Before dawn Tuesday, 1,300 Ecuadorian army troops escorted hundreds of police officers to a massive illegal gold mine in Imbabura Province in Ecuador’s northern Andes. In all, government officials said 2,500 federal personnel were involved in the operation ordered by President Lenin Moreno.
As many as 10,000 people have flooded the remote region known as Buenos Aires over the last two years, to illegally mine gold owned by an Australian exploration company. The area became the scene of crimes including human trafficking, sexual exploitation, extortion, money laundering and murder, as well as severe environmental damage, Interior Minister Maria Paula Romo said at a news conference in Quito.
The Buenos Aires area is part of a concession owned by Australia’s Hanrine. It lies just south of Cascabel, where Australia-based SolGold Plc is seeking to build a major copper, silver and gold mine.
“The magnitude of the occupation by people dedicated to illegal activities makes a much stronger intervention by the state necessary,” Romo said, while Moreno declared a 60-day state of emergency in the Buenos Aires area, which limits the right of assembly.
According to Romo, the mine was operated in a “mafia-like” fashion, with many of bosses coming from outside of Ecuador. “Many of the leaders of the activity were engaged in the illegal drug activities in Colombia before coming to Ecuador,” Romo said. “There were also a sizeable number of Venezuelan criminals operating in the area. We have arrested many of the leaders.”
Romo said that the Oliver Sinisterra Front, the Colombian narco-guerrilla cartel responsible for the kidnapping and murder of at least seven Ecuadorians in 2017 and 2018, was part of the mine leadership.
By late afternoon Tuesday, up to 2,300 miners, many with their families, were seen leaving the mine on the dirt roads and trails. Most were with clothing, camping gear and mining equipment but some carried, mattresses, electric generators, internet modems, televisions and DirecTv satellite dishes.
Of those leaving, as many as third were women and children.
Romo said the focus of the operation is arresting those in charge, not the small miners who had paid for excavation rights from the bosses.
Police did not provide a final count but said more than 1,350 people had been arrested by mid-morning Tuesday while 520 vehicles and 4,600 tons of mining material had been seized. Twenty federal prosecutors accompanied police in the raid.
Officials of interior ministry said an entire town, known as La Feria, had grown up around the mine. In addition to the housing for miners, the community had stores, hotels and brothels.
In recent years, Ecuador has shut down dozens of illegal mines hoping to avoid the bloody legacy of Peru and Colombia, where thousands have died over the years when federal agents have attempted to intercede.
Ecuador, known for being rich in gold, silver and copper deposits, is attempting to follow Peru and Chile and develop a major legal industrial mining industry. With a number of mines scheduled to start production later this year, the government forecasts that the country’s mining-related output will more than triple to exceed four percent of gross domestic product by the end of Moreno’s term in 2021. The government, however, has faced a backlash from rural and indigenous groups opposed to mining.