Golden Opportunity, or a New Twist on the Resource-Conflict Relationship: Links between the Drug Trade and Illegal Gold Mining in Colombia
57 Pages Posted: 22 Jan 2016 Last revised: 27 Mar 2016
Date Written: January 21, 2016
Resource wars face greater difficulties to end conflict, as well as greater probabilities of relapse. In part, this is due to the persistence of resource-fueled criminal networks developed under the auspices of armed conflict. In this paper we focus on the Colombian armed conflict, one of the longest-lasting conflicts in the world. Recent evidence suggests that gold mining in Colombia has been permeated by illegal organizations linked to the drug trade, driving armed conflict and criminality. This reveals that attention to drugs alone as a conflict resource in this particular case has overshadowed the degree to which legal resources and economic activities have been permeated by illegal organizations and interests. This paper provides a framework of the gold-drugs relationship, which reveals the existence of resource portfolios, or the parallel participation and exchangeability of resources in the provision of funding for illegal organizations. We argue that, in addition to the impact of each resource on armed conflict and criminality, illegal organizations develop abilities to extract benefits of different resources at once or interchangeably (a resource portfolio), which should be taken into account when analyzing the consequences of war on countries' social and economic institutions. In addition, political or reputational factors have been insufficiently considered in analyzing groups' decisions to engage in or abandon specific economic activities. We show that, along with expectations of revenue, resource portfolios may also respond to political conditions, as illegal organizations accustomed to deriving income from coercive practices such as kidnappings — until recently a widespread phenomenon in Colombia — have caused increasing international and domestic outrage followed by pressure to stop this brutal violation of Human Rights. Based on field research in gold mining Colombian regions — combining more than seventy semi-structured interviews with first-hand observation during field trips — and a careful review of press, non-governmental organizations' and official reports in local, regional and national media, the paper provides a general framework of this complex relationship, paying specific attention to the evolution of the links and interchangeable nature of gold and drugs as conflict resources throughout the production phases of the gold extraction process. At a time when Colombia's ongoing peace process is likely to put an end to the armed confrontation between guerrilla groups and the Colombian state, our paper raises a warning sign for scholars and policymakers to consider the potential transformations of illicit markets and their role in shaping the prospects of durable peace.
Keywords: Colombia, resource war, gold mining, illicit drugs
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