Recent raids on illegal mining operations in Timbiquí, Cauca were part of a broad crackdown on criminal economies being used by ex-FARC mafia groups, but they may only stoke anti-government resentment among the local Afro-Colombian community.
On September 17, Colombian public security forces initiated a series of raids on alleged illegal mining operations within the remote villages dispersed along the Timbiquí River.
Local sources on the ground provided InSight Crime with videos of several excavators which security forces allegedly dumped into the Timbiquí River before blowing them up. “The machinery that they burned in the middle of the river, and all the oil that spilled out, harms the environment,” one local resident told InSight Crime.
The river is the only means of travel to and from the community and locals say the debris in the waterway has severely hampered their ability to move.
Additionally, they defended their local involvement in illegal mining operations, saying that there are no other job opportunities and that the state has abandoned them.
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“The only source of income for people, or the majority of people, is mining,” one resident who wished to remain anonymous told InSight Crime. “We are pushing back because the right way is not to use force and burn the only work tools that these people have.”
Community members reportedly confronted security forces peacefully, trying to defend their excavators. But Colombia’s anti-riot squad (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios — ESMAD) was called in and several injuries were reported.
Locals of Timbiquí also told InSight Crime that authorities raided the homes of several suspected dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia — FARC), and that weapons and gold were seized. However, authorities have not confirmed this and no arrests have been announced.
Initial statements by the Attorney General’s Office indicated that local mining activity was being carried out by criminal structures without permits. The government later identified those responsible as belonging to the ex-FARC mafia, dissidents of the FARC’s 29th Front.
Dissident members of the FARC’s 29th Front are not new to Timbiquí, according to General Alejandro Bustamante, director of rural security for Colombian police. He added that the group’s use of mercury in its illegal gold mining activities has caused severe environmental damage.
The leader of the 29th Front dissidents has been identified as Gonzalo Prado Paz, alias “Sabalo.”
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If the crackdown happened as described by residents in Timbiquí, it is clear why the government’s actions may only serve to stoke sympathy for the ex-FARC mafia while doing little to hurt their mining operations.
With former top FARC leaders having announced a return to arms in August, the Colombian government’s crackdown is likely part of a broader campaign to cut off sources of revenue for the ex-FARC mafia.
However, history has shown that isolated raids on illegal mines are unlikely to impede future mining operations and can have real long-term implications for communities if the government does not have a plan in place for displaced workers.
Faced with few economic opportunities, workers often return to the dismantled mining operations. Miners attracted by the potential profits find clandestine ways to continue operating. There is also the risk that displaced workers are enticed by other illicit activities, such as coca cultivation or illegal logging.
Locals and workers whose homes or equipment were destroyed by security forces are less likely to cooperate with authorities in the future.
Timbiquí’s remote location is strategic for armed actors. Located on Colombia’s Pacific Coast, it is four hours by speedboat from the port city of Buenaventura, making it a perfect drug trafficking corridor. As there are no roads or bridges connecting Timbiquí’s dispersed settlements, it can take up to two hours by speedboat to travel between the communities, making it difficult for law enforcement to control coca cultivation or illegal mining.
At least two narco-submarines have been captured in the municipality in 2019, showing how it is also a departure point for cocaine shipments leaving Colombia. This remoteness has also made it difficult to develop any real economic programs there.
Back in 2016, the Ombudsman’s Office warned that mining activity conducted by armed actors would present socio-environmental challenges for Colombia’s southwest Cauca department. FARC dissidents have maintained a presence in Timbiquí since the 2016 peace agreement, and their local gold mining operations are deeply entrenched.