When many people think of Colombia, infamous stereotypes of drug trade, gangs, and ruthless violence come to mind. Over the past few decades, the face of violence in Colombia has worn several different masks. In the 1980s, Pablo Escobar’s Robin Hood-esque figure embodied the controversies of the Colombian cocaine trade. Since his death, other cartels have fought for and dominated the trade across the country. The ongoing civil war between the FARC and Colombian government adds another layer of complexity to many of this country’s social, economic, and political problems. In recent years, however, cartels and paramilitary groups have looked for other opportunities in addition to cocaine production. The profitability and blurred legal lines of the gold business have made this industry attractive to those who seek wealth and control without the same risks of drug trafficking.
Colombia-based journalist Nadja Drost recently wrote “The Devil Underground,” a compelling piece of journalism published by Atavist that reveals the increasingly darker side of the gold trade. Drost began investigating the topic after being prompted by fellow journalist Victor Meneses who had written about a mine called La Roca in Segovia, Colombia.1 Meneses had published a short article about the murder of four of the mine’s owners, and quickly found himself threatened by those who he suspected were responsible for the owners’ murders. Caught between the will to live and the will to tell the story of this treacherous town, Meneses contacted Drost to tell the story that was threatening his life.
Drost willingly obliged her comrade’s request and began to unearth the secrets of one of Segovia’s most profitable mines. Control of La Roca mine initially fell into the hands of the Serafines, a family that came from a long line of miners. After rigorous searching, they found a gold vein in 2011, and the working class family suddenly found itself in control of an enormous amount of wealth. The Rastrojos, an armed group historically tied to drug trafficking, soon became interested in the Serafines’ fortune and demanded an extortion tax from the mining profits. Another paramilitary group, the Urabeños also became involved in the fight for control of the mine’s wealth.
“The Devil Underground” reveals the complexities of the Colombian gold conflict, and demonstrates how these issues are related to larger internal problems in this country. One of the actors in Colombia’s civil war, the FARC, also plays a large role in illegal mining. A number of mines that exist in this region are technically illegal. Carlos Cante, who leads the Mining Ministry’s program against illegal mining states, “That vacuum is often filled by illegal groups, including the FARC.”2 Cante refers to the lacuna between laws and their actual enforcement from governmental officials. Police often find themselves powerless when confronted with the large scale issue of illegal mining. Armed groups largely outnumber the forces of order and corruption and extortion makes the problem difficult to tackle.
Additionally, there are serious environmental and health repercussions related to mining. Most mines require land to be cleared, killing of trees and the eroding of earth. In the jungle, some miners refill the land after it has been used, but it takes years to return to its original state. Often, areas are cleared and the exploit is unsuccessful, leaving both a damaged environment and empty-handed miners. Drost also explains that there is also a harmful amount of mercury found in mining towns that causes a plethora of negative health effects.1 Miners use liquid mercury to separate gold from other minerals. The poisonous chemical gets released as a vapor into the air, and many people with learning disabilities, anxiety, and impotence have mercury present in their urine.
Blurred lines of legality and illegality do not help solve mining issues. In an interview with Daniel Alarcón through Radio Ambulante, Drost explains that the Colombian government’s promotion of the gold industry has made it difficult to ensure legal mining practices. 3 As legal mining draws more international corporations to the region, many smaller, traditional miners are forced to operate illegal mines to stay in the business. In addition, as The Economist reports, the government frequently changes the stipulations for obtaining a legal title, making it difficult for small-scale miners to legally manage their mines.4 Extortion is also not only limited to illegally operated mines, many large, industry owned mines find themselves subject to the will of armed groups as well.
In March 2012, the Mining Ministry reported that 63% of Colombian mines were technically illegal.2 The same year, it was estimated that 77% of Colombia’s gold was exported to the United States.1 One problem with the industry is that illegally mined gold enters the legal market almost as soon as it is unearthed. Drost points out that once the illegal gold is taken to a dealer it is melted into a purer form and then purchased.3 The minute the gold is purchased by these buyers, it becomes legal.
Just as the boundaries between legal and illegal gold are quite unclear, so are the boundaries of good and evil, as Drost discovered during her time in Segovia. In her interview with Radio Ambulante she stated, “the line between a victim and a victimizer really gets blurred.”3 In towns such as Segovia, no citizen enjoys the privilege of a neutral position in the conflict. Even those who are extorted are considered loyal to the group that exploits them, and instantly acquire that group’s enemies. Those who may appear to be forces of good, such as the Serafines in the case of Drost’s investigation, eventually must give way to forms of corruption in self-defense.
Drost’s inciteful investigation of the case of La Roca reveals greater issues that continue to reappear in Colombia. Drug-trafficking cartels, paramilitary forces, the FARC, citizens and the government continuously come into conflict with one another. The gold trade presents a legal avenue for these groups to act illegally, thus becoming a prime example of the complex, constantly evolving issues that Colombia currently faces. None of these conflicts can be divided into simple binaries such as good or evil, legal or illegal, moral or immoral. Rather, they should be recognized as convoluted problems that in order to be solved would require many structural changes.
Drost, Nadja. “The Devil Underground.” The Atavist. Oct. 2014. Print. 23 Feb. 2015. The complete story can be purchased at: https://atavist.com/stories/the-devil-underground/
Willis, Andrew and Michael Smith. “Colombia Illegal Gold Mines Prosper in Global Rout.” Bloomberg Business. Bloomberg. 24 July 2013. Web. 23 Feb. 2015. Read more at:http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-07-24/colombia-illegal-gold-mines-prosper-in-global-rout
Drost, Nadja. “Unscripted- ‘The Devil Underground’: Inside Colombia’s Gold Wars.” Interview with Daniel Alarcón. Radio Ambulante. 15 Jan 2015. Web. 24 Feb. 2015. Listen to the interview at: http://radioambulante.org/audio/dentro-de-la-guerra-del-oro-en-colombia
“Mining in Colombia: Digging itself out of a hole.” The Economist. 15 Mar. 2014. Web. 23 Feb. 2015. Read more at: http://www.economist.com/news/business/21599011-government-struggles-contain-public-backlash-against-miners-digging-itself-out