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Violent risks to Colombian mining projects

24 September 2018 Arthur Dhont

FARC dissidents are likely behind a fatal attack on a Canadian-operated mining project in central Antioquia.

  • Recent attacks against staff of Canadian mining company Continental Gold by suspected FARC dissidents are likely related to either extortion or attempts to dissuade formal mining operations in illegal mining hot spots.
  • Both scenarios entail a heightened risk of homicide to staff and property damage to mining projects operating in central Antioquia above Medellín.
  • If the motivation is to dissuade formal mining, attacks are likely to continue until projects are suspended or the perpetrators are apprehended.
  • If the motivation is extortion, stopping attacks will involve paying off armed groups, a criminal offence.

On 20 September 2018, suspected dissidents of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC)'s 36th Front attacked a mining camp operated by Canadian company Continental Gold in the municipality of Yarumal, Antioquia. Three geologists were killed in the attack and another three injured. On 5 September, an engineer employed by the firm was killed in Buriticá, approximately 50 kilometres from Yarumal. It is unclear if both incidents are related. There is significant illegal mining activity in Antioquia. Government attempts to regulate informal miners have been met with fierce resistance, affecting the operations of legitimate mining companies operating in the department. In July 2017, approximately 6,000 informal and illegal miners protested against Canadian firm Gran Colombia Gold's operations in Remedios and Segovia, and against government decrees aimed at disrupting the processing and sale of illegally extracted minerals. The protests included the detonation of an improvised explosive device (IED) against a water pipeline used by the firm, the arson of several vehicles, and the use of live ammunition and grenades against state security forces. Also in July that year, six Continental Gold contractors were killed following an accidental gas explosion that occurred during an inspection of an illegally constructed mining tunnel located within the firm's concession in Buriticá.

Although the incident in Buriticá on 5 September could have been opportunistic, the attack in Yarumal was deliberate. Two motives for the attacks are most likely: Either the attack was linked to extortion demands and perpetrated as a threat or retaliation for an unmet payment demand; alternatively, FARC dissidents, who alongside other criminal groups such as the Gulf Clan are involved in illegal mining in Antioquia, are attempting to dissuade the development of legal mining activities in the area.

Outlook and implications

Both scenarios entail a heightened risk of homicide for staff employed at formal mining projects as well as property damage to assets, particularly vehicles. For example, In June, suspected dissidents of the FARC's 36th Front destroyed an isolated, parked helicopter deployed to support electricity pylon construction with an IED in Toledo, northern Antioquia, in a suspected extortion-related attack. Companies with operations, concessions, or interest in the region, beyond Continental Gold and Gran Colombia Gold, include Angel Gold Corp (Canada), Geophysics GPR (Canada), Mineros S.A (Colombia), Red Eagle Mining Corp (Canada), and Kappes, Cassiday & Associates (US), among others.

The area in central Antioquia in which the incidents have occurred is remote, leaving isolated projects exposed to attack. The operational environment is further complicated by local community involvement in informal mining, which are likely to support criminal groups attempting to safeguard illegal operations. If the aim of FARC dissidents and other criminal groups is to dissuade legal mining activity, further life-threatening assaults are likely, particularly against isolated, poorly guarded project sites or staff in transit, as criminal groups attempt to raise the human cost of operating in the region. If extortion is the primary motivation, mining firms will find themselves caught between the legal risk associated with paying off illegal armed groups and the risk of retaliation.

The threat posed by FARC dissidents is likely to increase in the next 12 months as their numbers grow. Uncertainty around the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement signed with the government is likely to push more former combatants into joining dissident groups. Public statements from mining operators that they are being subject to extortion demands would clarify the motivation behind recent attacks and help state authorities identify which projects are at particular risk. A rise in the gold price, which fell by approximately 9% during the past six months, would provide greater incentive for illegal mining and likely lead to greater efforts by criminal groups to protect their business interests.

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