Colombia’s Illegal Mining Crackdown May be Too Little, Too Late

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Colombia is preparing a series of new legal reforms to tackle illegal gold mining, after seeing seizures of illegal gold increase by over 6,600 percent last year. However, with falling gold prices and alluvial deposits likely dwindling, are these belated efforts merely targeting a trade already in decline?

According to the Colombian Ministry of Defense, authorities seized 739 kilos of illegal gold in 2014, compared to just 11 kilos in 2013, reported El Tiempo. Just four years ago, in 2010, the authorities seized no gold at all.

An unnamed official source cited by El Tiempo said they estimated criminal networks ended up selling eight tons of gold last year, meaning the seizures accounted for just over nine percent of their operations.

The Ministry also reported that the Colombian military confiscated 542 items of mining equipment, among them bulldozers, excavators and backhoes, 108 of which were destroyed. In addition, 1,757 people were arrested in connection with illegal mining and 655 mines were closed down.

The Ministry of Defense also announced the coming year will see legal reforms designed to facilitate efforts to clamp down on the trade. Vice Minister Jorge Enrique Bedoya told news agency Colprensa the new measures would target every link in the illegal mining chain, including the mines themselves as well as the transport and sale of gold and the supply of mining equipment.

InSight Crime Analysis

The last decade has seen a staggering boom in illegal gold mining to the extent that in some regions it has eclipsed the cocaine trade as the leading source of criminal income.

Guerrilla groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and criminal networks like the Urabeños have cashed in on the boom, running their own mining operations and charging miners fees to operate in their territory.

For years, the Colombian government has remained several steps behind illegal mining operations, lacking the resources, the know-how, and the legal framework to get a grip on the problem.

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This appears to finally be changing. The new legal reforms follow previous measures, including the establishment of special police units and the passing of a decree that allowed security forces to destroy equipment used for illegal mining.

However, the authorities may well be focusing their attentions on a criminal industry that’s already in a natural decline. The illegal gold boom was fuelled by record global gold prices, but these have recently been falling rapidly, drastically reducing the profits on offer.

Additionally, most illegal mining operations lack the technology needed to mine deep-lying veins of gold, and are limited to alluvial deposits and gold found relatively close to the surface. Given the accelerated rate with which illegal miners have been collecting these easily accessible deposits, it is likely that they will soon become ever scarcer. Thus, the illegal gold mining trade may be entering a period of diminishing returns and general decline, regardless of whatever the government does now.

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