The Illegal Gold Miners of Costa Rica

Illegal Nicaraguan Gold Miners in Costa Rica
Julio Villalobos

Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America and is among the most corrupt. It has become a refuge for Latin American fugitives.  It has the highest recorded gold production in the region, estimated at almost 10M ounces of gold. There are an abundance of gold deposits throughout the country. Apparently this wealth is not adequately shared, despite the communist philosophy; as a result, it does not seem to be enough for the Nicaraguan people.

North eastern Costa Rica along the Nicaraguan border is a particularly isolated region.  Smugglers of narcotics, illegal migrants, various organized criminal groups and firearms abound in this region.  Reports of corrupt CR police charging 40000 Colones (approximately 70 U.S. dollars) to bring Nicaraguan illegals across the border are not uncommon.

However, there is a more lucrative and risky enterprise in the area: illegal gold mining. There are unregistered gold deposits in the area.  Desperate Nicaraguans cross into Costa Rica and set up camps in likely areas. Arrests by the Costa Rican Police Forces of these illegal miners are a recurring problem:

Police corps of the Border Police, Public Force and its Police Intervention Unit (UIP) and the Judicial Investigation Agency (OIJ) intervene in an operation in the area where a group of undocumented Nicaraguan nationals are captured, the same performing illegal gold extraction activity, some of the foreigners detained have registered up to 2 deportations from the country in previous months.

Cutris is home to an open-pit mine known as Las Crucitas, which was opened to a Canadian firm Infinito Gold by Oscar Arias from 2006 until the concession was revoked in 2011 following changes in Costa Rica’s mining regulations ( Since 2011, illegal miners (known as coligalleros)  have moved in to try to exploit the remaining gold reserves. Between April 2019 and August 2020, 2500 kilograms of  gold, worth sixty million US dollars has been extracted illegally and  then legally exported abroad:

Once exported, the gold is taken to Houston, Texas, Miami, Florida and Los Angeles, California, said the director general of the Judicial Police, Wálter Espinoza ( However, the spokesperson stressed that “a large part of the gold” is also transferred in a “slightly more rudimentary and less elaborate” way to Nicaragua.

As with many illegal mining operations, the techniques used in Las Crucitas are rudimentary and ecologically toxic. One of the main methods for uncovering gold is to apply mercury to muddy riverbanks; the dangerous metal helps separate the gold from the ground. Let us be clear what is occurring: a poisoning the ground water of Costa Rica by foreign nationals of Nicaragua and organized crime elements.

In December 2019, Costa Rican authorities confiscated large shipments of cyanide and mercury, two highly toxic chemicals, in a series of operations against illegal mining in the north of the country. The chemicals, used to extract gold, were seized in operations against illegal mining in the town of Cutris de San Carlos. The seizure includes 2,400 kilos of cyanide that were illegally introduced from Nicaragua and were to be used for gold processing. As of 2017, there were 25 illegal gold extraction locations.  The current number of such locations now is unknown.

The  two main question from this kind of ongoing operation are: 1) Is the Nicaraguan government aware of these miners and operations?  2) Are there any organized criminal groups involved?

Answers: Given the level of state control over both its population and resources, the current Sandinista government, in power continuously since 2007, would have to be aware of both repeat cross border illegal migrants and especially the importation of illegally obtained gold. Daniel Ortega’s personal declared wealth in 2006 was two hundred and seventeen thousand U.S. dollars.

Ortega’s net worth is perceived but it has been impossible to know how much it amounts to. Nicaragua Investiga ( found some clear clues as to how much his fortune is and everything indicates that he has already surpassed the fortune that of Carlos Pellas Chamorro (, who has a net worth of US$2.7 billion (2016). But you won’t find Pellas nor Ortega on Forbes list of The World’s Billionaires (1).

Albanisa is the state run company with a multi-million dollar cooperation agreement with Venezuela. Many sources indicate the company has a clear lack of transparency as to its portfolio of resource ownership.  Former executive of this company from 2008-2014, Rodrigo Obregón has described it as  “little more than a giant financial scheme to keep Sandinista President Daniel Ortega in power by rewarding his allies, including his wife and children, while leaving the country mortgaged to the hilt.”(2). Further, some sources have indicated that a certain Israeli organized crime group is involved in these extraction operations.

The biggest question: what happens to the funds from the illegal mines? Are they financing further criminal enterprises? Are they enriching Central American political or military leadership? Are they causing revolutionary activities elsewhere in the Americas?  Ample questions, arise and few answers: it is difficult at best to track gold across borders.  Gold is fungible. Your modern gold ring might well have once been part of the gold crown worn by a prehistoric chieftain.  Further, once converted to cash equivalents, it becomes impossible to trace.

Julio Villalobos – Sept 1st, 2020 – Click Here To Contact

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