A Coahuila coal mine

Citing links to organized crime, the Attorney General's Office (PGR) in Mexico has frozen the accounts of 12 mining companies so far this year, underscoring how criminal groups may be moving to diversify their criminal portfolios.

El Siglo de Torreon reported on January 25 that investigations into the possible drug trafficking ties of mining companies in Coahuila state were underway. The 12 businesses are also being investigated for money laundering, tax evasion and breach of federal regulations.

According to Justice in Mexico Coahuila is Mexico's biggest mining state and a key producer of coal; the state supplies Mexico's Federal Electricity Commission with over 3 million tons of coal annually.

InSight Crime Analysis

As Justice in Mexico notes, the allegations of organized crime ties to mining in Coahuila state first emerged in October last year when the state's former governor, Humberto Moreira, declared that the then recently killed leader of the Zetas, Humberto Lazcano, alias "Z-3,"had run coal mining operations there. Details on the current investigations have not been released, so it is unknown if any of the companies under investigation are suspected of ties to the Zetas.

As well as allegations of running their own mining operations, Mexico's criminal groups -- among them the Gulf Cartel and Knights Templar -- have been accused of extorting mines, charging them up to $37,000 a month for the right to operate in the gang's territory.

While organized crime may be extending its reach into the Mexican mining business, criminal involvement appears to be some way off that seen in Colombia. There, drug trafficking groups and leftist guerrilla organizations have been found to both extort and run their own illegal gold mines, and may be doing so in half of the country, according to Colombian police. What's more, the practice has become so lucrative in certain areas -- notably in northern Antioquia -- that it has likely overtaken the drug trade as the primary source of income for criminal gangs.

Illegal mining in Mexico is certainly a long way off reaching this level. However, as authorities continue to increase pressure on drug trafficking operations, it would be unsurprising if the country's larger, more sophisticated gangs move to diversify their sources of revenue further.