SEATTLE (Scrap Monster): From the army helicopter circling overhead, Colombian security forces are able to spot several illegal gold mines in the jungle below.
The armed forces land suddenly to be confronted by angry workers, but they brush them off and destroy the machinery used to extract gold.
The operation is both a blow to illegal mining and a strike at armed groups that profit from illicit mines in this conflict-ridden country.
More than 100 soldiers, police and anti-riot officers arrive onboard four aircraft in the southeastern Triangulo del Telembi region.
Their mission is to destroy bulldozers to prevent villagers from mining for gold, an illegal activity that helps fund the National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels and dissidents of the now-defunct Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas who made peace with the state in 2016, laying down their arms to form a communist political party.
Illegal mining for gold does not just provide resources for armed groups, it is also responsible for environmental damage through the use of mercury, which pollutes water sources.
AFP was present to witness the spectacular operation in this region that borders Ecuador and where gold exploitation leads to mercury pollution of water sources.
Eight bulldozers, either hidden in the vegetation or sitting next to craters, are found and destroyed with explosives.
The heavy machinery was responsible for the destruction of at least five square kilometers of jungle.
According to a United Nations report in 2021, illegal mining directly led to the destruction of more than 640 square kilometers (about 250 square miles) of vegetation in Colombia.
"Illegal armed groups enrich themselves from this gold extraction," police special commando unit chief Hugo Nelson Gallego said.
Although they may not own the machinery themselves, these groups "impose a tax" on those using the bulldozers to extract gold.
Dozens of young people, mostly black, throw stones at the security forces in an attempt to protect the machinery. Some even tried to put out the flames.
Riot police respond with tear gas to avoid an armed "confrontation" with civilians, said Gallego.
Without the tear gas to clear a field, the civilians might prevent the helicopters from landing.
Impoverished families and children watch from their makeshift wooden homes.
Colombia began operations against such illegal mining in 2012. Since then, authorities say they have destroyed more than 800 pieces of machinery.
Leftist President Gustavo Petro, who assumed office in August, has vowed to continue the operations against illegal mining of gold, platinum, silver and other minerals as long as "the protagonists of this predatory activity continue to destroy the environment."
From the air, brown patches among the green vegetation attest to the environmental damage left behind by illegal mining.
Extracting gold involves cutting down trees and removing the subsoil.
Turquoise pools reveal the use of mercury, a chemical element that pollutes water and is used to separate small golden nuggets from worthless sediment.
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