The number of foreigners involved in illegal mining in Colombia is on the rise as metal profits including gold exceed those of cocaine, police said.
Citizens from Italy, Brazil and China have been arrested in Colombia this year as authorities attempt to halt money flows and environmental destruction arising from the illegal activity.
“This is the biggest source of funding at the moment for illegal armed groups, bigger than cocaine,” General Luis Martinez, who heads Colombia’s rural police, said in an interview in Bogota. “The economy this is generating is extremely worrying. The criminal economy.”
A kilogram of cocaine is worth four million pesos ($1,860) in Colombia and can lead to a prison sentence. There’s nothing illegal about possessing a kilogram of gold, which is worth 90 million pesos, Martinez said.
An Italian and three Brazilians were arrested at an illegal gold mine in Colombia’s northern Antioquia province in January, with another Brazilian arrested in the same area in March, the police say.
In September two Brazilians were arrested in the southern Caqueta province, while seven Chinese nationals were arrested in the northern Bolivar province the same month.
Foreigners involved in the practice typically own the illegal gold operations, organizing local communities to work at the mines, said Colonel Wilson Chaparro, who heads the rural police illegal mining unit.
“These people are also bringing technology that’s not permitted and damages the environment,” Chaparro said during the joint interview. “They’re teaching Colombians to extract gold. It’s a perverse and illegal knowledge transfer.”
The mining frequently involves large dredges that suck up mud from riverbeds, from which gold is extracted using mercury and cyanide before the contaminated sediment is returned to the river, Chaparro said.
Platinum, coltan, coal and construction materials are also mined illegally by armed groups, police data show. Groups involved include guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as well as organizations without political ideology.
Foreigners that run illegal mines in Colombia are also involved in exporting the metals abroad, Chaparro said.
“Illegal mining doesn’t happen by accident,” he said. “It’s clearly planned out. We can’t yet say there are sophisticated networks at the international level, but they are working on their construction.”
Police are collaborating with other authorities domestically to determine export routes and verify evidence that suggests some legal mining companies with concessions in Colombia may be buying the illegal gold, Chaparro said.
Colombia produced 56 million tons of gold in 2013 while the two largest legal producers, Mineros SA and Gran Colombia Gold Corp., produced 6.7 million tons between them, according to data from the mining agency and mining association.
“Where does the rest come from?” Chaparro said. “Part of the production comes from illegal mining, and part from gold contraband.”