More than 100 uniformed members of the army, police and a riot squad arrive in four helicopters in the Traingulo area of Telembi in southwestern Colombia.
Their mission: to destroy the construction machinery that allows the National Liberation Army (ELN) and dissident groups of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which reject the peace agreement signed in 2016, to finance their activities .
In the middle of the vegetation, in this border region with Ecuador where AFP was able to go, not far from the craters dug by the miners, eight construction machines were destroyed using explosives or grenades.
At least five square kilometers of jungle have already been razed by the machines.
According to the latest UN report, in 2021 illegal mining devastated more than 640 km2 in Colombia.
"The illegal armed groups (...) profit from this gold mining. If they are not the direct owners of the machines, they make sure to be paid a tax", explains Major Hugo Nelson Gallego, head of the special command of the police against illegal mines.
Dozens of young people are throwing stones at the security forces in an attempt to save the bulldozers they have so hard brought here.
Some try to extinguish the flames with water.
Riot police respond with tear gas.
Families with their children watch from their wooden houses, where they struggle to survive under the yoke of armed groups and the effects of mercury, used in mines but which ends up in waterways.
A riot policeman stands next to a burning construction machine previously used at an illegal gold mining site in Triangulo de Telembi, Colombia, on January 25, 2023 © DANIEL MUNOZ / AFP
Colombia has been dealing with this type of illegal mining of gold, but also of platinum, silver or other minerals, since 2012. Since that date and under the renewed impetus of leftist President Gustavo Petro, who arrived at the head of the country in August, more than 800 construction machines used in illegal mines were destroyed.
Seen from the sky, brown spots amidst the green of the dense jungle show the damage.
Gold mining involves cutting down trees and turning over the ground.
Turbid pools betray the use of mercury to separate gold from other sediments.
The miners "pour it into the river (...) and this has the effect of contaminating the entire area where the activity takes place", explains General Javier Africano, of the command of the fight against drug trafficking.
Authorities suspect its smuggling from Ecuador and Venezuela.
Another more concentrated and powerful, "red mercury", would come from Brazil.
Despite the limitation of its production and use since 2018, Colombia is the country in the world where mercury pollution is the most important in proportion to the population, according to official data.
A construction machine at an illegal gold mining site destroyed by the armed forces in Triangulo de Telembi, Colombia, on January 25, 2023 © DANIEL MUNOZ / AFP
"For the extraction of one gram of gold you need about five grams of mercury", explains Major Gallego.
A small quantity, however, capable of polluting 600,000 liters of water.
Illegal mining and cocaine trafficking are the main sources of funding for organizations that continue the armed conflict in Colombia after the disarmament of the FARC.
According to the authorities, gold is almost as profitable as drugs because of the difficulty of tracing its origin.
According to official estimates, 85% of the gold exported by Colombia is illegally mined.
"It is probably destined for North America and Europe," said General Africano.
The operation in the Triangulo area of Telembi resulted in losses for the armed groups equivalent to some $794,000, according to the army.
In 2022, the losses inflicted on them approached $14 million.
View from a helicopter of an illegal gold mining site in Triangulo de Telembi, Colombia, January 25, 2023 © DANIEL MUNOZ / AFP
"All the controls are aimed at drugs" in Colombia, the world's largest producer of cocaine, "but gold is much easier to move", underlines the soldier Carlos Romero.
A person can go to the airport with “his chains, his watch and pass through the metal detector without any problem because it is a jewel”, he laments.
© 2023 AFP