As the price of gold climbs to $1,441 an ounce, new illegal mines are springing up across Colombia, helping fund the armed conflict and damaging the environment, the New York Times reported Friday.
Their paramilitary adversaries have been swept up in the “gold rush” as well. Vying over the trade between drug gangs the Urabeños and Rastrojos has caused the 100,000 person town of Caucasia in Colombia’s Antioquia department to see a dramatic increase in the homicide rate. In 2010 there were 189 recorded murders, compared with a national average of only 35 per 100,000, according to federal officials.
“These groups are metamorphosing to take advantage of the opportunities they see,” Jeremy McDermott, a director InSight Crime, a research organization that focuses on criminal enterprises in Latin America, told the newspaper. “They know there’s a huge new revenue stream within their grasp, and they’re grabbing it.”
Colombian military officials say that new factors, like the success in the eradication of the coca crop and the price of gold, have helped spur the gold rush, which has had devastating effects on the environment, particularly in Antioquia.
About 30,000 illegal gold miners use mercury to separate the gold from river sediments, causing an estimated 67 tons of the toxic substance to be released onto the land every year, according to United Nations researchers.
“Colombia has the shameful first position as the world’s largest per capita mercury polluter from artisanal gold mining,” said Marcello Veiga, a mining engineer who led a United Nations study of mercury contamination in Antioquia.
Large sections of rainforest in the west Colombia department of Choco are being destroyed by illegal miners searching for and extracting gold and devastating the local ecosystem.
In recent weeks Santos has ordered raids on more than 50 illegal mines.