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Peru, the world’s largest producer of cocaine, has a new booming illicit business: gold.
Illegal gold mining has surged in the South American country, the world’s fifth biggest gold exporter. A new Univision Investigative report shows that the criminal organizations that traffic illegal drugs have diversified and are now in the business of trading the precious metal.
“There are signs that people engaged in criminal activities, like narco trafficking and terrorism are involved in illegal gold mining,” said Tania Quispe, the Director of SUNAT, Peru’s equivalent of the I.R.S. The agency is in charge of monitoring illegal gold mining.
“We know that 20 percent of the gold exported in 2013 was illegal,” Quispe told Univision.
Quinn Kepes, who authored a report about illegal gold mining for Verite, an NGO that tracks global supply chains, said illegal gold mining and drug trafficking account for the majority of crimes committed in Peru.
Verité’s report details forced labor conditions, human trafficking and other criminal activities in the illegal gold mining industry.
The soaring prices of gold and dreams of striking it rich have attracted more than 30,000 prospectors to Peru’s Amazon where they clear trees to pull gold out of the mud.
“We start working from six in the morning until the following day,” said Alberto Perez who works 24-hour shifts as a maraquero in one of the illegal mines in the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon. He operates the pumps that draws the muddy waters from the mines into a sluice that sifts the gold from the sand. Maraqueros like Alberto use mercury often with their bare hands to get the microscopic gold particles to condense into nuggets.
Illegal mining has had a devastating impact on Peru’s Amazon, destroying nearly 370,000 acres of land and leaving large swaths deforested.
The use of mercury in illegal gold mines has left an even bigger footprint. Environmental groups say mercury has seeped into the region’s ecosystem and worked its way up the food chain. People living in the Madre de Dios region have reported high levels of mercury poisoning.
“What we have found through testing the hair of more than 1,000 people in Madre de Dios is that 76 percent of the population of Madre de Dios has mercury levels above the World Health Organization maximum limits,” said Luis Fernandez, director of the Carnegie Amazon Mercury Project. Fernandez said mercury affects the nervous system and remains in the environment for a very long time.
“Unlike many toxic substances in the environment that degrade over time, mercury stays. So it’s negative effects lasts for decades and centuries,” said Fernandez.
Alberto Perez, a 54-year-old illegal gold miner, told Univision he hasn’t been affected by the mercury during the 20 years he’s worked in the mines.
“I’m as lucid as a 20-year-old,” Perez said as he sat in an illegal gold mine in Madre Dios. Alberto says he can earn up to $900 a week, much more than he would as a taxi driver.
But most of the profits in these mines end up in the hands of the gangs that own the pumps and machines and the refiners that export gold to the global market, Peruvian officials say.
“This gold makes its way into all of our products, a lot of our products. Whether that’s jewelry or electronics, that’s cellphones, laptops, gold is in all of those,” said Kepes. “I think that there’s really a need to expand the definition of ‘conflict minerals,’ to include these types of issues in Latin America, where gold is really fueling slavery, violence, corruption, organized crime.”
Producer/Writer: Rayner Ramirez
Editor: John Michie and Roderick Avila
Additional Reporting: Univision Investiga
Additional Footage: Laura Hanson
Photo: Manuel Calloquispe