BARBACOAS, COLOMBIA – The Black Hawk helicopters roared over a remote jungle in southwestern Colombia, ignoring the patchwork of emerald-colored coca fields that seemed to make easy targets.
Instead, they homed in on a yellow backhoe, far from the nearest village or road, tearing into a riverbank searching for a metal that has inspired dreamers and criminals since the Spanish quest for El Dorado: gold.
As the choppers hovered over the muddy clearing, heavily armed police, bristling with grenades, body armor and automatic rifles, rushed at the machine. The stunned backhoe operator fought back briefly, swinging the mechanical arm like a club, before running into the jungle amid a cloud of tear gas.
Within minutes, police had packed the backhoe with C-4 explosives and the $100,000 Kobe excavator burst into a ball of fire — another small victory in the country’s outright war on illegal mining.
Colombia’s illicit mining industry, like the far-flung operation that police raided late last year, generates about $2.4 billion a year in criminal cash — three times more than the country’s notorious cocaine industry, according to some intelligence estimates. And like cocaine, the vast majority of illegal gold is being sent overseas to cities in Europe and the United States — including Miami.
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