Colombian armed rebels tighten control over gold mining

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and a new generation of drug gangs (known locally as “Bacrims”) are increasingly turning to gold mining to finance their terrorist acts, reveals a report released Thursday by political risk firm Exclusive Analysis.

“FARC and drug gang involvement in gold mining increases extortion and property damage risks, particularly in Antioquia and Putumayo,” said Carlos Caicedo, head of Latin America forecasting.

The expert says that funds coming from mining operations are now the main income source for the revolutionary groups. In some provinces, he added, it has overtaken drug trafficking, especially in areas controlled by the FARC.

Caicedo said the lack of security presence in some of Colombia’s remote areas is fueling confrontations between the FARC and Bacrims, who often “fight each other for the right to extort.”

According to the report there is also evidence of armed groups controlling coltan and tungsten operations in the eastern provinces of Vichada and Guainia.

“The rail line between the Cerrejon coal mine in La Guajira and its Caribbean port tends to be bombed by the FARC several times a year. Mining and power equipment at the site has also been targeted,” said Caicedo.

Since the Colombian government and FARC representatives began face-to-face peace talks in November, those who live in the areas controlled by the rebels have been following the negotiations closely.

“Mining and forestry are controlled by the FARC and other criminal gangs,” said Richard Moreno, a legal adviser to an NGO that advocates social development in the Choco department, known for its large Afro-Colombian population. “If you don’t hand over extortion payments, you can’t work there.”

Colombia’s economy, Latin America’s fifth largest, has grown four times faster than Canada’s in recent years, with foreign investment quadrupling between 2002 and 2008.

The country holds vast and, until now, untapped natural resources of coal, gold, silver and oil.  The government has been taking a number of measures to boost the sector, which currently accounts for only 2% of Colombia's economy. However, much of these are in areas where the FARC has a strong presence.

What if the peace talks succeed?

The question of what will become of the FARC’s mining activities should the peace talks with the government succeed, is linked to the broader issue of Colombia’s approach to regulating the entire mining sector.

Since 2002 the government has stimulated the industry, increasing the distribution of mining permits in the country. Yet, some estimate that nearly half of all mining in Colombia is illegal, or conducted by small-scale mines without formal permits.

The government has vowed to make it easier for explorers to acquire legal permits, but there are still at least 6,000 mines in Colombia currently considered illegal, according to a report by Insight Crime.

In early November, President Juan Manuel Santos presented a package of measures, including a proposed bill before the Congress, aimed to make illegal mining a crime punished by the country’s Penal Code.

Apart from the bill, Colombia’s government will issue two executive decrees aimed at defining the concept of illegal mining.

These actions could be key to weakening the FARC’s hold on mining. If the proposed reforms become a law, it would grant miners the means to report extortion without fearing terrorist or legal consequences.

Image: March in the city of Medellin against the FARC. By Xmascarol.

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