SEGOVIA, Colombia — For decades, the bullion buried beneath these hills has attracted sun-scorched dreamers, global corporations, and those desperate enough to believe they can make a living digging in the dirt.
Now, the Colombian government is worried that the nation’s gold wealth is luring less savory individuals: guerrilla groups and criminal bands eager to expand their drug-running and extortion rackets.
In September, President Juan Manuel Santos warned that the nation’s oldest and bloodiest guerrilla group, the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the smaller National Liberation Army, ELN, were involved in gold mining.
Last month, amid a government crackdown on illicit crops and illegal mining near the town of Anorí, the FARC dynamited a bridge and were said to have forced thousands of villagers from their homes.
Jairo Caleta, a burly gold miner wearing rubber boots and a baseball cap, said it’s no secret that mine owners are often required to pay off guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups. The vacuna, or vaccine, as the protection payments are called, are ubiquitous wherever money is being made. And right now, Segovia is flush with cash.
“I worked in one mine for four years before I found out that the owner was a guerrilla member,” said Caleta, who admitted he was using an assumed name for fear of retribution. “But nobody talks about it. You just keep your head down and keep working because it’s happening everywhere.”
The global economic crisis has sparked a rush toward gold and other commodities, which retain their value during tough times. With gold now selling at more than $1,300 an ounce, a torrent of illegal mining has swept the globe.
Authorities in Peru, Venezuela and Ecuador have been scrambling to crack down on wildcat operations that have been punching into pristine jungles and polluting rivers with mercury and cyanide. In Colombia, the National Police have shut down 56 illegal gold mines since September — impounding millions of dollars worth of heavy equipment, firearms and cash.
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