Iranian Gold, Platinum Smugglers Arrested in Colombia’s Chocó

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Colombian authorities have arrested two Iranian citizens on charges of overseeing illegal mining in the department of Chocó and of having illicitly exported over $50 million worth of gold and platinum to Canada and the United States.

Hassan Jalali Bidgoli and Amir Mohit Kermani were targeted in an intelligence investigation by police, which revealed they were behind illegal mining in the Quito and San Juan rivers. At the time of their capture, they held US citizenship documents.

Local residents of the municipality of Medio San Juan were recruited to help extract the minerals and several of them were named as executives in a front company, called Dragados San Miguel S.A.S.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Illegal Mining

This was just one of a number of front companies used by the network of gold smugglers. Another known as Vencol was run by a Venezuelan citizen, Moises Ortiz Martinez, who was in charge of “legalizing” the gold obtained from Colombia as well as from other illegal mining assets from Bolivia.

The minerals were then exported to Canada and the United States through yet another company based in Medellín, named C.I. Tala Legal Trading. The proceeds from these exports went to unidentified “criminal gangs in Libya and the US,” according to El Tiempo.

The Colombian police reported that the gang paid dues to the Urabeños, also known as Clan del Golfo, to be allowed to operate in the region.

While these arrests were made in Chocó, the group operated across Colombia. Authorities have issued a total of 16 arrest warrants, including for other members in Valle del Cauca, Cauca, Cundinamarca, and Antioquía. The group also had a presence in Bolivia.

InSight Crime Analysis

Illegal gold mining has consistently proven to be an attractive incentive for foreign criminal groups who come to Colombia in search of illegal profits. The presence of this network in Chocó is unsurprising as that department accounted for 39 percent of illegal mining ventures in Colombia in 2017.

While drug trafficking has drawn the the most arrests of foreign nationals in Colombia, illegal gold also has attracted international criminals for the profits it can provide and the ease with which gold can be laundered. While a kilogram of Colombian cocaine can be worth around $40,000 once it arrives in Europe or the United States, a kilogram of gold can be worth $42,000 on the legal market in Colombia.

SEE ALSO: Urabeños News and Profile

What makes these arrests particularly eye-catching is the involvement of the Iranians. It’s much more common for foreign bosses of illegal mining in Colombia to have come from Brazil. They have often been attracted to the country due to its mineral wealth and relatively lax Colombian laws compared to Brazil’s, according to Colombian authorities.

The participation of Venezuelans has also become commonplace, although usually as workers in the mines due to the influx of refugees, and not as executives or managers. The presence of Iranians is almost unheard of to date.

Besides manpower, illegal mining requires heavy machinery that causes irreparable environmental damage, as has been reported in the Quito and San Juan rivers.

Criminal organizations like the Urabeños and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) also benefit from the industry, taking their cut by means of protection services, or taxes to bring in mining equipment such as dredging barges.

This article was written with assistance from InSight Crime’s Colombian Organized Crime Observatory.

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