Forced Labor and “Blood Gold” in Colombia

In film and television, Colombia is virtually synonymous with drug trafficking. But for all of Hollywood’s work to shine a light on the Medellin Cartel, another form of trafficking has steadily grown in the country’s gold mining industry: labor trafficking. The Colombian government revealed earlier this year that illegal mining operations are present in 233 municipalities, yielding 80 percent of the gold produced in the country.

Criminal organizations and paramilitary groups control the majority of extraction sites in the country, where profits from illegal gold mining far surpass those from cocaine production. Forced laborers toil in monstrous conditions under threat of death. Last year, at least 30 workers died at an illegal mining operation when an unsafe tunnel collapsed, trapping them underground. Some may have survived if the owners hadn’t hid their excavation equipment out of fear that Colombian officials would confiscate it.

Mine owners and their armed security routinely threaten communities and activists to guarantee silence. Many of the miners and community leaders brave enough to protest and organize against them have fled their homes in fear for their lives.

Forced labor in the gold mining industry is not the only kind of human trafficking in Colombia. Sex trafficking, forced begging, and indentured servitude in the domestic and agricultural sectors are commonplace, leading the State Department to rank Colombia in Tier 2 of 2015’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report. The ranking indicates the government’s failure to address human trafficking, but recognizes efforts to combat it.

In late July, President Juan Manuel Santos introduced a bill to increase criminal penalties against illicit mining and tasked the Defense Ministry with going after the financial resources of the criminal networks behind them. But to stop an illegal enterprise that earns profits upwards of $2.5 billion annually, the Colombian government will need help.

According the Department of State, the United States is on average the largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Colombia. A large percentage of that investment is in extraction industries, such as mining. With such a significant U.S. business presence, the U.S. government should work with industry leaders to improve labor standards. Additionally, the Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons should leverage diplomatic pressure through tools like the TIP Report to encourage Colombian officials to increase anti-trafficking efforts.

For more information on Human Rights First’s plan to bring together public and private entities to put an end to modern day slavery, read our blueprint, How to Dismantle the Business of Human Trafficking.

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Published on December 2, 2015

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