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FARC, Narco-Gangs, and Illegal Gold Mining Plague Colombia’s ‘Wild West’

Illegal gold mining and the illicit activities that go hand in hand with every step of the process have cast a dark shadow over one territory in Colombia.

In the territory of Colombia known as Bajo Cauca armed groups have moved in to mine gold illegally, causing numerous deleterious effects on the social, economic and environmental fabric of this impoverished corner of the country.

Due to the weak physical presence of the state, the high price of gold on the international market and the ease of commercialization of the product, the illegal armed groups have essentially taken control of the zone and caused violence and displacement throughout Bajo Cauca.


Location of the Bajo Cauca subregion within the Colombian department of Antioquia

Bajo Cauca is a lush sub-region of the department of Antioquia, (Colombia is divided into 32 regions known as departments), and located in the northwest corner of Colombia. About five hours north by car from the department’s capital and Colombia’s second city, Medellín, Bajo Cauca lies in the foothills of the Central Cordillera of the Andes, nestled in the basin between the rivers Cauca and Nechí.

The sub-region is Medellín’s key to the Caribbean Sea – another five hours north by road is the coast – and a crucial nexus of the vastly different Andean “paisa” culture and the afro-caribbean “costeño” culture.

Five-Hundred Years of Gold Lust

Bajo Cauca contains the oldest towns in Antioquia. Once the Spanish conquistadors discovered gold in the region, they built the town of Cáceres in 1576 and Zaragoza in 1581 as mining centers, using indigenous slave labor to extract the mineral resource that was both a commodity and a form of currency for the Viceroyalty of New Granada, the Spanish crown and the rest of Europe. The indigenous slaves began to die at such an alarming rate that the Spanish crown feared there would be nobody left to colonize the region, so they outlawed chattel slavery of Amerindians and imported shiploads of people from the West African coast.

As unwilling millions entered the Viceroyalty of New Granada through the slave-port of Cartagena, they were sent inland to extract the metallic sustenance for which Europe starved. In the days before paper money, gold ran the European economy, and in the 17th century, what is now known as Colombia provided up to 25 percent of all gold circulating in Europe, a large majority of that coming from the Bajo Cauca. For the Spaniards, gold was easy to extract and quick to turn a profit – which is exactly what continues to entice illegal armed groups operating in the area today, with drastic consequences for the environment, the people and the economy.

Environmental Catastrophe

According to a report from the Universidad de San Buenaventura in Medellín, the illegal mining industry poses an existential threat to the environment of the Bajo Cauca – where environmental regulation of the legal industry is already inadequate. The most imminent dangers to the region include land denudation due to heavy machinery use and poisoning of waterways and food supplies by virtue of the use of sulfuric acid and mercury in mining operations. The massive machines used by the mines, often brought into the area illegally, tend to strip the top 2 percent of the soil.  This has a devastating effect on local biodiversity, the nutrient productivity of the soil, the natural water cycles of the area and the biological processes of flora and fauna. An investigative report from El Colombiano sheds light on the destruction:

“the panoramic vista from the helicopter allows one to appreciate the impact of the degradation left by machines that dig up the earth, the men who drive them, and the 60 tons of mercury that is consumed annually in the Bajo Cauca sub-region …  All of the hues of the bowels of the earth, from a pale coffee to an intense brown, can be seen due to the process of unbridled exploitation to satiate the thirst of gold in one Antioquia’s most mineral-rich territories. The water used in the process that accumulates in artificial lakes, swollen by the rains of April, gives off a turquoise-blue tone due to the use of chemicals, in contrast to the swampy color of the Río Nechí, which flows through the zone and picks up the poison on its passage.  The scene is El Bagre and the countryside is a desert in the making – environmental authorities estimate that in the zone there are some 480 illegal mining operations with 50,000 employees.”


Illegal gold mine in Quilichao

The mercury used in these mining operations to separate gold from rock eventually finds its way into the atmosphere and soil. The notable characteristic of mercury, in addition to being highly toxic, is its persistence in the environment – it does not degrade over time, and accumulates over the years. As the inorganic mercury enters the ecosystem, it is transformed into the organometallic cation methylmercury, the number one source of mercury for humans.

Due to the process of biomagnification, wherein increasingly higher concentrations of a substance are found in organisms successively higher up the food chain, large, older, predatory fish in the rivers of the Bajo Cauca are filled with very high levels of toxic methylmercury. So as the gold miner eats his dinner for the night – perhaps a fish that had previously called the Río Nechi home – the mercury comes full circle and enters his bloodstream, where it damages the nervous system, and impacts brain function, DNA and chromosomes. It also creates allergies, skin conditions, fatigue, and headaches, has negative effects on the reproductive system and sperm, and causes birth defects and abortions.

Other substances used in illegal mining operations include sulfuric acid and iron oxide, which have similar effects on the ecosystem and on the humans living in the area. If those currently living in the Bajo Cauca region wish to preserve their ecosystem for future generations to enjoy, drastic measures must be undertaken soon. The problem is that illegal mining is highly profitable to the armed groups in the area.

Criminals Get rich, the Rest Get Crumbs

The profitability of illegal mining stems from very low costs and a maximization of output, which allows the illegal armed groups to sell gold at a much lower price than their legal competitors. It was this source of income that attracted the illegal groups to mining in the first place.

The FARC, ELN, and narco-gangs, predominantly the Urabeños, are all heavily involved in the mining trade, and sometimes all three groups are present in the same community.  In the wake of the loss of many high-ranking members, the destruction of coca crops, the loss of smuggling routes and other factors, these armed groups have moved from their old sources of income such as cocaine and kidnapping to the perceived “safer” and more lucrative gold mining. According to a report in La Semana from 2015,

“the profitability of the business is evident.  While a kilo of cocaine costs around 4 million pesos, a kilo of gold is around 90 million pesos.  A small mine on average can produce in a week one pound of gold whose commercial value lies at 32 million pesos.  These earnings explain why, while huge investments are made in machinery for the illegal exploitation, they are rapidly recuperated.  An excavator … costs 500 million pesos on average. The owner of the machine receives 1.6 million pesos per day to rent to an illegal mine, that is to say in less than one year of work, the cost of the machine is paid off, which is a very good business, explains Colonel Esguerra.  Due to the generous dividends of this activity … they can cover vaccines and extortions for all those who participate in the chain of exploitation. From the owner of the mine, who must pay 20% of the yield, up to the women who work as cooks in the camps and even the humble barequeros (artisanal miners) must pay a percentage.”

These immense illegal earnings result in a huge loss for the government, which threatens the economic stability not only of the department, but nationally as well. While the legal mines pay taxes on their income, the illegal mines obviously do not. While the government spends money in the region, they are not able to collect sufficient taxes to offset this spending – thus, a deficit has been incurred, and continues to widen.

In addition, the illegal financial activities of the various armed groups in the Bajo Cauca discourage potential foreign investment. Foreign companies see that their would-be competitors enjoy an extremely beneficial cost structure due to the illegal nature of their work, so they stay well away from the area. In conclusion, the heavy cash flow to illegal groups, the financial deficit incurred by failure to collect levies on said cash flow and the lack of foreign investment in the region all serve to stagnate the economy on a local and national level. This illegal, stunted economy serves to keep the Bajo Cauca in a state of abject poverty, along with all the social consequences that accompany it.

Social Degradation – Prostitution, Child-Labor, Drug-Smuggling

The presence of illicit mines in the Bajo Cauca has also resulted in a significant social decay in the area, including extreme poverty, mass forced displacement, child labor, prostitution of minors, alcoholism and general crime, all mostly targeting the marginalized Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities of the region.

According to a report from 2014 on Abierto.com, from 2012 – 2014 there were no less than 4,564 people displaced in the region throughout 14 mass displacements. In 2014 alone, 534 people were displaced from Amalfi, Antioquia.

“The FARC, ELN, and BACRIM are directly responsible for gold-mining disputes in the Bajo Cauca [and the displacement that comes with it], above all in Anorí, Cáceres, Caucasia, El Bagre, Nechí, Tarazá and Zaragoza,” according to the report.

Those who remain behind have no option but to accede to the only source of work available in the region – mining gold on illegal claims – a job that could be considered a sort of “sub-employment” due to the meager earnings and lack of safety guarantees or job-security of any kind.

Children also do not escape the impact of the shadow mining industry. They are forcibly recruited to work the mines by criminal gangs, according to David Turizo, national assistant director of Infants and Adolescents of the Colombian Institute of Family Well-Being, “the principle victims of recruitment for this illegal industry are indigenous and afro-descendants between 8 and 10 years old. The sub-regions most affected of the department are Bajo Cauca, Northeast, and Urabá. And the principle resources exploited by them are old, platinum, emeralds, and carbon.”

Recruitment continues to rise as the criminal groups prefer using children because they are a source of extremely cheap labor, and they can fit into small areas inaccessible to adults. They also have very little sense of the imminent danger they are in working in the mines. Yet they are forced to enter sinkholes, where they are exposed to potential explosions, asphyxiation and rockslides, in addition to a host of illnesses due to exposure to dust and gases.  And there are behavioral consequences as well. As reported in a Vanguardia article on the neighboring Bolívar department, “illegal mining activity has heightened consumption of alcohol among minors, who prefer to dedicate themselves to that once they leave school. In addition there has also been an increase in sex work among young women and girls.”

Children are also recruited as drug and weapons mules throughout the area, due to their ability to fly under the radar of the police. The children are recruited with cash and flashy cell-phones, while their parents are threatened with violence if they do not comply. Children as young as 5 years old have been found with cocaine in their pockets, according to a report from the foundation Hilos de Oro.

What Comes Next?

The Government of the Department of Antioquia has instigated a number of projects to alleviate the issues in Bajo Cauca by creating more incentives for legal, safe mining practices and foreign investment.

Program 1 involves the development of more sustainable mining practices along with technical assistance to make those practices a reality. The departmental government will install management centers in the area as branches of its Minister of Mines and Energy to oversee such projects and to establish more of an official presence in the region. Another subprogram seeks to educate miners on protection and safety so as to mitigate instances of accidental death and injury on the job. Program 2 aims to improve regulations on mining qualifications and taxation in the Bajo Cauca. The third program looks to improve the competition of legal mining in Antioquia on the international market, by promoting technological innovation, the use of clean technology and the development of more mining qualifications. The government also hopes to promote the mineral richness and opportunities for mining investment through the use of mining fairs in international promotional events. Program 4 has the goal of improving infrastructure and environmental practices in the Bajo Cauca by promoting the use of clean technology and lessening the use of mercury in the mines.   

There is a lawless darkness to the Bajo Cauca. The trade in precious metal that feeds an insatiable lust for power among violent gangs who long ago forgot their ideological raison d’être has brought death and misery to this remote corner of Colombia. In response, a number of policies have been instituted at a departmental level in an attempt to not only curb illegal mining, but also improve sustainability and development in the region. Unfortunately, in a corner of the country that has known unrest for decades, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of these programs.



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