Attacks on Colombia’s largest private gold mine by the Gaitanistas, one of the country’s strongest criminal organizations, have demonstrated the group’s increasing boldness in targeting big business interests.
The attacks left at least two mine workers dead and 15 people injured between May 17 and May 30.
Wildcat miners have been invading the mine in Buriticá, Antioquia, owned by Chinese conglomerate Zijin Continental Gold, since at least early 2021, when they began blocking off tunnels to the company’s workers. They now control 60% of the tunnels, a Zijin representative told W Radio on June 1.
Police officers now guard workers in the mine, and the Colombian Mining Association (Asociación Colombiana de Minería - ACM) advises miners to wear bulletproof jackets.
A report by the news magazine Semana found that illegal miners have so far extracted two tons of gold from the Zijin site.
National media reports have blamed the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC) for the attack.
An online announcement, purportedly from the Gaitanistas, denied responsibility for the attack and blamed illegal miners.
Daniel Bonilla Calle, researcher on illegal mining in Buriticá, told InSight Crime that, as the region’s dominant criminal faction, the Gaitanistas are likely responsible.
“I don't believe that the miners carried out these attacks on their own, but rather the Gaitanistas or someone they hired,” Bonilla Calle told InSight Crime.
Wildcat miners either pay the Gaitanistas a “vacuna” extortion tax, typically about 10% of the gold they extract, or a fixed monthly quota. Some trade a larger proportion of their profits for funds to pay for machinery, according to Bonilla Calle.
In the wake of the attacks, spokespersons for Zijin Continental Gold urged the government to take “effective and immediate action” to secure the area, something neither the police nor private security have yet achieved.
The company made a similar plea in February, but authorities have sent no reinforcements.
InSight Crime Analysis
High gold prices and a lackluster response from state authorities appear to have encouraged the Gaitanistas to ramp up attacks on private gold mines.
The Zijin site is the first private mine that the group has attacked, said Bonilla Calle.
“This is exceptional," he said. "I consider it a break from the past, the way this illegal group wants to take control over the mining resources of the region.”
For years, criminal groups have laundered gold for easy profits. With gold prices near record levels, illegal mining is particularly attractive.
A week before May’s attack, the most significant since the mine’s invasion began, President Gustavo Petro criticized the group for exploiting the ceasefire with the government to expand their activities. With the breakdown of the ceasefire in March, the Gaitanistas have less to lose in attacking Colombia’s largest private gold mine. Though Colombia’s Mining Minister and Energy Minister Irene Vélez announced new measures, including controls over the use of explosives in the area, the government has made no announcement commitment to sending more security or military personnel to the region.
The state’s failure to repel illegal miners from the site in Zijin may have emboldened the group, Bonilla Calle said.
The Gaitanistas “previously had control over miners in the region but not over the company because this enormous mine had always had the protection of the state,” said Bonilla Calle. “Now, the state is not even capable of protecting the mine's assets.”