Following shut down of illegal gold mines, government says ‘big money’ is behind many of them
Police and military personnel have taken control of illegal gold mines on the rivers of Napo Province and the government says it plans similar operations at other mining locations. According to the Government Ministry, more than 500 police and 900 army troops have been assigned to mining sites on the Napo, Yutsupino, Los Ceibos and Andi Rivers.
“These are large operations involving millions of dollars of equipment and they are inflicting severe damage to the environment,” said Government Minister Alexandra Vela. “The work is destroying river banks and contaminating the water with toxic chemicals. We plan to confront the destruction not just in Napo, but throughout the country.”
In recent weeks, law enforcement operations have confiscated more than 100 backhoes and other heavy equipment used in the mines, mostly in Napo Province but also in Orellana, Morona, Cañar, Azuay, Zamora Chinchipe Provinces. An aerial photo of a government facility near Tena, released last week, shows about 80 tractors that have been removed from mining sites. “These machines cost thousands of dollars each but when we ask the locals who they belong to, no one seems to know,” Vela says.
“We will not allow another Buenos Aires,” said Ecuador Mining Minister Juan Carlos Bermeo, referring to the Imbabura Province mine shut down in 2019. “Illegal activity there destroyed hundreds of hectares, polluted drinking water and led to dozens of murders. The mines in Napo were approaching that scale.”
Before it was closed, a tent city of more than 1,500 had been built around the Buenos Aires mine and included food markets, pharmacies, hardware stores, tractor dealerships and brothels.
Bormeo claims there is “big money” behind the mines and says that those who provide financing must be prosecuted. “These are not small family businesses but large criminal consortiums that hire local workers. To stop it, we must identify the guilty.”
On Tuesday, National Assmblywoman Ana Belén Cordero presented documents at a press conference she says show that several Assembly members are linked to illegal mining. She named Pachakutik party leader Mario Ruiz as one of the investors in mines near Tena and Zaruma. “Isn’t it ironic that members of the party defending the rights of indigenous people are working in illegal projects that poison the water and destroy the land of their own people.”
Because of the large investment made in illegal mines, Bormeo says, enforcing mine closures is dangerous business. On February 14 and 15, as military personnel removed heavy equipment from Napo mining sites, there were several confrontations with miners, some of whom claimed that the government was destroying their livelihood.
In Puerto Napo, near a Napo River mine, almost 100 residents confronted police with shovels and picks February 14 but no injuries were reported.
“When we confiscate millions of dollars in equipment, chemicals and other supplies, we put our law enforcement people at risk. There are criminals out there who want to retrieve what has been seized,” Bormeo says. He adds that evidence suggests that there is a connection of illegal mining interests to drug gangs.
In an order issued February 15, the Mining Ministry ordered all legal gold mines to cease work until law enforcement operations against legal mines are concluded.