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An ICIJ Investigation

The Illicit Trade of Coltan

Your smart phone contains a ‘conflict mineral’, likely from parts of Africa or South America controlled by criminal organizations.

  • 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.
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