Deadly landslide at illegal mine exposes Ecuador’s ‘secret’ relationship with Colombian drug gangs

Nov 20, 2020 | 10 comments

Ecuador is promising a “far reaching” investigation into a landslide Wednesday at an illegal gold mine near the Colombian border that killed five people and injured at least five.

An aeriel view of the illegal mine taken Thursday by drone.

“The government will spare no effort to determine who is at fault in this tragedy and how this clandestine mine was allowed to operate,” Rommel Salazar, director of Ecuador’s Risk Management Service, said. “We will get to the bottom of this and punish the culprits.”

The problem, say former police and military officers, is that the government has known about the mine for years and has allowed it to operate under the management of a Colombian drug operation with connections to Mexican drug cartels. “There is an unspoken agreement that Ecuador will not interfere with the mine because they worry about violence on the border,” says a former police officer who asked not to be identified.

The mine is located near the town of San Lorenzo, 10 kilometers from the Colombia border, an area where former FARC guerillas, now drug producers and transporters, operate openly. “The Colombians control this part of Esmeraldas Province and San Lorenzo is their headquarters,” says the former officer. “The government officials and police there know them and leave them alone. Ever since the bombings and kidnappings, there has been an understanding of peaceful coexistence. The residents understand that the Colombians are in control and don’t complain. Many of them work for the Colombians.”

One of the bombings he refers to destroyed the San Lorenzo police headquarters in January 2018, injuring 30. Of half a dozen kidnappings, the most well-known was of three Quito journalists who were later found murdered in April 2018.

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Heavy equipment, already at the mining site, is used in the search for victims.

According to a former army captain who lives south of the illegal mine, it would be impossible for Ecuadorian police and military to be unaware of the operation. “The mine where the landslide happened is 20 or 25 hectares, most of it cleared, and it is visible from the air,” he says. “More than 100 people work there every day and all the people nearby are aware of it.”

The army captain, who, like the police officer insists on anonymity, says his life would be at risk if he openly revealed information about the mine or other Colombian gang activities in the region. “It’s not just the Colombians who tell us to keep quiet but the police too. This is a dirty little secret that no one wants revealed. No one here talks about anything.”

The silence of locals has, so far, stymied the government’s investigation. “We are getting very little information from the local community and this makes our work difficult,” Salazar says. A special task force from the Attorney General’s office in Quito has been attempting to collect information since Wednesday afternoon.

“We understand that there have been threats of retaliation to residents who agree to talk to us,” Salazar says. “It’s a difficult situation.”

When asked, Salazar admitted that the mine was not a secret. “It’s a large, open pit operation with heavy equipment on site. We are trying to understand how it was allowed to operate given the local knowledge about it.” He added that chemical pollution of the Rio Cachaví, where deposits are washed and processed, had been known for several years.

According to the army officer, the Colombian gang that controls the mine sold operating rights for $300,000 each. “There’s a lot of gold and silver there so people with money are willing to pay.”

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