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On the Trail of Blood Gold in Colombia
In Antioquia, the gold trade acts as a bridge between paramilitaries and the business community
Hola a todxs!
This week, the pirate logistics were handled by Hispanics Daniela and Paulo, while Amy and Josh remain in South American corners with no Internet connection. Before his cyber exile, however, Josh managed to write about the illegal gold trade in the Colombian department of Antioquia.
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Carlos Valencia wants to know if I’m in northeastern Antioquia to invest in gold. He seems a little disappointed that I’m here as a journalist instead, but he says I should do a story on the booming gold mining business in this region of Colombia.
“It’s easy,” he says, smiling. “You don’t even need licenses for the mineral rights. You just set up a subcontracting company, or if you don’t have that much capital, you can buy gold directly from the artisanal miners - they sell it cheap and spend it all on booze and women - then you resell it at a profit.”
He goes on a five-minute monologue he has clearly given before, tossing only the occasional cursory question my way to see if I'm still listening.
I’m not here for a business story. I’m interested in the direct ties between Colombian gangsters and international mining companies in the region, a long and bloody story that dates back decades, and that nowadays features the largest criminal group in the country, the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC) — the “Clan del Golfo” as the government prefers to call them.
Specialists who study AGC’s finances say that the branches of the criminal group that operate in this region of the country make far more money from gold than they do from cocaine— and they’re not attracting the attention of international criminal organizations as they do so.
“Who did you say you were working for on this story?”, Valencia asks, “It’s a US media company?”
“Canadian,” I respond. This seems to please him immensely. “Oh the Canadians have a huge presence here,” he smiles. “In fact Gran Colombia Gold is an international firm that…”
I cut him off, asking about all the AGC graffiti I’ve seen, and what it means for the companies who operate here, explaining that I’m investigating the paramilitary groups in the region.
“Oh…well,” he thinks for a moment. “I think I’m done talking now.” He shakes my hand, wishes me luck, and walks away. It is a reaction I have grown accustomed to over the last few days. “Paisas”, the people who live in Antioquia, are renowned for their friendliness, but I’ve had more than a dozen end conversations when I ask about armed groups in the region.
I understand the reaction. Valencia doesn’t need gangsters knocking on his door one lonely night because his name appeared in an article about how closely tied the gold trade is to paramilitarism. Nor do most of the miners I talk to.
“Criminal structures in Colombia have their tendrils in every aspect of civil society,” said Camilo Gonzales Posso, director of Indepaz, a human rights watchdog. “These aren’t the politically motivated organizations of the past. They are new hybrid organizations which hide their earnings in legitimate businesses and work directly with politicians.”
In this northwestern region of Antioquia, that doesn’t only mean extorting international mining companies who operate in the region as part of “protection” rackets, it means working directly with them.
Canadian company Gran Colombia Gold bought the rights to all of the mines in the regions that were formerly controlled by US company Frontino Gold, which was dissolved by the Colombian government for directly funding criminal paramilitary groups allied with the government - "paracos", as Colombians call them - during the civil war.
Gran Colombia Gold does very little actual mining. Instead they rely on Colombian subcontractors to deal with the nitty gritty business of paying off paraco groups and avoid public scandals like the one that got Frontino Gold, using the same mines, and the same schemes, in trouble.
But in addition to the rackets involving the big companies, AGC benefits strongly from illegal and artisanal mining in the region. Illegal gold mining has exploded here in recent years: the OAS estimated that in 2021, 70% of the total gold exported from Colombia was mined illegally, and AGC is one of the major players.
Gold is easy to sell. Most buyers pay cash and ask few questions - especially if the price is cheap - and secondary buyers can easily launder illegal gold on the legal market.
In this part of Colombia, paracos, CEOs of international companies, governors and mayors have all worked together for years. The government recently announced a desire for peace talks with AGC as part of Gustavo Petro’s “Total Peace” plan.
But it’s difficult to see what a group so completely enmeshed with business and criminal society has to gain through disarmament. The “tendrils” Posso speaks of took years to grow, were nourished via conflict and murder, and are extremely profitable.
I doubt AGC is going to give them up easily, or simply for immunity.
Stories we're watching:
The Justice of Argentina prosecuted Fernando Sabag Montiel and his partner Brenda Uliarte on Thursday, considering them co-authors of aggravated attempted murder against former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner two weeks ago near her home. As part of the process, Judge María Eugenia Capuchetti ordered preventive detention against both and seized them for 100 million pesos (almost USD 700 thousand at the official exchange rate) each. Her decision came after investigators discovered a series of messages from the days before the attack showing that the pair were indeed seeking to kill Fernández de Kirchner, who is also Argentina's vice president.
The same afternoon, Cristina Fernández reappeared publicly for the first time after the assassination attempt, in a meeting with several left-wing Catholic organizations. "I feel that I am alive because of God and the Virgin," she said. In addition, she assured that “the most serious thing” about the incident was that it broke “a social agreement that had existed since 1983”, when the first democratic presidential elections were held, after seven years of military dictatorship.
The president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, announced this Thursday night that he would seek reelection in the 2024 elections, which would make him the first president in El Salvador's democratic era to attempt immediate reelection. It comes after the magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber —elected by Congress in a highly controversial process— will reinterpret the constitution in favor of this scenario.
On Wednesday, the capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince, was the scene of violent demonstrations, vandalism and looting, after the government announced increases in the prices of fuels. According to media reports, the city experienced a new day of paralysis of all activities, both in public and private institutions. At the same time, massive marches passed through the streets and demanded that the government reverse the increases. That day, it was announced that, per gallon, gasoline will cost USD4.83, diesel USD5.75 dollars and kerosene about USD5.65 dollars. In addition, during the weekend, the murder of two journalists, Tayson Latigue and Frantzsen Charles, who worked on the escalation of gang violence, was reported.
What we're writing:
Amy wrote in Al Jazeera about how a massive green hydrogen project could threaten indigenous land rights and harm condors in Patagonia.
Also, she wrote about the expansion of free care proposed by the Government of Chile and how it would benefit more than 6 million people in this note for The Lancet.
The special "The promise of medicinal cannabis", covered by Daniela for El País, premiered its third part, where they analyze the future prospects of this industry that, although promising, still has a lot to improve.
Spanish phrase of the week:
descorche temprano (v) - when the sun is still up there, but the hard day's work needs a bit of alcohol in its veins.
La Justicia de Argentina procesó este jueves a Fernando Sabag Montiel y a Brenda Uliarte, su pareja, por considerarlos coautores de intento de homicidio calificado agravado contra la expresidenta Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, hecho ocurrido hace dos semanas en la inmediaciones de su casa. En el marco del proceso, la jueza María Eugenia Capuchetti dictó prisión preventiva contra ambos y los embargó por 100 millones de pesos (casi USD 700 mil al cambio oficial) a cada uno. Estas decisiones ocurren luego de que se descubrieran una serie de mensajes de días anteriores al ataque que demostrarían que ambos sí buscaban atentar contra la vida de la también actual vicepresidenta argentina.
Mientras tanto, esa misma tarde, Cristina Fernández reapareció públicamente por primera vez tras el intento de magnicidio, en una reunión con varias organizaciones católicas de izquierda. “Siento que estoy viva por Dios y por la Virgen”, afirmó. Además, aseguró que “lo más grave” del incidente fue que rompió “un acuerdo social que había desde 1983”, cuando se celebraron las primeras elecciones presidenciales en democracia, tras siete años de dictadura militar.
El presidente de El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, anunció la noche de este jueves que buscará su reelección en las elecciones de 2024. Así, se convertirá en el primer mandatario de la etapa democrática de su país que tentará a la reelección inmediata, luego de que los magistrados de la Sala de los Constitucional —electos por el Congreso en un proceso muy cuestionado— reinterpretaran la Carta Magna a favor de este escenario.
El miércoles, la capital de Haití, Puerto Príncipe, fue escenario de violentas manifestaciones y actos de vandalismo y saqueos, luego de que el gobierno de dicho país anunciara aumentos en los precios de los combustibles derivados de hidrocarburos. Según reportaron distintos medios, la ciudad vivió una nueva jornada de paralización de todas las actividades, tanto en instituciones públicas como privadas. Al mismo tiempo, multitudinarias marchas recorrían las calles y exigían al gobierno que revierta los aumentos. Ese día, se anunció que, por galón, la gasolina pasará a costar USD 4,83, el diésel USD 5,75 dólares y el kerosene unos USD 5,65 dólares. Además, durante el fin de semana, se reportó el asesinato de dos periodistas, Tayson Latigue y Frantzsen Charles, que trabajaban temas relacionados a la escalada de violencia a causa del aumento de bandas criminales.