Colombia’s southern department of Nariño is home to an extortion scheme, where two of the country’s largest criminal organizations, the ELN and the Urabeños, shake down illegal miners.
These groups have made more than 10 billion Colombian pesos (around $3 million) in Nariño over the last two years by forcing miners to hand over part of their earnings, according to Caracol TV, typically charging between 10 and 20 percent of what the miners earn.
An operation last week captured eight members of a criminal structure which worked for both the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and the Urabeños. Their role was to transport gold from the mines in the Telembí Triangle, a part of Nariño with high levels of coca production and illegal mining, to the departmental capital of Pasto. From there, the gold was taken to Ecuador and Peru by car, with traffickers seemingly posing as families on holiday.
Authorities believe that 66 tons of gold are produced in Colombia every year, of which 60 tons are produced illegally, El Colombiano reported, with at least 30 percent being linked to financing organized crime.
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During the raid, authorities found over 24 illegal mining sites and destroyed 50 pieces of machinery. The size of the illegal mining operation also revealed the scope of environmental destruction caused in the Telembí triangle, having contaminated five rivers.
This environmental toll has been devastating across Colombia. In January, two important rivers in the department of Chocó were reported as having been severely polluted. Nationally, more than 2,000 hectares are deforested every month due to open-pit gold mining, and heavy traces of mercury have been reported in water resources and rivers.
InSight Crime Analysis
The department of Nariño has provided a wealth of illicit economies for criminal groups in Colombia, from deforestation to coca production. However, illegal mining operations have become an increasingly important source of income, often topping profits from illicit drugs like cocaine.
The Telembí Triangle, in particular, has proven popular with criminal actors, such as the ELN and the Urabeños.
Reaching Barbacoas, its largest town, can take up to 10 hours from cities such as Pasto and Tumaco. It is this very remoteness and the ensuing low presence of authorities which makes it an attractive proposition for criminal activities. Furthermore, control over the rivers in the Triangle, along which much of the mining happens, also means controlling the most important drug trafficking routes.
Like in the rest of Colombia, gangs in Nariño have tapped into the easy profits to be made from illegal mining. Recently, the Colombian army seized a mine in Bajo Cauca, where Los Caparrapos earned about $200,000 a week. In Chocó, an Iranian-run gang mine paid the Urabeños to be able to operate in the region.
Gold is in many ways an ideal product for these gangs. It can be laundered within Colombia, exported to nearby countries such as Ecuador and Suriname, and can be “legalized” through shell companies before being sold legally overseas.
With this increasing demand for gold driving up extortion revenues, illegal mining is now a permanent and flourishing part of Colombia’s criminal landscape. And in Telembí and many other rural areas, its destructive environmental and social costs are also just another fact of life.