Arrest Shows Overlap of Legal, Illegal Mining in Colombia

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The arrest of a Brazilian national who is both a registered miner in Colombia and the alleged ringleader of an illegal mining structure illustrates the nebulous division separating the country’s legal and illegal mining sectors. 

Colombia’s National Police arrested José Antonio Cavalcante, one of two Brazilians authorities say ran an illegal mining network in the northwest department of Chocó. Nine other suspects were arrested in the sting.  

The group that authorities have dubbed “The Dragons” allegedly used 40 dredges to conduct gold mining operations along the Quito River in Chocó. Police Gen. Jorge Rodríguez Peralta told El Tiempo that the operations produced roughly 20 kilos of gold per week with a market value of approximately $672,000.

Authorities say the group’s illegal mining caused significant environmental damage. Up to 37 children have reportedly died in the area due to consuming water contaminated by mercury, a harmful by-product of illegal mining.

According to police, illegal armed groups — including the Urabeños and the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional – ELN) — provided Cavalcante’s network with armed protection in exchange for a cut of the mining profits.

The government reported on April 26 that it had carried out almost 300 operations against illegal mining in the first four months of 2016 and had destroyed or confiscated more than 100 pieces of heavy equipment used for illegal mining, according to El Tiempo.

InSight Crime Analysis

Cavalcante embodies the tangled nature of Colombia’s legal and illegal mining sectors. He is hardly an unknown figure in the illegal mining world; he was arrested in 2014 on similar charges. In 2012, the head of a sustainable development organization in Chocó was sanctioned for soliciting bribes from Cavalcante, who had been fined for illegal mining on the Quito River.

Despite Cavalcante’s notoriety, he is also the legal representative of a registered gold mining company in Colombia. That the representative of an official mining company can allegedly double as a serial, flagrant violator of mining laws indicates a high degree of crossover between the illegal and legal mining sectors.

It also reflects how poorly the government has regulated this industry. Criminal groups take advantage of this lack of oversight by charging illegal miners extortion fees, which are known locally as “vaccinations.” 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Mining

This legal gray area is not just limited to Colombia’s gold mining sector. For decades now, authorities have struggled to rein in the influence of armed groups and criminal actors over the lucrative emerald industry. The one-time “Emerald Czar,” Victor Carranza, even built his own paramilitary organization to protect his business empire. 

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