Illegal gold is increasing in importance as a source of revenue for crime groups

A prominent Mexican activist turned government official recently called attention to the ties between organized crime and the nation's mining industry, sounding an alarm that has grown increasingly loud in recent years.

In an early September public event concentrating largely on the 1994 Chiapas uprising, Jaime Martínez Veloz, head of the official Commission for the Dialogue with Indigenous Peoples (Comisión para el Diálogo con los Pueblos Indígenas) and a longtime advocate, blamed Mexico's mining industry for strengthening organized crime.

Martínez Veloz's agency, which operates as part of the Interior Ministry, has long made the mining industry's potential for harming Mexico's indigenous communities a priority. In 2014, it issued a report decrying the extension of tens of thousands of mining concessions over the past 20 years, thereby threatening many rural communities near the facilities.

Martínez Veloz's focus on the danger of the mining industry's ties with organized crime is more novel, however, and it is part of a growing chorus; government officials, activists, and investigators have all noted with alarm the increasing control groups like the Zetas and the Knights Templar (Caballeros Templarios) have over mining interests in Mexico.

For instance, a lengthy April report (pdf) by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime details the phenomenon's evolution in Mexico and other Latin American countries. The authors estimate that 9 percent of Mexico's multibillion-dollar gold industry is the result of illegal production, while mining in five different states -- Chihuahua, Guerrero, Michoacán, Morelos, and Tamaulipas -- is controlled by criminal groups.

Criminal influence over mines comes in many different forms. Often, gangs will demand extortion payments from local and multinational mine operators in exchange for allowing them to work their concessions. In other cases, criminal groups will take full control over a mining operation, using it both as a source of revenue and as a mechanism for laundering money. The groups that reportedly rely on mining include nationwide giants like the Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas, and more regional powers such as the Knights Templar, the Guerreros Unidos and Los Rojos.

Specific examples of the growing ties between legitimate miners and criminal groups have filtered out with increasing frequency. In 2015, mine owner Rob McEwen admitted to the Associated Press that he cut deals with Sinaloa criminal groups after one of his operations was robbed. In 2014, a Coahuila coal mine owner suspected of laundering money for the Zetas through his facility was murdered outside his home.

InSight Crime Analysis

The confluence of criminal groups and the mining industry is longstanding in much of Latin America. According to the same Global Initiative report mentioned above, illegal gold mining accounts for 77 percent, 80 percent, and 91 percent, respectively, of all national production in Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela. The extraction of other natural resources, such as emeralds in Colombia, is also overrun by criminality.

Criminal involvement in mining also spills over into other illegal realms. In Peru, for instance, money laundering patterns refined to handle billions illegal gold proceeds can also be put to use to launder money earned in the cocaine trade.

But while there is plenty of evidence of organized crime activity in Latin America's mining industries over the past five years, it is a newer phenomenon in Mexico. This is part of a broader diversification of activities observed among Mexico-based criminal organizations in recent years. As InSight Crime has noted on many prior occasions, both longtime hegemons like the Sinaloa Cartel and upstart regional groups have expanded beyond their traditional strong suit of drug trafficking. Today, they are active in extortion -- which consequently translates well to their incursions into mining -- as well as kidnapping, human smuggling, and many other criminal realms.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Mining

Criminal involvement in Mexico's mining industry is a small part of this broader dynamic, and indeed is a subset of the crime groups' increased involvement in resource extraction. Groups around the country have developed a market at home and abroad for oil and gas stolen from the state oil company Pemex. In Lázaro Cárdenas, the Michoacán port city where the Knights Templar and the Michoacán Family have long reigned supreme, the assassination of a local steel executive, reportedly amid demands for extortion payments by his multinational employers, made international news in 2014.

There are two major negative consequences to this development: First, criminal organizations are more resilient because they carve out new sources of revenue as well as new allies in the business community, making it more difficult for the government to dismantle these illicit networks. And second, crime groups further enmesh themselves in the legitimate Mexican economy, increasing inefficiencies and placing a brake on the entire nation's prosperity.

Investigations

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