Obscure mechanisms and failed oversight allow mass gold trafficking in South America

Editor’s note: Report for the World host newsroom Convoca led a group of Latin American news organizations in a cross-border investigation of the gold trade and how illegal miners circumvent the governments’ oversight to sell their gold in international markets as if it had been extracted legally. You can find the entire series in Convoca and their partners’ sites.

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Thousands of tons of gold extracted in South America are disguised as legitimate, through various obscure production and commercialization mechanisms, to be exported to the world’s largest refineries. These are the operations of a million-dollar industry that adapts and changes to exploit a failed oversight system in the producer countries. Having analyzed thousands of data and visited several mining enclaves in the Amazon, Andes and on the coast of Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil, a group of close to 20 journalists identified a complex system of mass laundering and diverting of gold. Between 2013 and 2023 these five countries exported over 3,000 tons of unknown origin, in addition to destroying ecosystems and displacing indigenous peoples and communities in remote areas, which are seized by armed groups taking advantage of the absence of local authorities. International companies sign “due diligence” guidelines, but the dirty metal continues to flow into the global economy without any consequences. This has been revealed by the investigative series “Golden opacity: mechanisms on the traffic of Latin American gold”,  a project led by Convoca.pe with the participation of investigative journalism outlets and organizations from five South American countries.

By Convoca and partner media outlets

In the jungles and mountain ranges of South America, illegal miners have a resource that is even more valuable than the much-coveted gold that they extract with ease: the authorities’ lack of oversight.  As they degrade the ecosystems and circumvent the law, they are the first link in a long production and commercialization chain marked by impunity and the lack of checks. This allows the precious metal to be exported to other continents with its illegal origin concealed. A large amount of this gold ends up in luxurious jewelry stores in Europe, poorly audited destinations such as Dubai, Turkey and India and the storerooms of famous technological factories in the United States.

The lack of traceability of illegal gold has been the blind spot of public policies in the region. This has been made more evident by the unprecedented increase in the export volumes of illegal mining. According to a database created by journalists from Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Brazil, as part of the special investigation “Golden opacity: mechanisms used for old trafficking in Latin America’’, led by Convoca.pe, at least 5,941 tons of gold were exported from those countries between 2013 and 2023. Of this amount, the origin of over 3,000 tons is unknown, as demonstrated by comparing the volume of gold produced and the volume declared for export. This is the equivalent of over half of the production reported.

This complex system of mass laundering and diverting of gold of suspicious origin through new channels includes various mechanisms that we identified in this investigative series by visiting the mining territories, building databases and analyzing documents and satellite maps. These mechanisms are the falsification of purchase and sale invoices for the metal, false authorizations, phantom licenses, smuggling routes, complicit production and smelting plants, the financing of armed groups, negligent checks and changing routes to opaque destinations to evade economic sanctions and legal processes.

The South American country that exports by far the largest amount of gold of unknown origin is Peru, which accounts for over 99% of the discrepancy between production and exportation in the five countries analyzed. Between 2013 and 2023 it sold 4,402 tons abroad despite only registering the production of 1,373 tons, which is a difference of over 3,028 tons of gold of suspicious origin.

Next is Colombia, with a difference of 58.91 tons between the amount produced and exported over the same period. The country sold 618.7 tons abroad but extracted 559.81 between 2013 and 2023. Ecuador sold 82.1 tons abroad over the last seven years, with a discrepancy of 12.73 tons. This is 18% more than the amount reported. In this case the figures between 2017 and 2023 were most reliable for analysis.

In Brazil and Venezuela the public figures for production and export are not very clear, or there are gaps in the information. In a first analysis for this investigation, it was identified that in certain years more exports were recorded than production. Brazil registered a discrepancy in which production exceeded exports by 34.11 tons between 2015 and 2021. In Venezuela, production exceeded exports by 52.66 tons between 2013 and 2023. However, in all these nations illegal mining is gaining ground.

A study by the Canadian organization Artisanal Gold Council determined that in 2016 (the year of the creation of the Orinoco Mining Arc) only 20% of Venezuelan gold was exported through the Venezuelan Central Bank, the official channel, while 80% was exported illegally. These proportions remain constant today. A report by Transparencia Venezuela reports that between 70% and 90% of the gold that is extracted in the south of the country is exported illegally in operations that involve senior public officials and family members close to the president.

The United States’ economic sanctions against Venezuela’s gold sector forced Nicolás Maduro’s government to change the traditional channels to export gold legally. From 2019, it made Lebanon, a country with a notoriously opaque administration, one of its main destinations and thus a transit platform to commercialize the Venezuelan conflict metal on the international market.

What drove the creation of various mechanisms to commercialize the gold of obscure origin? Beyond the appetite for the increased price on the international market – the metal started 2019 with a value of US $1,286 dollars per ounce and five years later reached an average of US $2,300, other internal factors facilitated this boom.

“One factor is the general attitude of governments towards artisanal and small-scale mining. Clearly, policies can encourage tolerance towards them. Behind this reality there are structural factors such as the low presence of governments in remote gold-producing zones, high levels of economic informality and the increase in the price of gold due to geopolitical and economic disruptions”, Luca Maiotti, a policy analyst for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) explained for this report.

Informal and illegal artisanal mining on the coast, in the Andes and in the jungle is the common denominator in South America. (Photo: Convoca.pe)
The jungle ecosystems of South American countries, are hit the hardest by the illegal mining that extracts gold from rivers. (Photo: Convoca.pe)

Brazil: from launderer to supplier of illegal gold

Data from the platform Amazon Mining Watch reveals that Brazil accounts for the majority of the degradation caused by mining in the entire Amazon. The area affected by mines in the tropical forest has risen from 9,700 km² in 2018 to 13,100 km² in 2023. However in Brazil it already exceeds 5,900 km², which represents 45% of the total.

In that country, mining considered by authorities to be artisanal and small-scale (garimpos) is now expanding alarmingly, and this is not a spontaneous phenomenon. Fabiano Bringel, a researcher at the University of the State of Pará, tells Convoca.pe that in Brazil “there was a gradual suppression of the legal-formal obstacles that somehow kept the practices of this activity in check.” This occurred in particular after the ousting of former president Dilma Roussef (2016) and during Jair Bolsonaro’s term as president (2019-2022).

For example, in 2022 a supposed “improvement” of the New Brazilian Mining Code was approved, which in reality renders the granting of mining permits to the garimpeiros more flexible, arguing that this stimulates artisanal and small-scale mining. This reached a point whereby if requests to explore land had not received a response within 60 days, the miners could consider them as accepted. Phantom garimpos have been detected, which served to justify tons of gold extracted from other locations and introduce them into the legal circuit. In this context, Brazil has been an important hub to launder gold from other neighboring countries.

However, in the last year the situation has started to change with the new measures to combat gold laundering. Until recently, the mineral was commercialized with physical proof of payment, which made oversight and traceability difficult. Moreover, a “good faith rule” exempted the dealers who bought the gold from responsibility, provided that the producer declared that it was of legal origin. In May 2023, the presumption of good faith was revoked and two months later electronic invoices began to be required, which allowed the authorities to crosscheck the vendors’ and buyers’ information.

However, as revealed by a report by Repórter Brasil for this journalism series, though the “declared” productivity of legal garimpos subsequently fell by 70%, in reality these changes have driven criminal groups to find other ways to operate free of oversight. This is demonstrated by the increase in deforestation associated with illegal mining on indigenous lands. The authorities suspect that Brazil has evolved from being a gold-laundering transit zone to a provider of illegal gold.

For Rodrigo Oliveira, a researcher and public official at the Federal Public Ministry (MPF) in Pará, “the presumption of good faith institutionalized gold laundering in Brazil,” as it practically exempted the buyers of any responsibility regarding the origin of the gold that they acquired, even in flagrant cases of fraud, such as the so-called “phantom mines.” Nevertheless, Oliveira states that “the regulation of this market remains relatively precarious, with many gaps that allow laundering. If this regulation is not improved, the new framework will not reduce illegal mining but instead cause greater clandestinity.”

As long as there are no effective controls on the mining permit system (permissao de lavra garimpeira), the industry will continue to exploit the loopholes in the current legislation. According to the researcher Fabiano Bringel, a “recent normative contortionism” has ultimately blurred the concepts that differentiate legal mining from illegal garimpo. “The weakening of the concept of ‘artisanal mining permit’ led to the insertion of a series of activities that by their nature could not even be considered garimpo, and despite this take advantage of less protective norms,” he explains.

Consequently, sophisticated equipment and heavy machinery can be observed on the vessels in these mining areas. There is a controversial norm that defines the dimensions of the permits for garimpo work: 50 hectares per individual garimpeiro, 1,000 hectares per cooperative or even 10,000 if they operate in the Amazon.

In Brazil, recent investigations by the Federal Police indicate a rapprochement between criminal groups and illegal gold mines in the Amazon in recent years. Experts indicate that organized crime has used the air and river routes used for cocaine trafficking between Brazil and neighboring countries to transport illegal gold too, as is revealed in the series Narcogarimpos published by Repórter Brasil in 2023.

Peru: epicenter of illegality

Peru is South America’s main gold exporter. The data published systematically for this report indicates that between 2013 and 2023 the metal exported from the country was over three times the amount recorded as being produced. As part of this investigative series, Convoca.pe reveals how shipments of gold of informal origin in southern Peru enter the legal production system without oversight by the authorities, through the Laytaruma mining processing plant, the fourth largest gold exporter in Peru, with over 1.5 billion dollars in exports to countries such as the United States, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.

This case clearly shows the conditions that facilitate impunity and gold laundering. The Laytaruma concentrator plant operates in the Andean region of Ayacucho on the border with the region of Arequipa, which complicates the oversight of this activity in a territory that is difficult to access by the authorities located in the Ayacucho city of Huamanga, a 12-hour road journey by the shortest route through Nazca. The company is registered in the category of small mining as though it processed less than 350 tons of gold per day, which makes the regional authorities responsible for monitoring it, rather than the central government auditors.

Minera Laytaruma is the fourth largest gold exporter in Peru, but remains a small mining company. (Photo: Google Earth.)

As part of this investigative series, it was also determined that other concentrator plants export more gold than they declare to the authorities as production without the appropriate auditing mechanisms being applied. Moreover, in an exhaustive visit to Madre de Dios, a region of the Amazon devastated by illegal mining, we discovered an opaque commercialization chain with companies involved in investigations for money laundering or illegal gold trade, and which regularly send shipments to India and the United Arab Emirates.

The traceability of the supply chain is the main weak point in Peru, as in the other South American countries. The problem is that the producers themselves are responsible for certifying the gold, rather than the state. To extract and trade the mineral, the interested parties only need to be in the Integral Registry for Mining Formalization (Reinfo) and the Special Register for Gold Traders and Processors (Recpo). Though the latter has over 11,000 citizens and companies registered, it is not interconnected with other IT systems to crosscheck information and detect suspicious operations.

On the other hand, SUNAT, Peru’s tax and customs authority, is responsible for evaluating the certification of gold before it is exported. However, the effectiveness of the oversight depends more on the good intentions of the mining company or miner being formalized. The norm requires the latter to accredit the legality of the shipment. This is done through a simple sworn declaration that indicates the place of origin of the gold and in which the actor states that they are not involved in money-laundering.

SUNAT also requests the forestry permits to transport the load and a laboratory analysis of the grade of the gold, which indicates its purity and weight. It also often asks for a “certificate of origin”, a form that is validated by the Peruvian authorities and gives access to tariff benefits. SUNAT does not have any specialized laboratories to evaluate the gold.

Dozens of plants that process ore from informal and illegal mining have been installed in southern Peru. (Photo: Convoca.pe)

In Peru, the political power has also directly favored informal mining. Since 2002, a Formalization Law has requires artisanal and small-scale miners to regularize their precarious situation, operate with a license and adapt to the environmental standards. The initial deadline was one year. However, as a result of lobbying by political groups in the Peruvian Congress, this ultimatum has been extended so many times that 22 years later regularization is still possible, but without doing so definitively or accepting the consequences. It has been established that this year the deadline will end, but a new initiative has emerged to extend it once more until 2027.

To date there are 86,829 actors in the Integral Registry for Mining Formalization (Reinfo) in Peru, of which 63,824 (73.5%) are suspended. As in Brazil, these registries have also been used to flout the system, as phantom mining concessions have been detected that register production despite being inoperative. This was the case of the criminal network “Los topos del frío”, that used the records of four persons who did not exploit their concessions to launder enormous amounts of gold illegally extracted from the mountains of La Libertad in Peru’s northern mountain range.

Convoca.pe has identified that a laundering system has also been incorporated into the routes. The documents required of truck drivers can be obtained very easily, which allows illegal gold to be mixed with legal shipments. They transport the mineral to the concentrator plants, where it is transformed into bars to be exported to international refining companies.

 

Lack of control in Colombia

Though Peru is facing many challenges, for Mark Pieth, former president of the Basel Institute of Governance and author of the book Gold Laundering, the situation of “Colombia is much more problematic (…) the presence of organized crime everywhere makes it more difficult. There is a tension between the indigenous peoples and criminality. It is a hopeless situation,” the Swiss researcher said in a conversation with Convoca.pe. In Colombia, illegal mining is very far from being monitored effectively by state bureaucracy, because the mined territories are currently disputed violently by armed groups such as the National Liberation Army, the Gulf Clan and the dissidents of the FARC. These groups profit from and finance themselves with dirty gold.

In the south of the department of Bolivar a gang war has broken out that has forced the displacement of 120 families. In March 2023, the Army deployed an operation against illegal mining in the Bajo Cauca, in the department of Antioquia, in the northeast. This triggered a miners’ strike driven by criminal interests, which isolated 250,000 persons for several days without access to basic services and supplies.

These criminal organizations have taken advantage of the scarce presence of the state to corrupt the control mechanisms and use them in their favor. Frédéric Massé, co-director of the Monitoring Network for Organized Crime in Latin America, explained in an interview with the editorial board for this report that these criminal networks falsify mining permits, gold origin certificates, subsistence miner registers and the amount of gold extracted.

In March 2023, messages like this one circulated in the municipalities of Bajo Cauca in which the Gulf Clan (AGC) pressured the population to support the demonstration.

One example occurred in the municipalities of Caucasia, Zaragoza, El Bagre, San Roque and Remedios, in Antioquia, and Quibdó, in Chocó, in northwest Colombia. There, an individual known as “Robert” created a gold-laundering empire. He bought databases from the beneficiaries of social programs and signed up 5,000 of them as though they were independent miners. In this way he legalized over 7.5 tons of illegal gold to send it to the United States, the United Arab Emirates and India.

Colombia has also become an illegal gold importer. Its concentrator plants receive illegal shipments and eliminate the traces of the mercury used to extract it. In parallel, the local miners get rid of their loads by smuggling them to other countries, including around the Puré river on the border with Brazil, where the presence of the Colombian guerrillas has triggered alarms and they have even had confrontations with the Brazilian Army. In these conflict zones, the mineral is used as a currency to acquire other smuggled products. An illegal economy has taken root there.

To address the gaps in the supply chain, the Colombian Congress approved a norm that obliges the vendors of gold and other precious metals to apply due diligence standards. For example, there are minimum operability, specialization and finance capacities to buy and sell, and information is required from their counterparts on their operations. If a shipment is intended to be exported, it must also demonstrate that the gold has been extracted from a concession authorized by the state. Though the norm came into force in July 2022, almost two years later the measure has not yet been implemented, because the Ministry of Mines has not issued the specific guidelines to regulate the process.

A boom in Ecuador

Armed groups have also taken hold of Ecuador. The Ecociencia Foundation, which monitors the problem of illegal mining in the country, explains that the situation started to get out of hand between 2016 and 2017. However, the advent of the Covid-19 crisis drove many families to pursue work in this industry. There are indications that dangerous organized crime gangs employ artisanal miners through extortion.

Small-scale mining, the form most prone to illegality, has gained ground in recent years. Between 2020 and 2023 its exports increased by 238%. This evolution has been accompanied by a boom in new commercializing companies. During the same period, ten new companies were created that exported US $530 millions’ worth, as this investigative series can reveal on the trading of gold in Ecuador.

The Organization of American States (OAS) affirms that commercialization and export companies, and in particular new companies, are the “main point of entry for illicit gold onto the legal markets, as the illicit origin is concealed, often before selling it to foreign refineries.”  It warns that the most common laundering method is the falsification of invoices, which “name false artisanal miners or fictitious companies to justify the source of the gold extracted illegally.”

The ecosystem of crime and violence has also expanded throughout the country. The cases investigated by Ecociencia include Sucumbíos, in northeast Ecuador, on the border with Colombia, a zone of the Amazon that has been forgotten by the government for many years. Ecociencia explained to this journalistic partnership that groups of Achuar indigenous peoples practice mining with very expensive machinery, which is costly to transport to the remote zone. “They have another beneficiary who is collaborating with them to carry out this activity. Given the proximity to the border and this cross-border context, this assistance is likely to come from criminal activity linked to drug trafficking and other activities,” says Ecociencia.

In the basin of the river Punino the progressive devastation of the jungle has also been recorded. In 2023 alone, 784 hectares were lost according to the monitoring program MAAP, though it is a zone that cannot be accessed by road. Colombian and Ecuadorian criminal gangs operate there, destroying the jungle to extract the gold.

Confluence of the Payamimo (left) and Punino (right) rivers, in the province of Orellana, in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The yellow Punino, affected by illegal mining, leaves a mark on the waters of the Payamino that supply water to dozens of communities. (Photo:Plan V)

Ecuador’s land registry of mining concessions has been closed for six years due to the protests by indigenous groups demanding a prior consultation law. Yet this has not prevented the exploitation of Amazonian land. Ecociencia states that in Punino, 96% of the land exploited by illicit industry is not in the land registry.

Political indecision also affects the oversight processes, at a moment when this ecological crime is booming. Four years ago, then-president Lenin Moreno decided to fuse the four supervisory bodies of the Mining, Energy and Hydrocarbon sectors into a single institution: the Agency for the Regulation and Control of Energy and Non-Renewable Energies. According to the former Vice-Minister for Mines Fernando Benalcázar, interviewed for this journalism series, the process was a failure and a large amount of resources was lost.

Benalcázar states that the office responsible for mining affairs was only left with ten technicians, though this number was later increased to 35. Yet he says that these human resources were insufficient to monitor the 2,000 small-scale mining concessions registered. In May, the current president, Daniel Noboa, separated the agencies again, and the powers for this sector were once again attached to the Agency for Mining Regulation and Control (Arcom), which recovered its name. This office was also responsible for verifying exports. In 2019, it tried to take laboratory samples to corroborate the purity and weight declared by the traders. However, following complaints from the sector this measure was reversed and the controls were loosened again.

Opaque channels in Venezuela

One complex case is Venezuela, where there is little large-scale mining, while small production units controlled by criminal gangs are spreading in the Orinoco Mining Arc, a mining belt decreed by Nicolás Maduro in 2016. In that country, gold can be commercialized legally with the mediation of the Central Bank of Venezuela, which has a monopoly on gold exports. Nevertheless, it is calculated that “legal gold” barely represents 20% of the total extracted every year. It is a sector of the battered Venezuelan economy that has been accused of human rights violations and environmental crimes.

Since 2019, the United States has imposed economic sanctions on Venezuela’s gold sector. As a result, in recent years the Central Bank has had to change the destination of its exports to opaque arrangements that helped to incorporate Venezuelan gold into the global legal circuit. As is revealed by the reporting by Armando Info for this journalism series, between 2019 and 2023 the main clients of the Venezuelan government were Uganda (US$309 million), Lebanon (US$174 million), the United Arab Emirates (US$123 million) and Turkey (US$7 million). In 2021 and 2022, Lebanon received over 90% of Venezuela’s sales of this metal. It is a transit country, which buys and sells the metal. Certain NGOs warn of the risk of it becoming a stopover for global “gold-laundering.”

Outside the monopoly of the Central Bank, 80% of illegal gold production flows out through irregular channels. Several mafias participate in the trafficking at all levels, which includes public officials, members of the military and Colombian guerillas, according to the study “Flows of gold from Venezuela” by the OECD

“This expansion develops within a central structure composed of a hierarchy of authorities – military, political and others – that sends part of the gold produced in dozens of small operations along the chain of command while they become rich from the rest. This is the direct or indirect participation of state and non-state armed groups,” warns the OECD. The armed groups and military members have control, charge the miner groups an amount and sometimes subject them to extortion. The local and national politicians also take a large slice, it is claimed in the 2021 report.

Cristina Burelli, director of SOS Orinoco, says that the military is now gaining ground in the illicit business. “The trend that we are seeing in various parts of Venezuela is that, on one hand, the Armed Forces remove the leaders who control the mines, but replace them with similar figures. In this way the mining remains the same and expands. [Nicolás] Maduro’s regime is not dismantling the mining. Instead, it is playing “I’ll replace you with myself,” she said in an interview with Convoca.pe 

Burelli gives the example of the displacement carried out by military members in the tepuy (hill) of Yapacana, a national park on the border with Colombia whose territory is shared between the National Liberation Army and the dissidents of the FARC. Today, despite the military presence, the satellite images show that the stain of mining continues to spread.

This context of corruption renders futile any discussion on the implementation of controls or greater transparency in Venezuela’s supply chain. One of the routes to export the gold is the islands of Aruba and Curazao. For example, in 2019 gold exports from Curazao, a country with no fields or refineries, represented 34.4% of its entire international sales. After the Dutch authorities became aware of this, in subsequent years the mineral almost disappeared from the exports from the Dutch Antilles. Illegal Venezuelan gold has now consolidated its routes to Brazil, Colombia and the Dominican Republic.

 

Final destination

With the backdrop of a failed system to control the extraction and commercialization of gold in the producer countries, the international gold market has been reconfigured. In recent years two new buyers have emerged: India and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are among the main destinations of gold exported officially from Peru, Ecuador, Brazil and Colombia.

“Through this laundering, the gold leaves Peru and does not travel directly to refineries in the United States or Switzerland. It goes to Dubai (UAE) or to China. We know that in these two countries the rules are not taken as seriously,” Livia Wagner, an expert at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Crime, an international organization that promotes strategies to deal with organized crime, tells Convoca.pe.

Switzerland remains the main buyer of gold globally, with imports worth US$94 billion in 2022, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Contrary to expectations, this year its most significant suppliers of gold were not Latin American countries but the United States (22.4%), the United Arab Emirates (8.7%), Burkina Faso (6.2%), South Africa (5.9%) and Russia (3.9%).

Much of the gold that reaches Switzerland comes from the Peruvian jungle and other South American countries. (Photo: Convoca.pe)

“Switzerland plays a special role. It is actually a service provider. It has always been a refiner country. Originally it received 70% of the world’s gold. Now this has fallen to around 50%, as there are other refiner countries such as Dubai, but very little gold remains in Switzerland,” explains Mark Pieth.

As a matter of fact, the European country is also the world’s largest exporter of gold (US$101 billion in 2022), as the mineral that it refines – that is, purifies – is reexported to the Middle East, India or China, which have buoyant jewelry industries.

Regarding the responsibility of the buyer countries, the OECD has established due diligence principles and practices for the private sector. These include implementing control and transparency systems on the supply chain and its stakeholders, identifying risks and generating strategies to confront them, hiring independent supervised audits and providing the results publicly.

For many years there have been private initiatives by the international industry itself to “self-regulate,” such as the London Bullion Market Association and the Responsible Jewellery Association.

“They assure us that they are applying these rules. This means that if you are a refiner, you have to check not only who sold you the gold, but also from which mine it comes. This is at times very difficult, because if it originates in artisanal mines such as La Rinconada (in Puno, Peru), you have no way of knowing this,” says Pieth. “‘It is from Puno’ is all that they can say. But they should be empowered to specify with greater precision where the gold comes from,” he adds.

Livia Wagner comments that this area is “highly hermetic and they do not need to collaborate with anyone. Now they do not even take the trouble to speak to other stakeholders. I perceive this as a sign of arrogance in this sector, that I have not observed in many others,” she says.

Thousands of tons of ore from informal and illegal activities are processed and then exported to countries in Europe and the Middle East. (Photo: Convoca.pe)

In 2018, the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) warned that several elements needed to be improved in the audits carried out by these trade associations. It urged them to improve the knowledge of their auditors and reminded them that “due diligence is not just compiling papers and undergoing an audit.” “This is a serious issue, because self-regulation is useless without serious audits,” says Pieth.

Furthermore, Luca Maiotti, the OECD analyst, highlights the fact that “most of the infrastructure, pre-financing, inputs – including illegal ones, such as explosives and mercury – often come from the buyers – middlemen, traders, exporters. We believe that putting a spotlight on these stakeholders is the key to reducing criminals’ options. They cannot survive without buyers.”

In this manner, the gold laundered in South America enriches major global stakeholders, is on show in the display cases of the luxury industry and is stored in vaults in the central banks of the leading economies. At that stage of the chain, the scars left across thousands of kilometers of ecosystems and on human lives are no longer visible. That distance creates a different perspective.

 

Methodology for data analysis

To identify the imbalance between gold production and export, this research analyzed official data and data from specialized sources from Peru, Venezuela and Colombia, between 2013 and 2023. In the case of Brazil, figures between 2015 and 2021 were included because it was the most reliable information available, while for Ecuador the period 2017-2023 was covered because it was the most consistent data that we obtained through a request for access to public information.

The source of the gold production data in Peru is the Ministry of Energy and Mines, in Colombia it is the National Mining Agency, while in Ecuador the figures correspond to the Agency for Regulation and Control of Energy and Non-Renewable Natural Resources. For Brazil, the Mineral Yearbook and the National Mining Agency Report were used and due to the lack of transparency of the Venezuelan government, data from UN Comtrade were used for the analysis of gold production in Venezuela.

In the case of exports, in Peru the data are from the National Superintendence of Customs and Tax Administration (Sunat), while in Ecuador the figures from the country’s Central Bank were used. For the cases of Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela the same sources of information were used as for the gold production figures.

Credits:

*This report was prepared as part of the cross-border investigation ‘Golden Opacity: mechanisms on Latin American gold trafficking’, led by Convoca.pe (Peru) with the participation of reporters and editors from Repórter Brasil, Plan V (Ecuador), Consejo de Redacción and Rutas del Conflicto (Colombia), Armando.info and Alianza Rebelde Investiga (ARI), formed by Runrunes, El Pitazo and Tal Cual (Venezuela).

General coordination and editing: Milagros Salazar (Convoca)

Reporters and editors who participated in this report:

Brazil: Hyury Potter and Naira Hofmeister (Repórter Brasil)

Ecuador: (Plan V)

Colombia: Juan Carlos Granados and Óscar Parra (Rutas del Conflicto / Consejo de Redacción)

Peru: Paul Tuesta, Roberth Orihuela, Milagros Salazar, Gonzalo Torrico (Convoca)

Venezuela: Lisseth Boon (Armando.Info), Lorena Meléndez, Ronna Rísquez (Alianza Rebelde Investiga, formed by Runrunes / El Pitazo / Tal Cual).