no more gold to be found in a mine or river bed, miners must move their operations elsewhere, and to increasingly remote locations. This can become exceedingly expensive, especially considering illegal miners often have to pay bribes to security officials to enable heavy machinery to enter mining areas.
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In addition, current market trends indicate coca cultivation is once again becoming a more profitable activity than illegal gold mining. Armed groups quickly capitalized on a surge in gold prices during the late 2000s by imposing an extortion fee on miners, and by 2012 gold had overtaken coca as the principal source of criminal revenue in one-fourth of Colombia's 32 departments. However, gold prices have since fallen by nearly 40 percent, while coca is becoming more valuable thanks in part to an increase in cocaine consumption in the United States. As a result, coca cultivation jumped an estimated 39 percent in 2014, and sources on the ground have told InSight Crime that figure will likely be matched or even surpassed in 2015.
On the other hand, illegal mining does have some advantages over drug trafficking. Illegal gold is easy to sell on the black market, and security forces are generally more concerned with cracking down on coca cultivation than criminal mining.