The Illegal Trade in Chemicals

Between 2003 and 2013, more than 96 per cent of a total of 1,020 registered tonnes of mercury entered Colombia through its seaports, most of it via the port of Cartagena, and a smaller amount via the port of Buenaventura. The other 4 per cent of registered mercury imports entered the country by air transport. Of the total 1,020 registered tonnes of imported mercury, 55 per cent passed through Medellín, which has long been the major mercury distribution center within Colombia. Fifteen different companies (of the 51 mercury importers) received 95 per cent of this legally imported mercury, and 3 of those companies received more than 60 per cent: Insuminer S.A., Villa Estrada Jose Santiago and Distribuidora de Quimicos Industriales Ltda. 12 Meanwhile, estimates ofmercury use inASGM by the Artisanal Gold Council suggest that hundreds of tonnes of additional undocumented mercury may have found their way into Colombia by different routes during the same period. 13 • China’s mercury mines and recycled mercury from the Chinese vinyl chloride monomer industry • Artisanal mercury mining in Mexico • The United States, typically transshipped via Colombia’s neighbouring countries • Larger mining operations that recovered mercury as a by- product (e.g. in Chile and Peru) Two investigators of the Colombian National Police Force identified the Colombian port city of Buenaventura, on the Pacific Coast, as an important entry point for mercury coming through Panama andmercury mined in Mexico, and cited recent information that suggests that other illicit mercury imports come from China (often via Peru), 15 South Korea and Venezuela. Armed groups that benefit financially from smuggling a wide variety of goods nowcontrolmuchof the 2,219 kmColombian- Venezuelan border – Latin America’s second longest. Mercury said to come illegally fromVenezuela throughborder crossings in proximity to the Colombian border town of Cúcuta is then transported into the city of Bucaramanga, which is the final distribution hub for mercury going to illegal mines in the area. 16 As in the case of legal mercury distribution, the main distribution hub for illicit mercury is Medellín, which also has a reputation as a seat of organized crime. A recent report 14 suggests that undocumented mercury imports come from several sources:

Eight flasks containing about 272 kg of mercury were intercepted in Turbo, a port city in the Antioquia Department of Colombia on the coast of the Gulf of Urabá, 340 km north of Medellín. The national police in the Turbo municipality were alerted by telephone by a source who claimed that some flasks of mercury would be transported by cargo truck in the vicinity of Turbo. It is not clear whether the source identified the kind of truck or what markings were on it. In any case the police stopped a truck that was supposedly carrying bananas, and when they searched it, they found the mercury and other contraband packaged and hidden beneath other goods. Each flask of mercury was packaged in a small wooden crate and wrapped with plastic film (see photo below). Closer examination of the packaging, the flasks and their labelling did not determine where the mercury might have come from. Together with the mercury, large quantities of cigarettes and liquor were seized. The driver who transported the mercury by truck was apprehended and questioned by the National Police. The DIAN is responsible for the full investigation, including a determination of the individual(s) responsible. The penalty is then determined by the DIAN in coordination with the national Prosecutor General in accordance with the Criminal Code, which calls for 48 to 144 months of prison and a fine of 133 to 30,000 times the monthly minimumwage. The monthly minimum wage is 781,242 Colombian pesos (the equivalent of around US $256), so the fine would apparently be between US $34,000 and US $7.7 million, in addition to the loss of the contraband goods. Since the mercury appears to have arrived by ship on the coast of the Gulf of Urabá, the police speculate that the mercury most likely came through Central America – possibly from Panama. 17 Considering the subsequent transport by truck with no documentation for the goods, it is presumed that one of the criminal gangs operating in the region was responsible, and that the mercury was destined for illegal mining operations. 18 At the time the truck was stopped and searched, the driver apparently contacted one of the smugglers by phone. According to the Urabá police, they were offered 2 million pesos (about US $650) if they were to let the truck go on its way. During the transfer of the truck and contraband to the police station, the offer was increased to 5 million pesos (about US $1,600), and eventually 30 million pesos (about It is too early to have all details of the seizure, and the criminal investigation is ongoing, but some details are known.

Illegal mercury seizure in Turbo

On 25 May 2018, the National Police Force, under the authority of the Colombian National Tax and Customs Authority (DIAN), seized the biggest haul of mercury in the history of Colombia.

The Illegal Trade in Chemicals


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