For decades, the dominant image of organized crime in Latin America has been the drug cartel. But in recent years, for an increasing number of narcotrafficking groups—as well as right-wing paramilitary militias, and left-wing insurgents—illegal gold mining has become the real moneymaker.
Until the beginning of this decade, the nexus between wildcat illegal mining and criminal groups wasn’t considered an issue of state importance. The problem was first brought to public attention in 2011, when a report by the Colombian Security Service warned the government that 50% of the mines in the country were illegal and that armed groups dominated many of the mines.
As investigations and exposés followed, the public began to see that how extensive the illicit mining business was; now, it is believed to be worth more than drug trafficking.
According to a 2015 United Nations World Drug Report (pdf), Colombia’s drug cartels make $1 to $1.5 billion a year in wholesale proceeds from both heroin and cocaine, whereas illegally mined gold earned smugglers in the country between $1.9 and $2.6 billion a year. The story is similar in Peru: the value of illegal gold exports, approximately $2.6 billion a year (pdf), now exceeds the value of cocaine trade—$1 to 1.5 billion annually—by a wide margin.
Although it’s hard to quantify illegal production, several assessments, including a recent report (pdf) by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GIATOC), agree that the percentage of mining done illegally in South America is much higher than the percentage of mining done illegally in other parts of the world.
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