In the Colombian Eldorado, the battle of the golden "dragons"

Like aircraft carriers stranded on gravel pits, their flame-blackened wreckage lies here and there along the rivers: in northwestern Colombia, the government is waging a merciless fight against the dredges used to extract gold

In the Colombian Eldorado, the battle of the golden "dragons"

Like aircraft carriers stranded on gravel pits, their flame-blackened wreckage lies here and there along the rivers: in northwestern Colombia, the government is waging a merciless fight against the dredges used to extract gold.

Siphoning the alluvial funds, these iron monsters, nicknamed locally the "dragons", destroy the environment and finance, according to the authorities, organized crime.

Their neutralization, carried out manu militari by the army, arouses strong hostility from local communities, noted AFP in El Bagre, in the heart of a historically gold-bearing region, the Bajo Cauca, where many gold diggers remain in the day to day informal exploitation.

A general strike of gold miners, led since the beginning of March, was marked by numerous acts of vandalism, and would be supported covertly by the narcos, estimates the government.

"We have nothing to do with criminal groups. We are simple local miners who do not cause any problems", pleads Luis Manuel Campo, flowery shirt half open on a crucifix necklace forged in the precious metal.

At 32, Luis owns a dredge with three other partners. "We are not hiding. We just want the persecution to stop. We want to formalize our situation, so that we can work quietly without being stigmatized," he says.

Zaragoza, Caceres... the names of the towns recall that the Spanish colonizer was already exploiting gold in the 17th century in the Bajo Cauca, which follows the bed of the eponymous river and its tributaries, including the Rio Nechi, descending from the Cordillera des Andes towards the Caribbean coast.

A former bastion of paramilitaries in the 1990s, the region is today a stronghold of their heirs to the Clan del Golfo, the most powerful cartel in the country, with which the left-wing president Gustavo Petro has just announced the breakdown of delicate negotiations of peace, denouncing in particular his involvement in the lucrative and opaque gold trade.

Because with the rise in prices and the dollar, the Bajo Cauca is experiencing a new gold fever: the destitute seeking their pittance every day in the gravel with their shovel, passing through the "yellow machines" (local nickname for bulldozers) and the most imposing dredging machines.

"Apart from the gold here, there is nothing," says Campo. "To live you have to manage with your arms, or the little money you have. You invest, you dig... Gold is luck!" Sums up this local child. And in El Bagre, "you can find gold on any beach...".

There are nearly 350 dredging machines of all kinds there, local sources agree.

This ranges from a simple motorized float, with its makeshift conveyor belt, to a five-meter-long dredge, operated by several divers guiding the vacuum hose under the dark waters. And finally the biggest dredgers, called "Brazilian" or "dragon" type, protagonists of the current crisis.

There are 27 Brazilian women operating illegally on the Rio Nechi, according to representatives of this informal sector.

In addition to the large dredges, legal ones, of the company Mineros Aluvial, a multinational with Colombian capital, and the only player approved by the State in this area of ​​nearly 50,000 hectares.

A Brazilian is "a three-storey boat, 20 meters long, with big engines, and which sucks the bottoms of the rivers", sums up the boss of the army in the area, General Eduardo Arias , which orchestrates the hunt for these machines responsible for a real "ecocide" according to him.

They take their nickname from their counterparts used on a large scale in the Brazilian Amazon. Their technology was reportedly imported in 2005 by two Brazilians, who have since been imprisoned.

AFP was able to visit several of these machines, including the brand new "Native", built at the end of 2022, operational for two months, and now stationary in an arm of the Rio Nechi.

"The (army) helicopters fly over us every day, we're scared," laments its captain Alex Cossio, a sturdy 41-year-old guy.

Above the steel hull, the first floor houses the engine room. The upper floor collects tons of sediment on a giant sieve, next to makeshift dormitories and canteens. The long pipe in the shape of a rostrum rising from the bow to suck up the alluvium gives the whole thing the look of a giant beetle, Mad Max version.

Prodigies of DIY, mechanics and recycling, built thanks to the ingenuity and pugnacity of local communities, they operate almost 24 hours a day in the din of engines. The crew, up to 20 people, is paid on a percentage basis.

The investment for a Brazilian is around 500,000 dollars. "With current prices, it's profitable," explains Mr. Cossio, with a minimum harvest of 80/100 grams of gold per day.

A Brazilian can find up to 2 kilograms of gold a day, or more than $50,000, according to a police source.

"Diesel, food, logistics ... We buy everything in the neighborhood, a large number of families live from our activity", underlines Captain Cossio.

His flirting, "it's a dream and a family heritage". And which has no connection with organized crime, he assures.

AFP has counted on the Nechi at least six "Brazilian" burned. Several are already being rehabilitated, such as Nueva Esperanza, a poverty-stricken hamlet by the water, where three dredgers, moored side by side, were targeted by an army raid on March 10.

"We tried to stop them, it was terrible," recalls Julia Tatis, owner of a small diner.

The three boats, like fortresses of steel, are still standing. One of the three, the Guadalupe, even seems to be about to resume navigation. Mechanics are working in the sludge on a new engine that has just been reinstalled.

"The soldiers landed saying that we are from the Clan del Golfo. And they burned everything," says its boss, Juan Manuel Carcamo. “We are reorganizing, without really knowing what will happen”.

"It's been three times that these sons of p... burned this dredge", plague William, a team member, whose belly escapes from the T-shirt.

"Gold is an adventure. But it can be done in the forms", he wants to believe, even saying "ready to help with reforestation".

"Of course the dredgers have an impact. But we are working the soils that have already been exploited by the Mineros company for 40 years", explains Luis Manuel Campo. "The damage has already been done. So what's the problem?"

As for the influence of the Clan del Golfo, "it's no secret that in this country, illegal groups have hands in all businesses...", recognizes the boss of the Native.

But "it is wrong to say that the dredges belong to the Clan", maintains Francisco Arrieta Franco, lawyer and defender of the cause of small minors, whom he sees rather as "victims". "It's complicated and expensive to directly operate a dredge. Criminals are more interested in extortion, which is everywhere in this region."

"In these territories that have always been abandoned by the State, the dredgers are above all the easy prey of the Clan", analyzes a local journalist, Eder Narvaez, judging that the solution is rather in the certification of the sector.

But the extortion will continue one way or another, all these sources warn.

In a gold buying counter, we warn of violence to come "if the government continues to harass the minors".

"We need the dredges to work and eat. They serve the whole community!" exclaims an employee. "It's when you have an empty stomach that you have to do really illegal things...", threatens a gold digger in a half-word.

01/04/2023 06:23:38 - El Bagre (Colombia) (AFP) - © 2023 AFP