Organized crime syndicates in Latin America are best known for supplying the world with cocaine. Nowadays, groups in Colombia, Peru and elsewhere, have turned to trafficking illegally mined gold across the globe. The cartels, reportedly, now make more off of the underground gold trade than they do off coke. According to a recent report by The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime:
- In Peru and Colombia – the largest cocaine producers in the world – the value of illegal gold exports now exceeds the value of cocaine exports.
- Illegal mining is the easiest and most profitable way to launder money in the history of Colombian drug trafficking.
The report reads, in part:
In the first decade of the 21st century, two trends intersected: soaring gold prices greatly increased the profitability of gold mining, whilst the US led “War on Drugs”, notably in Colombia and Mexico (‘Plan Colombia’ and the ‘Mérida Initiative’), sharply reduced the profitability of drug trafficking from Latin America to the USA. As a result, there were considerable incentives for the criminal groups that control the drug trade to move into gold mining, and the fragmented nature of artisanal gold mining in Latin America greatly facilitated their entry. These groups were quick to realise that taking control of large swaths of land remote from government attention and dominating the enterprises that mined that land would enable them to generate larger profit margins with much lower risk.
Even though global gold prices have gradually decreased in recent years, organized criminal groups have continued to drive the expansion of illegal gold mining. The region is now unique in the high percentage of gold that is mined illegally; about 28% of gold mined in Peru, 30% of gold mined in Bolivia, 77% of gold mined in Ecuador, 80% of gold mined in Colombia and 80-90% of Venezuelan gold is produced illegally. Illegal gold mining employs hundreds of thousands of workers across Latin America, many of whom are extremely vulnerable to labour exploitation and human trafficking.
The gold mining also includes victimization of innocent people. According to PRI, workers are forced to extract gold from sediment under dangerous conditions in the mines. For example, Livia Wagner, the author of the report, told PRI that she witnessed a worker mixing sand and mercury with his bare feet, in Peru.
The gold mines are also sites for human trafficking. Women and girls as young 12 are being lured from all over Peru to work in brothels near the mines. They are promised jobs, but when they get deep into the Amazon, “there is just no way out for them,” according to Wagner.
According to PRI, there is also vast damage being done to the terrain:
In addition to the human cost, the report outlines the environmental impact of widespread illicit gold mining.
The neurotoxin mercury, which is used in illegal mining to separate gold from sediment, is seeping into waterways, soil and air around mining sites…
Illegal mining also contributes to deforestation in sensitive Amazon regions.
After traveling for an hour through dense jungle to reach an illegal mine, “suddenly everything opens up, there are no trees there anymore, and all you can see is dead trees, like skeletons,” Wagner said.