World and Nation

Gold rush stemming from high prices fuels Colombia’s conflict

CAUCASIA, Colombia — Officers pored over intelligence reports describing the movements of two warlords with private armies. Then the helicopters lifted off at dawn, carrying an elite squad armed with assault rifles to the newest front in this country’s long war: gold mines.

Seizing on the decade-long surge in gold prices, combatants from multiple sides of the conflict are shifting into gold mining, among them leftist guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and fighters from the shadowy armed groups that rose from the ashes of right-wing paramilitary squads.

Their move into gold underscores the many difficulties of ending Colombia’s devilishly complex four-decade war. Even as the Colombian authorities claim victories in bombing top rebel commanders and eradicating vast tracts of coca — the plant used to make cocaine, long the financial lifeblood of the insurgents — resilient factions are exploring new realms like mining.

“These groups are metamorphosing to take advantage of the opportunities they see,” said Jeremy McDermott, a director based in Medellín of InSight, a research organization that focuses on criminal enterprises in Latin America. “They know there’s a huge new revenue stream within their grasp, and they’re grabbing it.”

The result is a gold rush unlike any other under way in South America, both feeding off Colombia’s evolving conflict and keeping it alive. Up and down the sweltering river basins around Medellín, miners from across Colombia are flocking to sites where backhoes are tearing up forest and tree canopies, leaving behind lunaresque landscapes.

Some of these small mines have existed for decades, echoes of frenzies that stretch back centuries to the plundering by conquistadors in search of fabled gold deposits. Newer mines emerge on almost a weekly basis, reflecting efforts to find gold while its price remains high. Gold futures climbed this week to a noninflation-adjusted record of $1,441 an ounce.

The gold rush here is just a part of a broader mining boom in Colombia, with gold production climbing more than 30 percent last year and attracting an array of fortune seekers, from multinational corporations to farmers who have left their fields and picked up shovels.

Guerrillas and their paramilitary adversaries have long been involved in mining, often using it and related businesses like cattle ranching to launder money and to extract extortion payments.

Jenny Carolina Gonzalez and Toby Muse contributed reporting from Bogota, Colombia.