Deadly Gold Rush Consumes Colombia

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"Guerrilla troups' move into gold underscores the many difficulties of ending Colombia's complex four-decade war."

"Officers pored over intelligence reports describing the movements of two warlords with private armies. Then the helicopters lifted off at dawn, carrying an elite squad armed with assault rifles to the newest front in Colombia's long war: gold mines.

Seizing on the decade-long surge in gold prices, combatants from multiple sides of the conflict are shifting into gold mining, among them leftist guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and fighters from the shadowy armed groups that rose from the ashes of right-wing paramilitary squads.

Their move into gold underscores the many difficulties of ending Colombia's complex four-decade war. Even as the Colombian authorities claim victories in bombing top rebel commanders and eradicating vast tracts of coca—the plant used to make cocaine, long the financial lifeblood of the insurgents—resilient factions are exploring new sources of money.

"These groups are metamorphosing to take advantage of the opportunities they see," said Jeremy McDermott, a Medellín-based director of InSight, a research organisation that focuses on criminal enterprises in Latin America. "They know there's a huge new revenue stream within their grasp, and they're grabbing it."

The result is a gold rush unlike any now under way in South America, both feeding off Colombia's evolving conflict and keeping it alive. Up and down the river basins around Medellín, miners are flocking to sites where diggers are tearing up forest and tree canopies, leaving behind lunaresque landscapes.

Some of these small mines have existed for decades, echoes of frenzies that stretch back centuries to the plundering by conquistadors in search of fabled cities of gold. Newer mines emerge on almost a weekly basis, reflecting efforts to find gold while its price remains high. Gold futures climbed last week to a noninflation-adjusted record of $1,441 an ounce.

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