Seizures of coltan in Colombia have shown the complex networks used by armed groups to smuggle the valuable mineral from illegal mines across the border in Venezuela.
Prosecutors announced on August 15 the seizure of 1.5 tons of coltan after police discovered ore in a cargo truck in the eastern department of Guainía, according to EFE.
Coltan, also known as "blue gold," is rich in tantalum, a metal used in electronics, including cellphones and laptops. The seizure was the second this year in Guainía, a jungle region that borders Venezuela and Brazil.
In March, security forces discovered about five tons of coltan concealed among bags of sand on a boat traversing the Guaviare River in Guainía. Authorities claimed that the coltan had been smuggled by the Acacio Medina Front, a dissident cell of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC). The cell is one of the most powerful groups comprising the ex-FARC Mafia, the dissident FARC groups that refused to demobilize after the 2016 peace agreement.
In July, another 1.2 tons of coltan were found in the department of Vichada, also bordering Venezuela. According to the Attorney General's Office, the cargo was valued at $130,000 and allegedly belonged to the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN), Colombia's last intact guerrilla group.
Colombian Criminal Groups
In 2018, Colombia's Ombudsman’s Office reported that the FARC dissident factions and ELN were extorting miners and buyers of illegal coltan.
In Guainía, the armed groups control corridors of the Inírida, Atabapo and Negro rivers, which are used to transport ore from mining areas near Colombia’s Puinawai National Park and parts of Venezuela's Orinoco Mining Arc near the Colombia border.
Once the coltan is collected, it is taken to cities like Bogotá and Villavicencio. According to figures provided by the Colombian Attorney General’s Office, a kilogram can be sold for between $350 and $650. According to the Attorney General's Office, the coltan is worth up to 10 times more in international markets.
While the Venezuelan government has been actively trying to sell off the country's mineral resources, often illicitly, there is no firm evidence of state involvement in coltan trafficking. Venezuela's security forces, though, have been closely connected to the Colombian armed groups trafficking illegally mined coltan.
Coltan was first legally exported from Venezuela in 2018 in a five-ton shipment to Italy valued at $350,000.
However, economic sanctions imposed by the United States in 2019 largely ended legal mineral exports from Venezuela.
That year, Italian authorities seized Venezuelan coltan arriving at the Trieste port from Colombia's port city of Cartagena. In a report to Italy's Chamber of Deputies, the government said it was concerned about reports that the "Venezuelan government wants to enrich itself with coltan trafficking" and that the person in charge of the trade was Nicolás Maduro Guerra, the son of President Nicolás Maduro.
Maduro Guerra was sanctioned by the United States in 2019 on corruption charges and is suspected of being involved in the country's illegal gold trade.
The Italian government report also cited claims by Venezuelan opposition deputy Américo de Grazia that the coltan was illegally mined.
Speaking to InSight Crime, de Grazia said that the coltan had been mined in the Agua Mena-Parguaza sector of Venezuela's southern Bolívar state. The mineral was transported to the Puerto Paez border crossing with Colombia and was sent onward by sea. According to a 2020 report by Venezuelan environmental non-governmental organization SOS Orinoco, Agua Mena-Parguaza is the site of a controversial private-public partnership created between state entities and a newly formed company in 2016 to mine coltan.
According to both de Grazia and SOS Orinoco, ELN oversee the mining of coltan in Bolívar.
"The Colombian guerrilla forces purchase the coltan extracted by members of the Agua Mena communities at a fraction of the international price," SOS Orinoco investigators wrote.
The report also noted that Colombian armed groups are extracting coltan illegally from Los Gallitos, another mining area in Bolívar, and moving it to Colombia with the permission of Venezuelan armed forces.
"Coltan mining operations are nothing more than an activity ... totally immersed in corruption. It has as its purpose the enrichment of ... military officers, politicians, financial backers and technocrats," the report concludes.