In the dense jungle of southern Colombia, police and soldiers leap from helicopters. They attack and subdue those below. These officers of the law aren’t combating wild animals or even foreign enemies: They’re fighting gold miners.
Illegal mines are common in Colombia and across much of Latin America. The mines require massive tree-clearing along the country’s rivers. Miners use mercury to separate gold from the soil. The extraction process pollutes water and poisons wildlife.
“Just one gram of mercury can contaminate 500,000 liters of water,” General Jesús Alejandro Barrera Peña of the national police says. The resulting biohazard can last for generations.
Enforcing laws in remote areas where criminals set up shop can be difficult.
In a raid this spring, the whir of choppers sends miners below fleeing into the foliage. A few stay behind to confront the helicopters’ law enforcement crew. But authorities quickly overpower those on the ground with tear gas and begin destroying the extraction equipment.
The raided mine is in Magui Payan, a remote zone of southern Colombia. The area has no piped water, and communications links are feeble. The rate of extreme poverty there tops 80%, according to Mayor Alejandro Juvenal Quiñones.
“We are surviving by work and the grace of the Holy Spirit,” the mayor says. He’s right, of course. (Acts 17:28)
Mines are the main income source in Magui Payan. But crime gangs—often drug lords or various rebel organizations—control most of the valuable deposits. They force local miners to work for them and extort gold from small legal mining operations.
Police officer Pedro Pablo Astaiza says armed groups demand a 10% cut of everything produced by each excavating machine. That amounts to about 13 pounds of gold per month per machine.
Raids harm the criminals temporarily. But in six months, they can set up again.
Experts estimate that two-thirds of the gold produced in Colombia in 2019 was illegally extracted. Criminals profit directly from illegal gold sales. But they also use the gold trade to hide drug trafficking money.
Since the start of 2019, the government has raided 9,235 illegal mines. Police have arrested 3,300 people and destroyed or disabled 450 dredging machines.
Illegal gold mining is a major income loss for the Colombian government, which needs resources after decades of conflict with guerrillas, gangs, and corruption.
The loss is felt on a local level too. During a recent raid, one woman shouts: “If the state doesn’t let small miners work, I can’t feed my children because the state gives me nothing.”