Panama's forest areas are seeing a growth in illegal mining, raising the question of which criminal organizations are behind these activities.
A recent report by Panamanian news outlet La Prensa gives details on illegal gold mining in certain areas of the country that used to be part of a "biological corridor" project that aimed to preserve and promote sustainable development in natural areas.
Former Director of Protected Areas and Wildlife for the Ministry of Environment Samuel Valdés told La Prensa that illegal mining in these former corridors is increasing, and is connected to the illegal drug trade as a form of laundering money.
Valdés explained that the criminal networks recruit indigenous people to buy machinery and diesel fuel, and later purchase the extracted gold from them. The mineral is then smelted to make jewelry.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Mining
As La Prensa notes, in 2014 then-general director of Panama's border police Frank Ábrego stated that around 1,500 people are involved in illegal mining and contraband in areas of the provinces of Colón, on the Atlantic coast, and Darién, on the Colombian border.
At the time, Ábrego added that Colombian nationals suspected of involvement in drug trafficking financed illegal mining in Panama as a way of laundering their illicit assets.
InSight Crime Analysis
Allegations of Colombian groups' involvement in the illegal gold industry across the Panamanian border are not new, and gold trading in Panama has long been a favoured laundering method for Colombian criminals. The logistical challenge of carrying out large-scale extraction operations supports the theory that miners are being supported by powerful actors at this early stage. However, exactly which groups are involved in this illicit activity remains unclear.
Zorel Morales, executive director of Panama's Chamber of Mining (Cámara Minera de Panamá - CAMIPA), told InSight Crime that Colombian guerrilla groups are behind illegal mining operations. According to him, such groups not only finance, but also run extraction activities themselves. Ábrego also stated in 2014 that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) were financing and buying gold from miners in the Darién region, where the group's 57th Front is active.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Money Laundering
Nevertheless, former Government and Justice Minister Severino Mejia told InSight Crime that given the current peace and demobilization process underway with the FARC in Colombia, the guerrillas are no longer a threat in terms of illegal mining. Rather, this has passed into the hands of Colombian "BACRIM" (for the Spanish "bandas criminales") including the Urabeños. In 2014, Colombian Gen. Leonardo Pinto Morales stated that the Urabeños are in contact with Panamanian criminals in relation to illegal mining activities.
Still, until now, the available information has suggested that the Urabeños are mainly involved in the commercial sector of the gold trade in Panama. This group is believed to smuggle illegally mined gold from Colombia into Panama to be sold, while also using the country to launder money.