How Miami, a major destination for Venezuelan gold, is helping prop up Maduro’s regime

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Smugglers’ Paradise: How ‘Blood Gold’ Keeps Maduro in Power

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As Venezuela collapses into an economic depression like few seen in the last century, the isolated government of Nicolás Maduro still has one cash cow left: Gold.

The rainforests of southern Venezuela are rich in a precious metal coveted by bankers, jewelers and consumer-electronics firms around the world. Over the past decade, impoverished wildcat miners under the control of Maduro’s army, Colombian guerrillas and Venezuelan crime syndicates have ravaged the fragile jungle, stripping away trees by the acre and contaminating waterways with toxic mercury, a destructive tool of the gold trade.

As a result, the country’s gold production is rising dramatically — and shipments of the metal are being smuggled, often through neighboring Colombia, into one of the world’s largest markets for gold: Miami.

Now, law enforcement agencies in both Colombia and the United States are working to uncover Venezuelan smuggling networks, according to sources with knowledge of the investigations. They are targeting American and Colombian gold dealers and refineries suspected of supporting the illicit trade.

Figuring out who’s buying Venezuela’s “blood gold” is difficult — but it’s a crucial step as the administration of President Donald Trump seeks to cut off the flow of cash to Maduro’s government.

Maduro uses cash and gold from illegal mining to keep Venezuela’s military loyal, analysts and former loyalists say. Weakening the industry could undercut the crucial support he receives from the armed forces, as well as alleviate deadly clashes over control of the jungle mines that have left scores of civilians dead.

In addition, authorities in both the United States and Colombia see cracking down on illegal gold as a way to combat Colombian drug traffickers who launder cocaine profits by trading Venezuelan gold. They also hope to thwart Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN), a violent leftist guerrilla group that has added gold smuggling to its criminal playbook of drug and extortion rackets.

American demand for gold is helping drive Venezuela’s mining. Once the smuggled gold enters the United States, refiners smelt it into a purer form and sell it to Fortune 500 companies. The metal can end up in your watch, your ring, your smartphone or your car. Not only are American consumers unwittingly financing a regime viewed by many experts as an organized criminal syndicate, but Miami, the core of the anti-Maduro movement, sits at the scheme’s very heart.

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With an economy in historic collapse and faltering oil production, the government of Venezuela has turned to one of its last lifelines: Gold. The precious metal is mined in Venezuela’s lush rain forests by state actors, criminals gangs and guerrilla groups who use backhoes and mercury to tear away the jungle.

Some of the metal is smuggled across the border to Colombia by planes, trucks, river boats and human mules. Other shipments are delivered by boat or flown to the Caribbean islands of Curaçao and Aruba. Paperwork is forged to show that the gold was legally mined in Colombia or another country. Drug cartels often invest in the trade to launder their dirty money.

The gold is then flown to Miami, one of the largest markets for gold in the world. Other shipments head to Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Switzerland.

After it is refined in the United States, the metal can be sold to banks, jewelers and consumer electronics firms — and end up in your pocket or around your neck.

The cash heads back to Venezuela through Colombia and the Caribbean — and ultimately flows to the Maduro regime.

Venezuela’s main source of revenue, the state-owned oil industry, has been plundered by Maduro and kleptocrats close to him and his predecessor, the late President Hugo Chávez. Over the past decade, billions of dollars in oil funds are believed to have been stolen, then laundered through U.S. and European banks and real estate.

Gold is Maduro’s last resort.

“It has become Maduro’s petty cash account that he is using to stay in power, compensating for the oil industry’s collapse,” said Cliver Alcalá Cordones, a former Venezuelan general sanctioned by the United States who broke with Maduro and now lives in exile in Colombia.

This spring, Colombian authorities charged a major Colombian exporter, CIJ Gutiérrez, with violating the law against selling illegally mined gold. One Colombian investigator told the Miami Herald that CIJ Gutiérrez is believed to have sourced metal from illegal mines not just in Colombia but from Venezuela as well. Trade records show the company exported that gold to major precious metal dealers that supply Fortune 500 companies such as Apple, IBM, General Motors, Ford, Starbucks and Verizon.

Other shipments of Venezuelan gold are smuggled through Caribbean islands such as Curaçao and Aruba that have no domestic gold mining industries, according to sources in law enforcement, the gold trade and customs agencies.

While only Venezuela’s state-owned gold company, Minerven, is legally entitled to process gold, metal from the legions of outlaw miners is nonetheless “falling into the hands of a government mafia,” said a former Venezuelan government official familiar with the mining operations.

The official, who said he could not be identified speaking about the regime, said Maduro’s inner circle took over Venezuela’s wildcat gold industry — previously dominated by criminal gangs — about three years ago. He said the group, known as the Team, is led by first lady Cilia Flores and her family, and the head of the Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM), Rafael Hernández Dala. (Both Flores and Hernández Dala have been sanctioned by the United States, which freezes their U.S. assets and prohibits business dealings with them.)

Other sources familiar with the illegal operations in Venezuela say that Minister of Industries and National Production and former Vice President Tareck El Aissami — who has been sanctioned and indicted under the U.S. Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act — is also a key member of the Team. As industry minister, El Aissami oversees the country’s mining.

Most of the Venezuelan gold coming through South Florida arrives at Miami International Airport in the form of crude bars. It is then shipped to precious metal dealers around the United States, according to law enforcement sources, industry insiders and former Venezuelan government officials interviewed by the Miami Herald/el Nuevo Herald in partnership with an international consortium of journalists led by Brazilian news organization InfoAmazonia. Often, false papers state that the gold was legally mined in Colombia.

“A lot of Venezuelan gold is arriving in Miami, but [disguised] as Colombian gold,” said Ivan Díaz Corzo, a former member of Colombia’s anti-criminal mining task force.

The first floor of the Seybold Building, a Miami landmark and home to many jewelers and jewelry stores. Donna E. Natale Planas

Sometimes, in a process known as smurfing, smugglers simply adorn themselves in jewelry fashioned from Venezuelan gold, walk off the plane and head to the Seybold Building in downtown Miami. The 10-story structure is packed with scores of jewelers and wholesalers, some of whom are happy to buy gold with few questions asked, law enforcement and industry sources say. A single Cuban-link gold chain can contain a kilogram or more of gold, worth more than $40,000.

Because of the Maduro government’s rampant corruption and its gold industry’s ties to South American drug traffickers, criminal gangs and guerrilla groups, Venezuelan gold has grown toxic, both commercially and politically. Most American companies have for years avoided knowingly buying Venezuelan gold. That means the Maduro regime’s gold must be smuggled to neighboring countries and made to look like it was mined outside Venezuela before it can be exported to the United States.

The U.S. Treasury Department recently rolled out sanctions against buying gold from Minerven, the state-owned company.

“The illegitimate Maduro regime is pillaging the wealth of Venezuela while imperiling indigenous people by encroaching on protected areas and causing deforestation and habitat loss,” said U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in a March 19 statement announcing the sanctions. “We will aggressively pursue those involved with Maduro’s reckless illicit gold trade, which is contributing to this financial, humanitarian, and environmental crisis.”

Maduro’s government did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

As Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA, nears collapse under the weight of huge debt, corruption and the flight of skilled workers to other countries, Maduro’s government has ramped up mining operations.

“With oil, Maduro can’t just insist his people drill harder,” said James Bosworth, who has investigated the Venezuelan gold industry and founded the political risk consultancy Hxagon. “But with gold mining, the government and various paramilitary groups can just insist people dig and dynamite harder until they find gold. It’s dangerous and destroys the environment, but it does increase production in the short term.”

Here is an aerial view of an illegal mine located in Canaima National Park in southeastern Venezuela’s Bolívar state. Ravenous demand for gold, much of that demand in the United States, combined with Venezuela’s failed economy, has generated an unprecedented gold rush — and scenes like this throughout Venezuela. Miami is the port of entry for much of that gold. FEDERICO PARRA AFP/Getty Images

Venezuela uses both newly mined metal and its gold reserves (coins and gold bars held by its central bank) to stay afloat. Importers in Switzerland, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and even Uganda also buy its gold, according to sources and published reports. A food-for-gold deal between Turkey’s government and Venezuela’s central bank is helping keep the country from starvation. And Venezuela has used gold holdings as collateral to secure loans from international banks, although it has lately begun defaulting.

This month, British authorities disclosed the seizure of $5 million worth of gold at London’s Heathrow Airport. The metal is believed to have come from Venezuela and have links to a suspected South American drug cartel, authorities said.

Here’s how the South Florida-centered smuggling scheme works: Large quantities of Venezuelan gold are secretly driven, flown, taken in boats or walked across the border to Colombia, sometimes with the help of the ELN guerrilla group. Smugglers produce fake documents stating the gold was mined legally in Colombia. The metal can then be sold — with seemingly clean hands — to importers in Miami and other places.

Florida importers bought roughly one-third of Colombia’s gold exports in 2016, according to a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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A miner drains water at his gallery using a bucket at a mine in Las Parcelas, Tumeremo. Sometimes, especially during the rainy season, the mines flood and the walls collapse burying the miners inside. ‘What the mine gives, the mine takes away,’ the miners say. Ignacio Marin For the Miami Herald

Mixed in with that is the smuggled metal from Venezuela. But no one knows exactly how much, said Leonardo Guiza, a law professor at Colombia’s Universidad del Rosario and the director of the Colombian Mining Observatory, a think tank that studies mining issues.

Last year, by its own reckoning, Colombia produced 35 metric tons of gold, according to the Colombian Mining Association. But trade data show the country exported a total of 45 metric tons.

The numbers don’t add up. Although some of the discrepancy can be explained by small-scale, unlicensed, domestic mining operations, Colombia’s surplus gold also comes from criminal mining and gold smuggled across the border from neighboring countries such as Venezuela. (The gold industry uses metric tons, which are roughly 10 percent greater than a U.S. ton.)

In the border town of Cúcuta, one Venezuelan gold smuggler who gave his name as “Harold” said his preferred method of moving metal from Venezuela to Colombia is to hollow out oranges and fill them with gold. Each bag of oranges he smuggles can contain $20,000 worth of gold.

“The underworld of gold sustains the [local] economy,” said a Colombian customs official in the river town of Puerto Inírida, not far from the Venezuelan border, who asked that his name not be used.

While Colombia is a popular smuggling route, other caches of Venezuelan gold hopscotch from Venezuela through the Caribbean islands of Curaçao, Bonaire, Aruba, and sometimes the Dominican Republic, before landing in South Florida. Since 2014, Curaçao alone has exported more than 82 metric tons of gold to the United States, according to local customs figures.

Etienne Casiano, a spokesman for Curaçao’s customs agency, said earlier this year that more than 90 percent of the island’s gold supply comes from Venezuela, largely brought with private jets to the island, before it is sent to Europe, the United Arab Emirates and South Florida.

In June, as reporters asked questions in preparation for publication of this and other stories, Curaçao’s government abruptly announced it was banning the import of Venezuelan gold.

“There are indications that the trade in and transport of [Venezuelan] gold may be accompanied by various forms of organized, cross-border and undermining crime,” the government said in a news release.

Venezuelan gold is also flown on private jets into Aruba, which is only 18 miles north of Venezuela’s coast. Aruban export data obtained by the Herald show that Miami-based World Precious Metals received six shipments of gold from the island in 2014 and 2015. The gold’s listed country of origin? Venezuela, according to the Aruban customs records.

Two Miami companies — one incorporated as World Precious Metals and another as WPM Miami Inc. — both deny having any involvement with those imports.

Over the past two decades, Miami has become notorious as a landing spot for Latin America’s blood gold. Miami International is the closest major U.S. airport to the gold-producing nations of Peru and Colombia — where gold is also mined illegally by organized-crime networks that damage the rainforest and abuse workers. A host of precious metal dealers have emerged in South Florida, including one of the nation’s largest refiners.

José Colina, president of the activist group Organization of Politically Persecuted Venezuelans in Exile (VEPPEX), said it is “shocking” that Maduro’s gold is being moved through Miami.

“The United States should expand their sanctions even further and go against companies that are helping the regime stay afloat,” he said.

There’s a strong financial incentive to trade gold, no matter where it comes from. Today, its price stands at roughly $1,400 per ounce, more than triple the value in 2005, although down from a peak of nearly $2,000 in 2011. Illegal mining has become a bigger, more profitable industry than cocaine, according to Colombian intelligence estimates.

“There’s no shortage of people here to buy the gold,” said a U.S. law enforcement official with knowledge of the American probe into gold smuggling who was not authorized to discuss the case publicly. “They look at the papers but they don’t really check. If you don’t want to know, you’re not going to find out.”

Some gold dealers don’t just turn a blind eye, but participate in the smuggling. In 2017, federal prosecutors charged three dealers at Miami-based NTR Metals in a massive money-laundering conspiracy. They said the dealers knowingly bought $3.6 billion worth of illegally mined gold, mainly from Peru, between 2012 and 2016.

Suriname, a Maduro ally in the northeastern shoulder of South America ruled by a president indicted in the Netherlands on cocaine-trafficking charges, has also opened a refinery believed to be processing Venezuela’s gold. And Venezuela’s mining region produces other valuable resources that are sold abroad to finance Maduro’s rule, including diamonds and rare minerals like coltan, used to manufacture batteries for electric cars.

In El Callao, Bolívar state, a worker descends into a hole along a riverbank. It is a hazardous existence, compounded by the use of toxic mercury to separate gold from plain rock. JUAN BARRETO AFP/Getty Images

Homeland Security Investigations and the National Police of Colombia, as well as prosecutors in both Colombia and the United States, are leading the investigations into dirty gold.

“Homeland Security Investigations [HSI] recognizes the significance of gold in both Customs fraud violations and how gold is used to launder illicit proceeds,” Kevin Tyrrell, HSI Miami’s assistant special agent in charge, said in a statement. “HSI will continue to focus on the global movement of gold that has ties to the United States and make every effort to trace it back to the country of origin, which includes countries like Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico.”

In 2018, roughly half of global demand for gold came from the jewelry industry, according to a report from the World Gold Council. More than a quarter of demand came from investors seeking bars and coins, 15 percent from central banks and 8 percent from the technology sector, the report shows.

Guiza, the director of the Colombian Mining Observatory, said that while there is no magic bullet for U.S. companies to ensure their gold comes from legitimate sources, they should work closely with their providers in Colombia to verify that they’ve put the greatest possible controls in place. Buyers can also research the area the gold comes from using a free Colombian Mining Observatory database of operations that have been linked to suspicious activities or flagged for violating environmental rules.

Another Colombian nonprofit, the Alliance for Responsible Mining, works with small-scale miners in Latin America, Asia and Africa to make sure they follow environmental and labor laws and helps them formalize their operations. The organizatiofn certifies gold as fair-trade using the label “Fairmined.”

Hard times

Venezuela used to be the wealthiest nation in South America — until the oil industry collapsed under the weight of corruption and incompetence.

Daily oil production has fallen from three million barrels a day to roughly 700,000 barrels.

Venezuela’s gross domestic product has fallen by more than 50 percent since Maduro took office after Chávez’s death in 2013. Inflation has run amok. A cup of coffee cost 2,000 bolívars in early March. Four months later, that same cup of coffee now costs 7,000 bolívars. Venezuelans also have the hemisphere’s lowest minimum wage, below those in Cuba and even Haiti. At 65,000 bolívars per month, Venezuelans making minimum wage could eat up their entire monthly pay by buying one cup of coffee roughly every three days.

As a result, an estimated four million Venezuelans — more than one-tenth of the country’s residents— have fled, overwhelming neighboring countries and creating a desperate population for gold smugglers to exploit as “mules.”

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In Venezuela, a man blows onto gold he has just forged to cool it off. Although bringing Venezuelan-mined gold to the United States is illegal, it happens routinely, often routed through Miami, the very heart of opposition to the regime of Nicolás Maduro. Ignacio Marin For the Miami Herald

South of the Orinoco River lies the precious metal keeping Maduro’s regime afloat.

In 2016, Maduro renamed the gold-rich region covering 12 percent of Venezuela’s territory the Arco Minero del Orinoco, or Mining Arc of the Orinoco. It is an area nearly the size of Pennsylvania.

Violence — including deadly massacres — is growing commonplace as government and criminal factions vie for control of the jungle’s bounty. Last year, the army killed 18 civilians, including a child — many victims were shot in the head and face, according to Bloomberg. The nonprofit International Crisis Group found that 12 massacres have killed 107 people in the mining center of Bolívar state since 2016. On July 12, seven miners were reported to have been killed by Venezuela’s armed forces.

Former Venezuelan government officials say the Arco Minero produces roughly 35 metric tons of gold annually, more than four times the official figure released by the state. That would make the country one of the largest producers of gold in Latin America, although still well behind leader Peru, which mines about 150 metric tons per year.

The gold rush began around 2011 when Chávez nationalized the industry, stripping multinational companies of the ability to extract the metal.

Lured by the promise of rich gold veins, illegal miners descended in hordes. In 2012, when former Venezuelan general Alcalá commanded the region, there were, he said, at most 40,000 illegal miners. Now, he estimates they number as many as half a million.

“Most of the extraction of gold is coming illegally out of protected natural parks,” said Alcalá, who is on a U.S. sanctions list for, according to Treasury, establishing an “arms-for-drugs route” for the Colombian guerrilla group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

The wildcats pay no heed to environmental regulations, using mercury to separate plain rock from gold and in the process exposing themselves, wildlife and local residents — many of them indigenous people — to the risk of poisoning. Vast pools of stagnant water that allow mosquitoes to breed have led to an upsurge in malaria.

Contamination from mercury used during the mining process gets into rivers and spreads far beyond the area where the gold was extracted, said Vilisa Morón Zambrano, a conservation biologist and president of the Venezuelan Ecological Society. “For example, mercury settles in the sediments and also enters the food chain,” she said.

The illicit mining operations were initially overseen by Venezuelan gangs known as pranes, according to an investigator with knowledge of the illegal gold trade who asked to remain anonymous. Now, the source said, Colombian guerrilla groups have muscled into the trade with the support of Venezuela’s national guard and members of the military with links to drug cartels. All profit by forcing the miners to give up part of their gold for protection.

The ELN, which is battling the Colombian government and is suspected of carrying out the January truck bombing of Bogota’s national police academy that killed 22 people, has gained a foothold in Venezuela. The commander of Colombia’s armed forces, Gen. Luis Fernando Navarro, recently told local media that nearly half of the ELN guerrilla force resides in Venezuela. The United States has designated the ELN a terror group.

Pools of water from the mines are the perfect breeding ground for the mosquitoes that transmit malaria to miners. MERIDITH KOHUT NYT

For Colombian drug traffickers, meanwhile, buying Venezuelan gold is a convenient way to get the proceeds from drug sales back to Colombia, said Guiza of the Colombian Mining Observatory.

The traffickers smuggle drugs through Venezuela en route to the United States, Guiza said. When the money gets sent back to Venezuela, it’s easier for traffickers to buy Venezuelan gold and take it to Colombia instead of smuggling stacks of cash across the border. That’s because large amounts of cash raise questions.

“Laundering gold is easier,” Guiza said.

Border troubles

Colombian authorities seem to have little ability to crack down along the border.

Customs officials in Colombia made just two gold seizures — roughly $47,000 in gold — near the border city of Cúcuta over the past five years, according to statistics provided by the customs agency, and another two seizures farther south in the area around Bucaramanga, worth approximately $317,000. Colombian police statistics show fewer than eight kilos worth of gold seizures in towns near the Venezuelan border between January 2014 and April 2019.

The Colombian military targets illegal mining operations within its borders and has seized hundreds of pieces of equipment and detained more than 3,000 people. But it’s nearly impossible for the military to catch gold smugglers coming from Venezuela, said an official with the Anti-Criminal Mining Brigade, who asked not to be named discussing security issues.

“Seizing illegal gold is very difficult because it can be transported in small quantities hidden in small spaces,” he said, noting that a kilo can be smelted into a bar roughly the size of a cellphone. “This makes it very difficult to control in border regions.”

The Colombian government has had more success going after exporters.

In April, Colombian prosecutors accused the gold trading firm CIJ Gutiérrez of exporting more than $700 million dollars’ worth of gold with suspicious origins and took possession of the company. Several company executives were arrested.

Investigators examined CIJ Gutiérrez’s business transactions between 2006 and 2016 and found that many of the Colombian companies and individuals the firm claimed to buy gold from were either shell companies or people who didn’t exist, according to a news release from the Attorney General’s Office. In other cases, CIJ Gutiérrez claimed to have purchased gold from providers who had never done business with the company, prosecutors said.

Evidence collected in the ongoing CIJ Gutiérrez investigation indicates that some of the gold CIJ Gutiérrez purchased over the past year came from Venezuela and that the company exported it to Miami, according to a Colombian law enforcement official who requested anonymity to discuss an ongoing case. Investigators suspect the company previously bought gold from Venezuela as well, the official said.

An official from Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that prosecutors believe most of CIJ Gutiérrez’s gold came from Colombia, including mining operations controlled by criminal groups, but said they haven’t ruled out the possibility that some came from Venezuela.

CIJ Gutiérrez’s former legal representative, Andrés Vieira Gutiérrez, did not respond to requests for comment. The company’s government-appointed trustee, Ana Sauda Palomino, said in an email that she hasn’t come across evidence that the company purchased gold from Venezuela, but has yet to complete an “exhaustive review” of the company’s records. She stressed that the company and its executives have not yet been convicted of any crimes.

Palomino provided a statement from the company’s compliance officer stating that starting more than a decade ago, CIJ Gutiérrez “has reinforced its controls and implemented internal measures that go beyond [government] regulations, with the goal of protecting its operation as much as possible, always strictly respecting Colombian laws.” The compliance officer added that all of the company’s providers must comply with the company’s policies and procedures, which she said meet both the standards of the mining sector and anti-money-laundering guidelines.

Men sit outside a store whose sign reads ‘We buy gold’ in El Callao, Bolívar state, Feb. 25, 2017. The mining industry supports a massive economy, much of it underground, that spills over into neighboring Colombia, thus disguising the origin of freshly mined gold. From there, the Venezuelan gold often finds its way into the United States, frequently through Miami. JUAN BARRETO AFP/Getty Images

Some of CIJ Gutiérrez’s gold has been purchased by U.S. companies, including its only South Florida-based customer, Republic Metals Corp., one of the nation’s largest refiners. Republic, which filed for bankruptcy last year, imported $12.5 million worth from CIJ Gutiérrez between 2008 and 2012, data from the trade firm Import Genius show. But those records cannot show whether Gutiérrez was sourcing gold from Venezuela during that time.

In a letter to the Herald, a lawyer for the family that owned Republic before selling it out of bankruptcy this year wrote that the company’s “past involvement with Gutiérrez is beyond insignificant” and threatened to sue for defamation if Republic was mentioned in this story.

“Over seven years ago, RMC received three test shipments from Gutiérrez totaling less than $12.5 million,” wrote attorney J. Erik Connolly. “Based on those test shipments, RMC decided not to enter a business relationship with Gutiérrez or to onboard Gutiérrez as one of RMC’s sourcing entities. … The family implemented industry-leading programs and controls at RMC to eliminate the possibility of receiving gold from improper sources. They should be praised for their efforts.”

In more recent years, CIJ Gutiérrez has sold far greater amounts of gold to the Swiss refiner Argor-Heraeus, and the Japanese-owned refiner Asahi, which has a plant in Salt Lake City and recently acquired Republic’s Miami facility out of bankruptcy.

Argor-Heraeus — which sells gold to Apple, IBM and General Motors, among many other Fortune 500 companies — bought $2.4 billion from CIJ Gutiérrez between 2008 and 2018, importing it to Switzerland, trade data show. Asahi, whose customers include Ford, Starbucks and Verizon, bought $856 million from CIJ Gutiérrez between 2015 and 2018, bringing the gold to Salt Lake City, according to the records.

Asahi declined to comment about its dealings with CIJ Gutiérrez. Argor-Heraeus said in a statement that it is “strongly committed to its responsibility of upholding the highest standards throughout the supply chain” but did not answer specific questions about its business with the Colombian firm.

In a statement, a spokesman for Ford said: “We were not aware of this issue previously, and we are investigating it.”

It added that the company took its “sustainability and ethical commitments seriously” and was “committed to doing business the right way and in adherence with local law.”

GM said it prohibits suppliers from employing child labor, abusing employees or engaging in corrupt business practices.

“By choosing to do business with GM, our suppliers accept our terms and conditions,” the company said in a statement, “and for our largest suppliers we also expect that they annually certify compliance with these provisions of our contract. We follow up with those suppliers who do not confirm compliance.”

Apple noted that the gold contents of its iPhones is about one one-hundredth of a gram, on average.

“Following a thorough review and third-party audits, we are not aware of gold from Venezuela reaching our supply chain,” the company said in a statement. “Every year, we publish a full list of our gold refiners, 100 percent of which are participating in third-party audits. If a refiner is unable or unwilling to meet our standards, they will be removed from our supply chain. Since 2015, we’ve stopped working with 60 refiners of gold for this reason.”

The other companies that bought gold from Asahi and Argor-Heraeus did not respond to requests for comment.

Luis Murillo, former governor of Colombia’s Chocó department and a former environment minister, said the United States and other countries need better protocols to ensure their companies are not buying tainted gold. He pointed to the Kimberley Process, a multilateral trade agreement that promotes transparent sourcing in the diamond industry, although it remains the subject of criticism.

“We need something similar to the Kimberley process for diamonds,” Murillo said, “but applied to gold.”

In the jungle

Enforcing international standards in some of South America’s most lawless and impoverished jungle mining communities won’t be easy.

A portion of the Orinoco River forms the boundary between Colombia and Venezuela. That means a safe haven for Venezuela’s dirty gold is just a boat ride away. The ELN is in charge of much of this smuggling. The rebels control many small or defunct mines in Colombia. They forge papers saying the gold was mined there.

Américo de Grazia, a Venezuelan opposition congressman from Bolívar state, has been one of the leading voices raising the alarm about the ELN moving into Venezuela’s mining territory.

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Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro shows his appreciation for a gold bar, product of a mining industry that has kept his country afloat — barely — as oil production has faltered. It can be argued that it is the United States’ demand for gold that is keeping Maduro in power.

In 2018, he told the Miami Herald that the ELN controlled at least seven mining areas in his district. (Subsequent research by the International Crisis Group found it controls as many as 14 districts nationwide and derives as much as 60 percent of its income from illegal mining in both Colombia and Venezuela.)

In de Grazia’s telling, the Maduro administration essentially invited the ELN into the country to subdue warring gangs.

“It’s an all-out war with the ELN liquidating the pranes — and it allows the armed forces to keep their hands clean,” he added.

“Franklin,” a 26-year-old 2nd sergeant in Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Guard, spent three and a half years working in the gold mining areas around Puerto Ayacucho — a river town on the Colombian border in Venezuela’s Amazonas state.

Franklin, who agreed to speak under a pseudonym, said he and other troops watched as his commanders cut deals with the ELN to squeeze local miners.

“They would show up in boats — 200, 300 men armed to the teeth — and their leaders would meet with our commanders,” Franklin said.

But the ELN wasn’t necessarily running the mines; they were extorting the miners.

Franklin said the ELN demands either 25 grams of gold or $150 to allow a mine owner to bring a 200-liter drum of fuel into camp — enough to run dredges, pumps and other machinery.

The commander of the ELN battalion was known simply as El Perro — The Dog.

The leader of the Syndicate, one of many armed groups that feed off the mining industry, shaking down those who mine and transport the gold, shows off the fruits of his efforts. MERIDITH KOHUT NYT

The ELN isn’t the only one smuggling. Sometimes lower-level players get creative. In one case, a smuggler disguised illegal gold by smelting it into the shape of a car rim, painting it and attaching it to a spare tire, said Guiza, the director of the Colombian Mining Observatory.

Couriers are paid four to six thousand pesos per gram, or no more than $1.20, to carry the gold on foot between Venezuela and Colombia. They can make as many as eight trips a day. (In international markets, a gram of gold goes for roughly $40.)

Pawnshops have sprung up on the Colombian side of the border to hoover up all the Venezuelan metal. Everyone takes their cut — the border guard, the police, the guerrillas, the army, say the couriers.

It’s dangerous work and sometimes their families are threatened, said Harold, the gold courier who smuggles metal in oranges.

“But everybody,” he said, “is eating from this.”

El Nuevo Herald writer Carlos Camacho, McClatchy DC staff writer Kevin G. Hall, InfoAmazonia writer Jorge Benezra and De Correspondent writer Pamela Kalkman contributed to this report. Camacho and Benezra reported from Venezuela. Ebus and Jim Wyss reported from Colombia.

This project is the result of a journalistic partnership between InfoAmazonia (Brazil), the Miami Herald/el Nuevo Herald (United States), (Venezuela), Correo del Caroní (Venezuela) and De Correspondent (Netherlands). It was made possible by the Human Rights Foundation and supported by a contribution from the Dutch Fund for Journalism Projects.
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Galardonado periodista con más de 30 años de experiencia, especializado en la cobertura de temas sobre Venezuela. Amante de la historia y la literatura.
Kyra Gurney lives in Miami Beach and covers the island for the Miami Herald. She attended Columbia University and Colorado College and grew up in New Mexico.
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