Colombian rebels like gold
Income from gold mining has overtaken drug trafficking for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, according to a new report from political risk firm Exclusive Analysis.
In some cases the rebel groups and a new generation of drug gangs known locally as Bacrims, are carrying out their own gold mining operations and in others they are collecting protection money for equipment owned by mining companies, Amanda Russo, the intelligence company’s head of corporate communications, elaborates in an email from London.
“Mining income has overtaken that from drug trafficking for FARC rebels in some provinces,” Carlos Caicedo, head of the agency’s Latin American Forecasting and author of the report, outlined in a press release. “The scant security force presence in some of these remote areas permits the FARC and Bacrims to latch on to this and often fight each other for the right to extort.”
It is a similar situation in the departments of Cauca, Choco and Valle Del Cauca, the report claims. Caicedo also noted that FARC and drug gang involvement in gold mining increases the risk of extortion and property damage, particularly in places like Antioquia and Putumayo.
There is evidence, too, he said, of armed groups controlling coltan and tungsten operations in the eastern provinces of Vichada and Guainia.
But Robert Carrington, president and chief executive of Colombian Mines Corporation (CMJ-V), who has worked in Colombia for two decades, says the FARC have been doing this for some time and the government is battling it, and the report doesn’t break any new ground.
“Every once in a while someone reinvents the terror wheel about Colombia,” he says. “They try to bring out how dangerous a place it is, and the drugs, and it’s almost shock value to get people to read whatever it is they’re trying to say.”
Carrington says the FARC has engaged in illegal mining activity and extorted small Colombian miners for years, adding that he doesn’t know of any multinationals that are grappling with the issue. Extortion is usually a problem for Colombian nationals who are operating small placer operations, he explains, where one man with an excavator hires five or six men to help him. “Some times the guys will get a knock on their door at midnight and someone sticks a gun in their mouth and collects what they call a war tax; it’s protection money.”
Some of the guerrillas are also mining placer gold themselves, he adds. They will get equipment, either by stealing it or buying it, and find an area rich in placer gold and mine it themselves.
According to Carrington, guerrilla bands can show up almost anywhere but that for the most part they avoid highly populated areas that have good road networks because that is where they can be cornered by police and the military. He also points out that gold mining has been part of the country’s culture and its economy since pre-Colombian times, and as a result all the roads are in some of the more prospective gold regions and generally these areas have pretty high levels of security.
“What I tell all of our investors is, it’s just like working in Los Angeles,” he says. “If you go into the wrong neighborhood you are going to have trouble, but there are a lot of people who work in L.A. every day and never have a problem with crime or gangs and all of that.”
Having said that, however, Colombia is a country where you want to be careful and companies that choose to operate in more remote guerrilla-held territory are taking risks, he says. “There are some foreign companies operating in some parts of Colombia and I don’t know how they’re operating unless they’re paying protection money,” he says. “There are some companies working in parts of Colombia that I still elect not to work in. And whether it’s because they have military security there or maybe they pay protection money, I don’t know.”