Colombian military quells miners’ strike in the Bajo Cauca

Military operation against illegal mining in Tarazá, Antioquia.

Colombia’s security forces began clearing roads of debris in northeastern Antioquia after a violent weekend in which one person was killed and 25 injured. The violence erupted during a miners’ strike that shuddered up local businesses throughout a territory known as the “Bajo Cauca” – or ‘Lower Cauca”.

The protest blocked the main road that connects Medellín with the Caribbean coast. In an area of large-scale and artisanal gold production, the miners’ strike was infiltrated by the Gulf Clan, a powerful drugs cartel whose leader, Darío Antonio Úsuga – alias Otoniel – was extradited last year to the U.S.

The Gulf Clan operates in the north of Antioquia, and coastal departments of Sucre, Cordoba, Atlántico, Bolivar and Magdalena. President Gustavo Petro affirmed that criminals were giving money to miners “to cause damage and to pass off violence as a social strike.” Over the weekend, a toll booth and ambulance were set on fire, and the town of Tarazá’s aqueduct was also destroyed, leaving some 500,000 without access to drinking water. “The Gulf Clan attacks the most humble (…) woman and children” tweeted Petro after announcing that the Colombian military would remain in the area given the delicate security situation.

Clan del Golfo was one of five illegal armed groups to join President Petro’s “total peace” policy after they agreed in December to a bilateral ceasefire. The ceasefire did not hold, and on Monday, President Petro hinted at the possibility that he could exclude the criminal organization from joining the “total peace” talks. But no specifics were given by the leftist president if a final decision would be taken this week. The manhunt for Darío Úsuga was one of the longest, lasting almost five years.

The arrest of the drug lord in 2021 was celebrated by former President Iván Duque as “the hardest blow against drug trafficking this millennium, only comparable to the fall of Pablo Escobar.”

The Gulf Clan’s security apparatus, known as the “Urabeños” or “Autodefensas Gaítanistas” took over drug trafficking routes in the departments of Antioquia and Chocó with the demobilization of the FARC guerrilla in 2017. Among many illicit activities, the Clan control mining operations along the Cauca and Nechí rivers. According to a 2021 UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) report, more than 70% of gold exported from Colombia is illegally extracted.

The report also highlights that 10 municipalities are responsible for more than a quarter of Colombia’s gold production, including Tarazá, El Bagre, Caucasia, Segovia and Zaragoza in Antioquia. The total area impacted by illegal gold mining amounts to 98,567 hectares.

The miners were protesting the destruction earlier this month of nine floating “dragons” – pumping platforms – used by small-scale miners to separate gold from silt and mud. The “dragons” were set on fire by the military in targeted operations. According to Minister of Interior Alfonso Prada, the two-tiered “dragons” were “endangering the lives of the inhabitants and future inhabitants in the area, as well as the environmental sustainability of the region.”