Several months after a sophisticated robbery where gunmen hijacked gold alloy bars being loaded onto a plane in Mexico, the government has stood up a specialized force to secure mining sites long terrorized by organized crime.
On October 18, more than 100 agents with Mexico’s newly-formed Federal Protection Service (Servicio de Protección Federal — SPF) were deployed to the La Herradura mine in the northern border state Sonora, the government announced in a news release. The open-pit gold mine is one of Mexico's largest, according to mining firm Fresnillo, a British-owned company with sites across Mexico, including La Herradura.
The unit's launch comes about six months after a brazen “express robbery” of the Mulatos Mine, also in Sonora.
On April 8, five heavily armed men stormed the Mulatos site as employees moved doré bars -- made of gold and silver -- onto a contracted plane at the mine's airstrip, according to a release by the mine’s owner, Minas de Oro Nacional SA de CV, a subsidiary of the Canadian firm Alamos Gold Inc.
As the men held the mine's employees and security personnel hostage, a small Cessna plane landed on the airstrip. The armed men managed to "extract a quantity of bars," and then made off in the Cessna, the company said in the release. The heist took less than ten minutes.
Thefts of precious metals in transit have been a source of growing alarm among industry officials in Mexico.
In March, a Fresnillo subsidiary reported a squad of armed men intercepted two trucks carrying bars of doré sourced from one of its mines. Similarly, gunmen hijacked a truck transporting precious metals from a Fresnillo mine in November of last year, taking more than 40 gold bars worth nearly $24 million.
At the inauguration of the new police unit in late September, Mexico's Public Safety Secretary Alfonso Durazo said that the securing of mining installations "is delicate and requires high specialization," according to a news release. Officers will also safeguard the transport of precious metals.
Manuel Espino Barrientos, the SPF's commander, announced that a second squadron would soon undergo training and be deployed to patrol another of Mexico’s important mines.
InSight Crime Analysis
The special police unit's launch suggests private security employed by mining companies is unable to match the firepower and speed of armed groups -- but organized crime’s infiltration of the mining sector may undermine the new government force.
Foreign-owned corporations control numerous mining sites across Mexico. Unrelenting attacks, however, have forced some to rein in their activities.
In 2018, Canada’s Pan American Silver Corp temporarily scaled back operations at its remote site in Chihuahua, to protect employees. The company reported repeated incidents on access roads to the mine. Fear of attacks by armed groups also forced workers to hole up in the mine. Some were later evacuated on private planes.
There has long been a pressing need in Mexico to secure mining sites and precious metal transport, and the new police unit may help prevent armed assaults. But organized crime groups facilitate corruption at all levels in the mining industry.
For example, the Knights Templar cartel smuggled lucrative iron ore. The group so thoroughly infiltrated the mining process that it at one time controlled the entire production chain, from extraction to exportation.
In 2013, it was reported that mining in five different states -- Chihuahua, Guerrero, Michoacán, Morelos, and Tamaulipas -- was controlled by criminal groups.
Organized crime networks have reportedly deepened their influence over companies in the sector by “providing their services” to protect mining interests.