Coltan: "Blue gold" in Venezuela

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1 year ago

"Coltan" is a name given to a complex mineral, which arises from the unification of the initials of columbite, a mineral rich in the metallic element Niobium (symbol Nb), and Tantalite, another mineral rich in the metallic element Tantalum or Tantalum (symbol Ta). It is also known as "blue gold" due to its very high commercial value and current high demand in the technology industry, where it is used to manufacture electronic devices, global positioning systems (GPS), medical instruments, advanced weaponry, in the aerospace industry, cell phones or video game equipment. Its price, at the mine site, in raw form (primary rocks before separation of its minerals and concentration to obtain Ta and Nb in purer grades), can vary from around 10 US dollars (US$) per kilo, as is the case in the indigenous communities of Agua Mena and Tierra Blanca near the Parguaza river (Cedeño municipality in Bolívar state) participating in manual Coltan mining, to around US$40 per kilo when it is commercialized by organized groups in Bolívar and Amazonas states. However, the international price of the refined mineral (high purity) reached very high figures in 2012, between US$400 and US$1,000 per kilo.

The truth is that the price of coltan is very volatile because small quantities are extracted and it is not traded on the international metals market, which is why it is usually traded through bilateral purchase transactions. A particularity of the coltan coming from these Venezuelan deposits is that they can be traced by their radioactivity. In theory, the origin of the coltan could be determined as Venezuelan (and possibly differentiated from Colombian), given this characteristic.

According to 2017 statistical data, Rwanda is the world's largest producer of coltan with 390 metric tons (mt)(30% of annual world production) followed by Congo(370 MT), Nigeria (190 MT), Brazil (100 MT), China (95 MT), Ethiopia (60 MT) and the rest of the producing countries (65 MT). Data from the regime indicate that Venezuela started the exploitation of coltan in the state of Amazonas with the installation of the "El Mineral" complex. Then, in May 2018 it exported for the first time 5 MT of coltan to Italy for a value of US$ 330,000. However, in a report by Efecto Cocuyo it was denounced that the 5 tons should have cost US$ 2,000,000, considering a value of US$ 400,000 per ton. How can this difference of US$ 1,670,000 be explained?

The entire coltan mining chain in Venezuela moves within a nebula of apparent legality, but within a completely criminal matrix that we do not hesitate to call "contraband" (exploiting miners - intermediaries - final client). It operates as a mafia that involves generals and other officers of the Bolivarian armed forces, as well as organized civilian groups that also participate in the commercialization (smuggling of extraction) of this precious mineral.

The purity of Venezuelan coltan is between 34% and 38%, taking as a reference the tenor of coltan extracted from the Republic of Congo (it has 80% of the world's reserves) and its geographic location in Venezuela. In Bolivar State, for example, miners (exploiters) sell raw coltan to intermediaries at a cost of between US$30 and US$50 per kilo and it is then transported in a disguised, hidden form, mixed with common earth or mud, in granules that vary between 2mm to 5mm, in trucks or rustic vans, since the appearance of this mineral is little known or conspicuous. It is important to know that the exploitation of the mineral is done with very rudimentary procedures and essentially consists of collecting the surface material with hand shovels, and does not require expensive or attention-grabbing excavations.

This means that many poor communities can collect the material with only picks and shovels and load them into sacks, passing it off as a mere artisanal activity with no environmental impact. Smugglers and coltan intermediaries organize day and night operations to move it from the place of origin (Bolivar and Amazonas states) to the final destination (including intermediate points such as the city of Caracas), taking into account all the military checkpoints along the way. To this end, they have a list of all the relevant guards in order to guarantee the successful delivery of the coltan to its final destination. In addition, the commercialization of coltan includes private security maneuvers, escorting both the transporter and the trader. On the Caicara-Puerto Ayacucho highway, it is frequently reported that the Bolivarian National Guard stops vehicles on straight stretches of the road to allow light aircraft to land and take off. The final destination of Venezuelan coltan smuggling (sale and purchase through triangulation and confidential contracts) is in countries such as the United States, Thailand, South Korea, Colombia, Brazil and markets in the Middle East.

The Mining Arc served as justification for the creation and operation of companies in areas rich in coltan, in Block 1 (Juana La Avanzadora) with the Empresa Mixta Minera Ecosocialista Parguaza, of mixed capital between the Corporación Venezolana de Minería (CVM) and the private Faoz Corporation Ltd, which was given a "concession" of 10,201 hectares (102.01 km²) in the Agua Mena-Parguaza sector, north of Puerto Ayacucho and east of Puerto Paez, in Bolivar State. Faoz Corporation Ltd was created on July 29, 2016, just seven days before signing the agreement with the Maduro regime, with no known experience in mining or handling coltan, and is represented by Luisa Herminia Alcalá Otero, 69, who had previously worked for Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A.. Other joint ventures also received concessions in the Cedeño municipality of Bolivar State, such as Empresa Mixta Minera Metales del Sur, in participation with the Canadian company Energold Mineral, and Empresa Mixta Oro Azul Inc., formed between CVM and the private company Supracal Ltd, which received a concession of 8,159 hectares for 20 years. But, the territories rich in coltan are not only exploited by mining where there is state "capital" participation; according to a report by the web platform InfoAmazonia (, the business is also shared with the Colombian guerrilla that operates in the region of Parguaza with the participation of the Venezuelan military force that offers protection in exchange for participation in the business .

The Colombian guerrillas buy coltan extractions from the communities of Agua Mena for a fraction of the international price and illegally extract coltan in the area known as Los Gallitos, which is then taken by established smuggling routes to Colombia, via El Burro port, and then taken by boat to Puerto Carreño, the capital of the department of Vichada, in less than 15 minutes. Another smuggling route connects San Fernando de Atabapo in Venezuela with Puerto Inírida in Colombia. This Atabapo route shows that there are surface deposits around San Fernando. The same report states that there is "mutual respect" between the Venezuelan Armed Forces and the Colombian guerrillas, since when the two cross paths neither interferes in the extortion or smuggling activities of the other. There are also unconfirmed reports that coltan is being extracted in other more remote areas of Amazonas State.

Currently, Venezuelan coltan is offered on websites such as by the company Iconserca Group, guaranteeing shipments and confidentiality "in an anonymous and conflict-free environment" from ports in Colombia to anywhere in the world. In short, Venezuelan coltan is handled outside the law, with no invoices, customs records or certificates of origin, and practically in the anonymity of shell companies. It is certain that a significant proportion of "Colombian" coltan is actually Venezuelan. Considering its radioactivity, it should be possible to trace its origin. In conclusion, far from being a legal mining activity, which yields benefits for the National Treasury, coltan mining is nothing more than an activity totally submerged in corruption and whose purpose is the enrichment of individuals: pro-government politicians, military, guerrillas (although surely as a means to finance their operations as a criminal organization) and financial and technical cooperators of the regime. It is an activity that, at the cost of the profound social impacts it has on vulnerable indigenous communities, has no other purpose than to enrich the illegal operations of these actors and their own pockets.

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