Colombia: How peace could impact the FARC's role in illegal mining

Illegal mining is fast becoming a central resource for the FARC, overtaking coca production in some provinces. With the rising price of minerals there's an incentive to stay involved, even if peace is achieved.

InSight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Geoffrey Ramsey's research here.

With the FARC seemingly deepening their involvement in illegal mining, InSight Crime takes a look at what could happen to the Colombian guerrilla group’s stake in the industry should the peace talks see success.

The first round of negotiations between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government in more than a decade officially began on Oct. 18. While many were taken aback by the FARC’s use of fiery rhetoric in a subsequent press conference, there is reason to believe that Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict can come to an end. As analyst Adam Isacson has pointed out, the guerrillas have so far participated in the talks “with seriousness and discipline,” demonstrating an encouraging commitment to the peace process.

But if the talks do go well, potentially resulting in the FARC’s demobilization, what will remain of the illicit finance networks is unclear. The group’s involvement in the drug trade is one of the five pillars up for discussion with the government, with Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon estimating earlier this week that the rebel group earns from $2.4 – $3.5 billion annually from the drug trade. But this is only one of many sources of funding for the rebels. As InSight Crime has reported, illegal mining – and gold mining in particular – is fast becoming a central resource for the FARC. Indeed, a study released in September by the Toledo International Center for Peace (CITpax) found that illegal gold mining had overtaken coca production as the main source of income for the FARC and other armed groups in eight of Colombia’s 32 provinces.

A recent investigation by El Colombiano supports this claim, finding that in the province of Antioquia, rebels charge the equivalent of between $1,600 and $2,750 for each piece of heavy equipment that illegal mining ventures bring in to their areas of control. On top of this, they also charge for the entrance of gasoline, and demand a 10 percent cut of all profits. As El Colombiano notes, this is somewhat ironic given that the head of the FARC’s negotiating team, Luciano Marin, alias “Ivan Marquez,” devoted much of his public remarks in the post-talk press conference to denouncing the “exploitative” practices of large scale mining companies in the country.

InSight Crime Analysis

In many ways the issue of what will become of the FARC’s mining activities is linked to the broader question of the government’s approach to regulating the entire mining sector. Since 2002 the government has encouraged the mining sector, drastically increasing the distribution of mining permits in the country. Despite this, some estimate that nearly half of all mining in Colombia is illegal, or conducted by small scale mines without formal permits.

The government has promised to make it easier for mining ventures to acquire legal permits, but there are still at least 6,000 mines in the country that are currently considered illegal. This measure could be vital to weakening the FARC’s hold on mining. If these reforms were more strongly embraced by the state, it would grant miners the means to report extortion without fearing legal consequences.

Still, the rising price of minerals like gold gives guerrillas an incentive to hang on to their investments. Even if the FARC were to demobilize at the conclusion of peace talks, many cells currently profiting from mining would likely continue their activities despite the wishes of their commanders. Some analysts fear that a FARC demobilization would mirror the failed 2003-2006 demobilization of the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), in which a number of mid-level commanders and those under them turned in their arms only to return to their criminal past.

There is also evidence that guerrillas in some areas of the country are deepening their involvement in the mining process itself. The CITpax report found that in the central province of Tolima, the FARC’s Central Joint Command had reportedly purchased mining machinery, presumably to rent it out at a profit to miners in the area.

Since the “end” of the conflict would likely fuel further investment in Colombia’s already booming mining sector, it could put elements of the FARC hanging on to their mining operations at odds with large-scale, permitted mining companies in the country. Extortion and the kidnapping of mining employees, which guerrillas have committed in the past, may increase and become more targeted as remnants of the group find themselves competing for resources and land. As such, any expansion of mining will likely require the Colombian military to prioritize security for multinational and domestic mining projects.

Geoffrey Ramsey is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here.

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