An ICIJ Investigation The Illicit Trade of Coltan

Colombia vows to clean up coltan mining

After an ICIJ expose about paramilitaries involvement in the coltan trade, Colombia is moving to curb illegal mining of the highly sought after mineral.

In this investigation

The Illicit Trade of Coltan
Map: where illegal coltan mining thrives
The Illicit Trade of Coltan
Colombia vows to clean up coltan mining

Key findings

  • A black market for coltan — a strategically important mineral used in an array of electronic devices — has emerged in the Amazon jungles that cover the border area between Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil.
  • In Venezuela and most of Colombia coltan mining is illegal, yet small-scale miners and buyers are plentiful. Venezuelan coltan is even hawked worldwide via the Internet.
  • Colombian authorities and human rights activists say illicit coltan mining is feeding smuggling networks run by armed paramilitaries and drug smugglers.
  • Children, women and members of native Indian tribes have been found working at illegal claims. In Colombia, miners complain that armed thugs demand mining taxes or fees to access jungle trails.
  • Coltan is a source of global controversy. A big part of the world’s supply already comes from conflict zones in Central Africa, where armed factions control many mines, extort miners and profit from the sale of illegal ore.
  • As in Central Africa, illicit South American coltan is relabeled and sent to legitimate smelters who feed high-tech manufacturers around the world. Unlike conflict diamonds, there is currently no accurate way to identify contraband coltan once it’s in the supply stream.

About this investigation

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Black-market coltan likely making its way to high-tech manufacturers’ supply; it’s used in everything from smart phones to smart bombs.

Illicit mining thrives in hot spot of Colombia’s Amazon, tucked in a corner infamous for drug smugglers and armed paramilitaries and well out of the view of police patrols looking for traffickers.

It’s used by almost everybody in smart phones and consumer electronics, and there is no simple way to keep conflict coltan out of the stream of legitimate minerals used by manufacturers.

For several months, ICIJ reporters in six countries combed government and court records and interviewed mining experts and brokers. The reporters also followed miners as they prospected for coltan in South America’s Amazon, in the border between Venezuela and Colombia, where they face cross-border smugglers and must deal with violent drug traffickers and paramilitaries — conditions similar to those in Central Africa.

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