Gastón Schulmeister is the Director of the Department against Transnational Organized Crime (DTOC) at the Organization of American States (OAS). Before joining the OAS full-time, Mr. Schulmeister worked as a government official, managing the Buenos Aires City Police Force, and serving most recently as the National Director of International Cooperation at the Ministry of Security of the Republic of Argentina. He also has worked with international organizations, providing management advisory services in security for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) in Argentina and Paraguay.
The DTOC was established in 2016 as part of the restructuring of the Secretariat of Multidimensional Security. The DTOC’s purpose is to coordinate all efforts of the General Secretariat, strengthening institutional capacities and public policies of OAS member states to confront and respond to the diverse manifestations of transnational organized crime, including money laundering; illicit drug trafficking; the trafficking of firearms, ammunition, explosives, and related materials; the trafficking of cultural goods; the trafficking of persons (including the illicit trafficking of migrants by land, sea, and air); and cybercrime.
Recently, efforts to combat illicit mining in Latin America have moved to the forefront of the OAS’ agenda, being recognized in a December 2019 hearing before the United States Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues. According to the hearing, “In August 2019, the Bureau of International Narcotics & Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) established a three-year project with the OAS to strengthen the national and regional systems that combat illegal mining financial structures and to enhance regional collaboration. Through training courses focused on financial intelligence units, customs and immigration authorities, and agencies responsible for the administration of seized and confiscated assets, we seek to enhance regional collaboration and to increase investigations and convictions of crimes related to illegal mining. We also seek to increase the quantity and value of seized and confiscated assets linked to transnational crime organizations (TCOs).”
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What kind of technical assistance does the OAS offer to governments that want to tackle the problem of illicit mining?
Currently, the DTOC is carrying out two technical assistance projects to address the problem of illegal mining by combating its illicit finances.
The first project aims to identify the financial flows associated with illegal mining. The possession of this knowledge is intended to raise awareness for all actors within the gold production chain regarding the risks associated with illegal mining, so that all relevant actors may then identify indicators of illegal activity. The project will also promote the implementation of mechanisms that allow companies in the mining sector to submit Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) when, in the course of their activities, they detect any form of suspicious operation. In this way, our Financial Intelligence Units (FIUs) can prepare Financial Intelligence Reports (FIRs) to launch investigations into illegal mining practices in the prosecutor’s offices of the participating countries.
Additionally, this project seeks to strengthen the capacities of the agencies that lead intelligence reconnaissance efforts and conduct money laundering investigations associated with illegal mining. The main objective of such reinforcement is to attack the financial structures of illegal mining operations as a means to dismantle them, while also increasing the degrees of information exchange and international cooperation in illicit mining investigations.
The second project is related to the illegal mercury trade, which is one of the main precursors to the production of illegal gold and has had a profound impact on the region’s environment. With this project, the DTOC seeks to create opportunities to discuss mercury trafficking in the region and to identify the gaps that organized crime groups are currently exploiting to illegally introduce mercury into gold exploitation areas.
It is within this framework that the DTOC will develop hemispheric dialogues with relevant experts in order to strengthen various agencies’ capacities to control mercury-related activities, to regulate the precursors to illegal mining, and to investigate any crimes related to illegal mining.
How can the region collectively respond to ward off powerful TCOs from taking advantage of illicit mining opportunities?
In this regard, our analyses have identified three very specific action points:
First, legal frameworks should be strengthened by facilitating greater transparency, which will aid in the identification of the final beneficiaries of transactions in the mining value chain. Most of the mechanisms used to give the appearance of legality for illegal gold mining, and its subsequent sales and commercialization, are based on the concealment and simulation of operations through the use of front companies and front men. As such, strengthened transparency mechanisms will make it possible to identify patterns of atypical behavior in mining-related activities, and, as a result, will lead to an increase in investigations and convictions related to illegal mining.
Second, the promotion of information exchange between agencies related to the mining sector, and the development of parallel financial investigations, could also help regulate mining activities. Currently, illegal mining investigations are aimed at identifying and destroying fields of illegal gold production. However, the implementation of parallel financial investigations would help identify the owners of fields where illegal exploitation is taking place, and would then facilitate the reconstruction of operations that fund criminal networks while the crime of illegal mining is investigated.
Third, it is necessary to establish and enforce mechanisms that facilitate the exchange of information regarding those involved in illegal mining activities, at both binational and regional levels. Members of criminal organizations usually come together from different countries, and therefore have the knowledge and ability to cross porous borders with relative ease and under the radar of border officials. A large problem that border authorities often face is that, even in areas where a given border is distinguished by a single road, requesting information from the border authorities of another country is a lengthy process that can delay investigations and trial proceedings. Therefore, authorities in charge of investigating illegal mining need mechanisms that not only grant them access to timely information regarding their investigations of criminal groups in other countries, but also permit them to use such relevant data in their own investigations.
How has the power vacuum generated by the removal of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) affected the power of TCOs in pursuing illicit mining across the Ecuador-Colombia border?
The situation at the Ecuador-Colombia border is more complex now, given the convergence of several organized armed groups that commit crimes across porous border areas. However, regardless of the type of illegal armed group in question, it is necessary to note the primary motive behind illegal actions in the area: easy money. In this way, it is very difficult to distinguish between irregular armed groups and organized crime groups, since both seek to profit from the same illegal activities. Our analyses of this phenomenon has exposed the dynamics that exist between groups connected to illegal mining. For example, these groups often share and exchange precursors and workers with drug production laboratories, buy machinery and materials from smuggling organizations, and sell illegal gold to other organizations that use it as a means to bargain for their own interests.
Organized crime efforts are usually prioritized above any ideologies or political affiliations, as the opportunity to control areas of illicit production of any kind represents a chance to increase an individual or a group’s potential to produce illegal wealth.
How can the region act collectively to support more developing nations, such as Guyana and Suriname, in warding off powerful TCOs pursuing illicit mining within their territories?
This is precisely one of the main objectives of DTOC’s project on illegal mining. In simple terms, the region can support these nations by providing technical assistance, as this translates into an exchange of expertise and mechanisms to combat illegal mining. However, due to the scale of the criminality, and the diverse criminal methodologies deployed, it is usually too overwhelming for the designated entities alone to successfully combat illegal mining activities. The ability to address illicit mining is further obstructed by a lack of resources, as authorities are often left to search for ways to try to do a lot with the limited resources at their disposal. This challenge further demonstrates that access to relevant knowledge is the best tool to combat organized crime. We want investigators and prosecutors to discover how their peers work in other countries, so that they may learn from their experiences in order to adapt their own procedures and maximize their results.
Such an informational exchange could promote the development of a common vocabulary for the illegal mining arena, and shape the creation of shared methodologies to investigate complex crimes, consequently aiding investigators in their work to identify criminal networks that span multiple countries.
How can the region support low-income communities that have found employment in illicit mines, while also eliminating TCOs, illicit mining, and all other types of illegal trafficking?
In illegal mining—as in all illicit exploitation activities—the actors who do most of the hard work are not the ones who yield the greatest profit. On the contrary, it is a few collectors and traders who keep most of the illicit money. Therefore, eliminating organized crime from the mining production chain provides better working conditions and more income for legal artisanal miners. In some countries, formal and environmentally-responsible mining operations have been successfully developed, demonstrating that it is possible to improve artisanal miners’ quality of life by training them how to use clean technologies that eliminate the use of polluting precursors like mercury or sodium cyanide.
The environmental impacts of illicit mining are known to be widely destructive and irreparable. What are direct policy steps that can be taken to mitigate the environmental damage generated by illicit mining?
The environmental impact of illegal mining is a complex phenomenon, as it involves the degradation of ecosystems at a very deep level. The use of highly polluting materials such as mercury and sodium cyanide impacts land that extends thousands of kilometers from the actual exploitation sites .
Our intervention to mitigate the environmental consequences of illegal mining is concentrated in the lens of criminal prosecution, through which we attack the finances of organized crime through their supply chains that directly exploit and commercialize illegal gold. From this perspective, each organization that is dismantled is one less generator of environmental damage through illicit production.
The damages of illicit mining go far beyond deforestation and seep into wild animal trafficking. Is there a multi-pronged approach to handling all of the environmental impacts of illicit mining?
One of the current characteristics of organized crime is that it is not centralized on committing just one crime. These organizations seek opportunities to exploit any vulnerabilities that may provide a gateway to easy, illegal money. As a result, the targets of organized crime groups may mutate to better reflect the characteristics of the environment or the illicit markets in which they operate. If the conditions to conduct illegal mining operations are inadequate, criminal groups will shift their focus to other high-intensity illegal activities at border areas, such as illegal logging, wildlife trafficking, or migrant smuggling.
Regardless of the source of illicit money, organized crime groups will always have the need to transport, transfer, convert, and hide their assets, which are the products and instruments of the given crime. Our approach is based in the interruption of these financial flows so that, regardless of the specific criminal act, organized crime groups cannot access illicit money.
Scott B. MacDonald is the chief economist at Smith’s Research & Gradings, founding director of the Caribbean Policy Consortium, Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, and a Research Fellow at Global Americans. He is currently working on a book on the new Cold War in the Caribbean.