Colombia Forms New Joint Unit to Combat Illegal Mining

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Colombia has created a special unit comprised of nearly 400 police, military, and prosecutors to combat illegal mining in Antioquia province, an indication of the growing importance of the crime as a source of financing for the country’s criminal groups.

Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon announced that a group of 386 military soldiers and police would be sent to the municipalities of Remedios, Segovia, Vegachi, and Yali to halt illegal mining activities in northeast Antioquia, one of the provinces most affected by unliscenced mine, reported EFE. Police would go into the areas first and receive military support, Pinzon said, adding that “even more important” was the addition of two specialized prosecutors who would work to bring the criminals to justice after their arrest.

Groups like the Urabeños and the Rastrojos, as well as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in particular are involved in the area’s illegal mining activities, according to EFE. The fight against illegal mining would therefore also help in the fight against drug trafficking, Pinzon said. He added that the government had already halted production at six illegal mines in the area, arresting 14 people and seizing three backhoes.

The formation of this special unit comes 10 months after President Juan Manuel Santos announced that illegal mining would be a top priority for his administration.

InSight Crime Analysis

The Colombian government has said that criminal groups control illegal mines in half the country, either through the extortion of miners operating without licenses, or through their direct involvement in mining operations.  As Colombia continues to crack down on drug trafficking, illegal organizations have diversified their financing sources to activities like illegal mining. It’s estimated that illegal mining now makes up a third of the FARC’s revenue, for instance, after drug trafficking and other forms of extortion. The FARC’s 36th Front in Anori, , Antioquia, for example, charge around $1,600 for each backhoe entering its territory and around $530 per month for upkeep.

In April 2012, Colombia’s departing national police chief, Oscar Naranjo, called illegal mining the biggest challenge facing his successor. Part of that challenge arises from the fact that Colombia’s legal framework to prosecute illicit mining is not as extensive as the framework in place for drug traffickers. The Prosecutor General’s Office created an environmental crime office in January which tackles illegal mining in an effort to address this problem.

Because police are traditionally charged with going after neo-paramilitary criminal gangs like the Urabeños and Rastrojos, while the military is tasked with confronting rebel guerrilla groups like the FARC, the creation of this joint unit of police, military, and specialized prosecutors could help streamline the fight against illegal mining.

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