After the Gold Rush: Colombian Town Counts Cost of Illegal Mining Boom

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For five years, the town of Buriticá in northern Colombia was consumed by a gold fever that turned the sleepy mountainside village into a stronghold of illegal mining, mafiosos and armed groups. Following the biggest anti-mining operation in Colombia’s history, that gold rush is now over. But for Buriticá there is no going back; this is now a mining town. And the industry involves Colombia’s most powerful crime group, the Urabeños.

The ruins of the mining boom litter the outskirts of Buriticá. On the road that winds its way into town, bricked up mine mouths scar the undergrowth and rusting cables descend aimlessly into the valley below from abandoned winches.

Where there were once sacks of ore stacked high in dirty roadside piles, now there are fences, security guards and army checkpoints. The bars, restaurants and brothels that blared music 24 hours a day stand empty and quiet, and the road itself no longer buzzes with weaving motorbikes driven recklessly by mud-streaked young men in hard hats and rubber boots.

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Across town, the road leaving the urban center offers an even starker view of what became of Buriticá. The area is now a ghost town of abandoned entables, the processing mills where miners extract around half of the gold from the ore and the “entable” owners claim the rest from the sludge they leave behind.

The remains of the crumbling structures stand as towering monuments to the ambitions and hubris of those that led the mining boom, an illustration of the incredible quantities of illegal gold that were sacked from the Buriticá mountainside, and an example of how the informal, the formal and the criminal seamlessly converge in the this industry. 

These were no small-scale operations, nor were they clandestine. Some stand several stories high, and once held hundreds of spinning “cocos,” metal cylinders where ore is ground up and the gold is bound to a sliver of mercury and rows of towering cyanide tanks where the leftover sludge is churned in a chemical cocktail.

Busting the Boom

The operation that reduced Buriticá’s informal gold mining to the wasteland it is today — dubbed “Operation Creta” — was launched in April 2016. Over 1,000 police backed by 400 soldiers descended on the town, among them hundreds of body armor-clad riot police, who slipped and stumbled down the narrow muddy tracks leading to the mine mouths to clear out the tunnels and anybody willing to defend them.

The results from the first wave of Operation Creta break down the gold rush into its constituent parts: 214 mine mouths, 32 gold traders, and 34 entables closed down, blown up or otherwise dismantled; 1,227 cocos, 117 kilograms of mercury, 612 kilograms of cyanide, 1,995 detonators and 10,467 packets of drugs seized; 620 grams of gold and 4,250 sacks of ore confiscated; 1,682 people bused out of the municipality and another 3,013 leaving of their own accord because there was nothing else to be done.

However, these figures tell only part of the story, and it is in the courts of Medellín and Bogotá where the tale behind the mining boom is beginning to emerge. There, prosecutors are laying out their evidence against an alleged mafia network that instigated and exploited the mining boom, pulling the strings of the trade as much from the legal world as the illegal.

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Currently on trial are the former town mayor of Buriticá and his interior secretary, who allegedly took huge payments in cash, gold ore and shares in mines to protect illegal mining operations. Police officers who were allegedly paid to wave through trucks of illegal gold or pass on warnings of security forces operations. And the man at the center of it all, a former vice president of the multinational company that owns the mining concession for the region, Eduardo Otoya.

According to prosecutors, while Otoya was acting as the public face of Canada’s Continental Gold, he was also directing informal miners in their operations and bringing in shadowy figures from the gold mining town of Segovia as investors to plow their suspect wealth into the booming gold trade.

Otoya and his mafia moneymen brought with them the labor to work the mines. Still today, miners from Segovia speak in awe of the fortunes that were made when thousands of the town’s youth followed the whispers to Buriticá, and either returned with riches to spend on new motorbikes, houses and businesses, or tales of how they had blown everything on drink, women and cocaine.

Otoya’s cabal was also accompanied by the paramilitary successor groups that exploited Segovia’s gold trade, and their mining modus operandi: make everyone pay. For most of Buriticá’s miners, the “ten-percenters” (“los de 10”) took their cut by force, threatening and murdering anyone who refused to pay. Otoya and his allies though, were allegedly happy to pay their share, as they received armed backing in return.

After the Golden Age

While the infrastructure of Buriticá’s mining boom lies in ruins and Otoya and many of his allies languish in prison, the story of the Buriticá gold rush has not ended.

Operation Creta may have turned back the tide, but a year after it started it is still ongoing. Hundreds of police and army remain posted in the town, and there are continuing operations to blow up or seal illegal mine openings, demolish entables and seize mercury, explosives and gold.

Hundreds of informal miners still sneak back into the abandoned mines or open up new tunnels in isolated areas out of sight of the security forces. Their ore is either ground up in clandestine entables or whisked out of town in trucks that seem to have little trouble passing through the security force checkpoints.

Continental Gold security guards constantly patrol the largest of Otoya’s mines, El Hebrón, which at its peak was the second most productive gold mine in Colombia, according to media reports. However, the mine — which even had dormitories, kitchens and bathrooms so its estimated 750 miners could work shifts 24 hours a day — is a multi-level rabbit warren, and plucking out the miners that creep into its forgotten corners is a daily game of cat and mouse.

Buriticá has had a taste of gold, and how the riches it provides carry their own price to be paid. But there is no going back.

Otoya’s mining mafia may have been dismantled, but with shadowy figures still lurking in the background and talk of central actors in Buriticá’s drama released to house arrest (“more like street arrest,” as one miner quipped) there are no guarantees it will remain so.

Most gravely of all, the neo-paramilitaries, now in the form of Colombia’s most powerful criminal network, the Urabeños, remain firmly entrenched in the municipality. They still claim their 10 percent, and according to security forces they remain committed to rekindling the mining activities that proved so lucrative for them. They also still murder, torture and disappear rivals and transgressors.

“Here, the people you meet might be smiling, but inside they are terrified,” one local, too afraid to give his name, told InSight Crime on a recent visit.

Left to pick up the pieces from the gold rush, mining is now the only future many residents of Buriticá can see. The fields are overgrown, agriculture abandoned and unemployment and poverty are soaring.

Among those left are many Buritiqueños who tried to stake their own claim to their town’s riches, many of whom tried to do things right by seeking to formalize their operations but were shunted aside for the quick riches provided by criminals and outsiders. They have been left bitter and exhausted by the experience, their ire directed less at the young miners who invaded their town and more at the company, which they say pushed them aside while Otoya and his mafia looted what they could.

Continental itself has disowned Otoya and launched a charm offensive among the community. But there is more disillusionment than faith over what it has promised local miners, while attempts to polish the firm’s image received a new setback when company president Mateo Restrepo found himself embroiled in the Odebrecht corruption scandal, the multi-country pay-for-play scheme employed by the Brazilian construction company throughout the region.

Buriticá has had a taste of gold, and how the riches it provides carry their own price to be paid. But there is no going back, not when the secret is out. One of the richest gold deposits on the continent lurks just beneath the surface. And if the Buritiqueños do not exploit it, then the outsiders, whether in the form of a multinational company, mafia mining magnates or young miners with little regard for even their own futures, will.

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