‘Abuses of every kind’: How a billion-dollar gold racket wrecks the jungle, enriches narcos
Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the book ‘Dirty Gold: The Rise and Fall of an International Smuggling Ring’ by Miami Herald journalists Jay Weaver and Nicholas Nehamas and former Herald journalists Jim Wyss and Kyra Gurney, based on a Herald series that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. It is now available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
Juan Pablo Granda stepped into a small office in a middle-class neighborhood in the permanently foggy city of Lima, Perú, on Feb. 18, 2013.
The lights were off.
He couldn’t see.
As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, Granda began to make out menacing shapes: two men, short and squat, with handguns strapped to their hips. Behind them, their boss sat at a desk. A single-barreled shotgun leaned against the wall.
Granda, a 31-year-old Florida State University graduate with degrees in international business and management, wasn’t there to buy cocaine or weapons, as the room’s bristling tension might suggest.
He was there to buy gold, the metal that has mystified, entranced, and led human beings to destroy themselves since the dawn of time.
The office belonged to one of the biggest gold exporters in Perú, a developing South American nation where precious-metals brokers sometimes operate more like drug dealers than suit-and-tie commodities traders. Where Africa has its “blood diamonds,” Perú and its neighbors in South America have “dirty gold” — and much of it ends up in jewelry and electronic goods purchased by unsuspecting consumers in the United States.
The metal Granda sought is produced by a little known and incredibly destructive criminal economy fueled by the cocaine trade. Under the nose of governments and law enforcement agencies around the world, dirty gold has infiltrated the global precious-metals industry.
Deep in Perú’s Amazon rain forest, tens of thousands of struggling wildcat miners use backhoes, pickaxes, and high-powered hoses to rip the metal from pristine jungle riverbanks and toxic mercury to strip it from rock. Violent drug traffickers and other criminal gangs control many of the mines and smuggling routes. Mining camps are overrun by vermin and disease. Women and children are coerced into the sex trade to serve the hard-living miners, who travel from Perú’s mountains and coasts to find some of the most lucrative work available in this country of 32.5 million people.
Nearly half of the people who live in Perú’s rural highlands, along its jungle rivers, or on the edges of its subtropical deserts do so in poverty, many without running water, electricity, or basic healthcare. Illegal gold mining is one of the best ways out.
The miners have turned an area in Perú’s southeastern rain forest known as La Pampa into one of the hemisphere’s largest illegal gold mines, a giant tear-drop-shaped desert that stretches more than forty-two square miles. In La Pampa, anywhere from thirty thousand to forty thousand men, women, and children dig through the muck day and night in search of the elusive metal.
While the rain forests of the surrounding province, Madre de Dios (Mother of God), support some of the richest wildlife found anywhere on Earth, La Pampa has been transformed into a hostile, alien planet. For every ounce of gold the miners extract, researchers estimate that they leave behind nine tons of waste, amid giant craters filled with chemical-tainted water colored in unearthly shades of electric blue and metallic orange.
Thanks in part to mines like La Pampa, South America’s old-growth rain forest is being turned into a desolate wasteland. After fossil fuel combustion, deforestation is believed to be the second-leading driver of climate change. In Perú alone, an area bigger than all five boroughs of New York City has been stripped to bare, mottled earth.
The story is the same across much of the Amazon. Although loggers and cattle ranchers tear down far more jungle than miners, the mercury used in illicit gold mining can poison the rain forest and local peoples for generations.
For Perú’s government, La Pampa became something even more sinister than an environmental catastrophe: a toxic stew of poverty and criminality, where police dared not tread and international and Peruvian laws were mere conjecture. If miners wanted to sleep with underage girls, there was a price for that. If they needed to settle a score, La Pampa’s mining pits were ready-made graves with no undertaker to ask questions.
“You can find everything in there … abuses of every kind,” Peruvian defense minister José Huerta Torres said.
Although solutions do exist — including less destructive forms of mining that would actually increase gold yields — there is little will to solve the problems as long as the gold keeps flowing. And the rush of gold won’t stop as long as there are men like Granda who come from overseas to buy it.
By the time he stepped into that dark Lima office, Granda knew all about the evils of illegal mining — he just didn’t care. His job was to acquire gold for NTR Metals, the Miami subsidiary of Dallas-based Elemetal, one of the largest international gold-trading companies in the United States. As much gold as he could possibly find.
For Granda, convincing the Peruvian gold dealer to agree to an exclusive relationship with NTR could jump-start his new career, one that followed jobs in South Florida selling subprime mortgages and classes for an online university.
Granda launched into a carefully crafted pitch. NTR had the best prices, Granda told the gold dealer — and could pay faster than any of its competitors. He had seen how rival American firms operating in Perú misweighed and undervalued the gold that suppliers brought in to sell.
“You’re getting ripped off,” Granda said.
The Peruvian gold dealer was impressed. He was the second in command in his office — which, it turned out, was dark not for purposes of intimidation but because of one of Lima’s frequent power outages. He invited Granda and his fellow NTR salesman, Renato Rodriguez, to join his boss for dinner that evening.
Over a meal of ceviche, Perú’s signature citrus-cured raw fish dish, they closed the deal. The rookie trader had won his first client for NTR.
Three days after clinching his first gold deal, Granda clutched a toilet in the bathroom of Lima’s trendy beachside restaurant Costa Verde, vomiting uncontrollably.
A torrent of bitter stomach acid mixed with pisco sours — Perú’s supersweet, deadly strong national drink — rained down into the porcelain bowl.
It had been a hell of a birthday party for his company’s biggest supplier, Pedro David Pérez Miranda, a muscular playboy with a thick mane of curly black hair who had been dubbed “Peter Ferrari” by the local press for his love of European sports cars, tight shirts, and beautiful women. Rumors of his fondness for plastic surgery abounded.
Ferrari spared no expense on his fifty-third birthday. A bottle of Johnnie Walker stood on each table. Gold Label, of course.
Models and expensively suited men danced to the rhythms of a live salsa band. The room screamed money — and not necessarily the legitimate kind. In Perú, the world’s second-leading producer of cocaine, the flashy Pérez Miranda had been dodging allegations for two decades that he dealt in stronger stuff than gold, allegations that he always denied.
Granda was starting his new job traveling Latin America and the Caribbean as a gold buyer for NTR Metals. His boss, Samer Barrage, and the more experienced salesman Renato Rodriguez had brought him to the party on Feb. 21, 2013.
The three men had known each other in Miami for nearly a decade before going to work for NTR. Now, twenty-six hundred miles south in Perú, they were embarking on a grand adventure.
Granda, short and round-faced with jet-black hair, was the baby of the bunch, a hard-working, hard-partying bachelor from the suburbs south of Miami who had recently earned his MBA.
Rodriguez, 40, was a working-class family man born to Ecuadorian immigrants and raised in Brooklyn. He went by “Ronnie.”
On his arms, he wore three tattoos: his father’s signature, his daughter’s footprints, and the postmark from the letter that his father had mailed his mother asking her to marry him.
He was a big man, 6-foot-1 and 280 pounds, sensitive about his weight, and desperate to fit in with Barrage and Granda, both handsome and suave. When the other two called him ” Fat Ronnie,” as they often did, the nickname stung. But Rodriguez didn’t fight back. He yearned to be one of the gang. On their business trips across South America, when Granda and Barrage frequently hired escorts at local hotels, Rodriguez would shed his family-man exterior and join them.
Barrage, 36, was the boss, more worldly and sophisticated than his subordinates. Born in London, he spoke with a posh British accent and owned homes in Nicaragua and Spain. His brother worked at a top law firm in Washington, DC. His son went to an elite Miami prep school that produced half the city’s mayors, lawyers, and judges.
They were three amigos, alike in their ambition and disregard for following the rules. They hungered for their vision of the American Dream. And Miami, America’s modern-day Casablanca, was the best place to find it. Because of its proximity to Latin America, Miami had become the United States’ gold-import capital, the center of a multi-billion-dollar gold industry that sells metal to hundreds of Fortune 500 companies and central banks.
The global supply chain rests on exporters like Pérez Miranda. For a year, Barrage and Rodriguez had cultivated the man better known as Peter Ferrari, finally stealing his business away from a rival Miami gold company in 2012. It was a major coup. Pérez Miranda didn’t own any mines himself; rather, he was a “collector” or “aggregator” of metal that he bought from miners and smaller dealers.
These brokers — in Spanish called comercializadoras — feed jungle metal from places like La Pampa, the giant illegal rain forest mine, into our pockets, through our ears, and around our fingers, wrists, and necks.
When Granda was finally done throwing up at Peter Ferrari’s birthday party, Barrage and Rodriguez helped him from the bathroom to a couch in the restaurant’s lounge. He took a fifteen-minute nap and then jumped up and started drinking again.
There was no time to rest. With Ferrari as a major client, the Americans believed they had bought a lucrative one-way ticket into the narcotics-fueled netherworld of illegal gold trading.
Drug traffickers, always seeking ways to launder their money and appear to the outside world as legitimate businessmen, had started investing their cocaine cash in South America’s informal gold-mining industry. It was a perfect cover.
Trading gold made financial sense, too. Between 1999 and 2011, the price of a single, fourteen-pound gold bar skyrocketed from $51,000 to $390,000, driven by terrorist attacks, financial insecurity, and a searing hunger for jewelry and electronics in the consumer markets of India, China, and the United States.
In America, the boom was helped by gold bugs like then-Fox News host Glenn Beck, who produced fear-mongering advertisements urging listeners to invest in the reliable metal.
Most of the world’s gold comes from mines controlled by multi-national conglomerates. Just five countries produce half the world’s annual gold supply: China (roughly 400 tons per year), Australia (300 tons per year), Russia (295 tons per year), the United States (210 tons per year), and Canada (180 tons per year).
Those big mines have a host of problems: They destroy mountains, ravage landscapes, and contaminate the air, water, and soil. In countries with weak labor protections where gold is also mined — like Indonesia, South Africa, and Ghana — the big mines are known to exploit workers.
But big mines are generally subject to far more regulations, and are more free from the influence of organized crime, than the industry that has come to be known as informal, or “artisanal,” mining. The informal miners work outside the regulated government system.
There is nothing artisanal about how the vast majority of them mine; they are not craft cheese makers or country vintners. Rather, they are people desperately trying to earn a living through subsistence mining, with little education or access to financing and safe equipment.
Because of their crude methods, the small-scale miners have become the world’s largest source of mercury pollution, releasing an estimated 1,400 tons of the dangerous chemical into the earth’s environment every year.
As big mines and traditional sources of gold tap out, the growth in the small-scale mining industry has been tremendous. Twenty-five years ago, an estimated six million people worked in small-scale mines.
Today, the World Bank estimates a hundred million artisanal miners worldwide are active in eighty countries, producing 20 percent of the global gold supply. At least a third of them are believed to be women and children.
Gold, Pope Francis said on a trip to Perú’s devastated rain forest, is a pernicious and corrupting idol — “a false god that demands human sacrifice.”
But Elemetal, NTR’s parent company, saw the small-scale miners as an opportunity.
Before the Great Recession caused prices to spike, Elemetal only bought gold domestically, operating a chain of “We Buy Gold” stores across the United States. The storefronts took in metal from pawnshops, antique stores, and people looking to junk their heirlooms and old coins.
But in 2012, the company expanded its operations abroad, to Latin America, where the legion of artisanal miners was carving a valuable new supply of gold out of the jungle. Elemetal quickly surpassed its competitors as the largest buyer of South American gold.
The rapid expansion brought the American company into contact with unsavory characters like Peter Ferrari, particularly in the major gold-producing nations of Perú, Colombia, and Bolivia, which supply 40 percent of raw gold exports to the United States — and all of its cocaine. Thanks to the three amigos’ aggressive sales tactics and see-no-evil approach, NTR Metals would buy nearly $1 billion worth of Peruvian gold by the end of 2013, or one of every two ounces of Peruvian metal heading for Miami.
Granda, Barrage, and Rodriguez were far from the only traders buying dirty gold in Latin America.
They were simply the best at it.
But unbeknownst to the three Miamians, an unlikely team of U.S. law enforcement officers was forming to combat a problem their government had ignored for decades.
The federal agents and prosecutors only half-jokingly called themselves “the Fellowship of the Ring,” after the fractious crew of J. R. R. Tolkien characters tasked with destroying Sauron’s evil golden ring of power.
Among the company was a rebellious, bow-tie wearing Miami prosecutor; a hot-headed Cuban-American Homeland Security Investigations agent; a former U.S. Air Force Pararescue trooper and one-time rodeo cowboy who had joined the Drug Enforcement Administration looking for justice and adventure; and a soft-spoken FBI agent and military intelligence veteran determined to make her first big case.
Despite their radically different backgrounds and approaches, one mission would ultimately unite them: Bringing down dirty gold.