Not Just Out of Africa: South America’s “Blood Diamonds” Network

Venezuela and Guyana appear to be sources of the tainted gems – and their persistence may help doom the Kimberley Process of certifying the ethical origins of diamonds

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Girish Gupta for TIME

An 11-year-old boy works at a makeshift mine in Icabarú, near Venezuela's border with Brazil on July 6, 2012. The child works on a team with five other children, only slightly older than him, and his father who said simply, "He has to work."

In an office in Santa Elena, deep in the Venezuelan jungle bordering Brazil and Guyana, a diamond trader inspects a rough gem under his magnifying glass. Surrounded by precious minerals, stuffed tarantulas and a sprawling anaconda skin pinned to the wall, he takes calls from men who work in the rowdy clandestine mines nearby and bring him the precious stones. From there, a broker will traffic the diamonds into Guyana, where they’ll receive falsified certificates that they were legally mined and marketed. Many will end up in commercial hubs like New York, Tel Aviv and Antwerp.

And the entire journey will flout the Kimberley Process, a decade-old, U.N.-mandated international agreement to curtail rampant global diamond smuggling. Venezuela, a major diamond producer, is a KP member but voluntarily removed itself as an active participant in 2008 after being widely accused of ignoring the pact’s mission to regulate diamond production and commercialization. “There is no control at all,” says the Santa Elena trader, who asked not to be identified. The KP, as a result, is considering expelling Venezuela: the U.S., which chairs the KP for 2012, this summer delivered an ultimatum to Venezuelan authorities to demonstrate compliance or lose membership altogether.

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The Venezuelan crisis is just the latest but perhaps gravest reminder that the KP’s effectiveness is in serious doubt. Last year Global Witness, an international NGO and a KP architect, cut its ties to the KP largely in protest over the failure to stem illicit trade in “conflict” or “blood” diamonds from African countries like Zimbabwe and Côte d’Ivoire, where a civil war is being financed in part by gem smuggling. (That problem was a key impetus for the KP’s creation.) But for Global Witness and other erstwhile KP boosters, Venezuela is one of the most egregious examples of how “the KP has turned itself into a toothless League of Nations,” says Ian Smillie, who in 2009 resigned a top post at the NGO Partnership Africa Canada (PAC), another KP founder, citing a litany of countries where he said the KP had failed. “One way or the other, the KP has actively let Venezuela off the hook.” And if Venezuela can spurn the KP rules, he adds, “why should anyone else bother?”

Underground traffickers agree. “You’d have to be blind to believe” that the KP is doing its job in Venezuela, says the Santa Elena trader. “It’s a little bit more difficult now [since the KP was established in 2003] to smuggle and certify the diamonds. But we do.”

It starts at the mines themselves. The town of Icabarú is one clandestine mining hub near the border with Brazil – a bumpy, four-hour drive from Santa Elena through the Gran Sabana, an otherworldly stretch of savannah, jungle and flat-topped tepui mountains that inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World. Icabarú’s lush vegetation also hides the misery of child miners. At one site, an 11-year-old boy beats the orange earth with an axe, the spray from a hose soaking his grimy clothes as he works under an unrelenting sun alongside his father.

The rough stones from that mine will move to Santa Elena and then to Guyana through the 550-km-long (330-mile) jungle border region. “When you have a border like that,” says the Santa Elena trader, “you can cross into Guyana whenever you want.” In Guyana, he says, it’s easier to get KP certificates issued to export the diamonds. It helps that Guyana, a former British colony and KP member, doesn’t appear to be a model of enforcement itself. “You’re a businessman,” says one buyer in the capital, Georgetown, who also asked not to be named. “If a guy walks into your office with a diamond, of course you’re not going to allow him to walk out.”

Guyana’s Geology & Mines Commission, which oversees the issuance of KP certificates, declined TIME’s request for an interview. But Natural Resources & Environment Minister, Robert Persaud, denies the government there is turning a blind eye. “We’ve always been conscious that there can be cross-border movement,” he says, but insists Guyana has a “very rigid [diamond certification] system in place” that is under “constant review.” But Persaud declined to provide a date for the last review or disclose any details about the system.

(READ: Why Zimbabwe’s New Diamonds Imperil Global Trade)

Still, Venezuela is the bigger problem in South America. After PAC visited the region in 2006 and issued a damning report on Venezuela’s negligence, Global Witness called for its expulsion for “flagrant [KP] non-compliance.” The government of socialist President Hugo Chávez denied any wrongdoing. But Rob Dunn, who as chairman of the KP Working Group on Statistics visited the country in 2008 as part of a KP review mission, says the country “essentially said they have no ability to control the illegal flow of diamonds and therefore they washed their hands of it.” Requests for Venezuelan diamond output data and interviews with key ministers were refused, he says. The country has since resumed submitting reports, but they’re usually late and “a joke,” according to one PAC official.

Yet tens of millions of dollars are likely being made peddling Venezuelan diamonds. No one knows exactly what Venezuela’s annual rough diamond production is, but experts say it could be as much as 300,000 carats – and though that wouldn’t place Venezuela in the global top 10 (Russia leads the world with about 35 million carats), the country could be among the top 15. So why, Chávez’s opponents ask, would his leftist revolution – whose handling of Venezuela’s prodigious oil revenues isn’t exactly the most transparent – not want to keep official track of a robust cash source like its diamonds? Chávez officials strongly refute any suggestion that officials are illegally pocketing a cut of the profits, or funneling the money to other corrupt purposes, and so far there is little if any evidence to back it up. But as long as Venezuela is unwilling to trace its diamonds, such suspicions are likely to persist.

Meanwhile, there is little hope that the KP ultimatum – especially since it comes while the KP is being chaired by the U.S., Chávez’s arch-enemy – will lead to improved compliance. If not, Venezuela’s eventual expulsion could simply further weaken the KP. “The KP will lose an important producing member,” concedes Maurice Miema of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which chairs the KP’s Participation Committee. And Venezuela, he adds, “will not be able to sell [its] diamonds” under legitimate international auspices.

But they will be sold, as long as the rough-and-tumble illegal diamond mines in southern Venezuela continue to operate. There are thought to be hundreds of them inside the Gran Sabana, and many, given the increasingly mafioso nature of the country’s diamond trade, are violent. “You think I live a cool life, an adventure,” one smuggler tells TIME during his visit to Ciudad Bolívar, north of the Gran Sabana. “But I don’t know how I’ll die, with a gun to the head perhaps, or hung from a tree and my body thrown in the river.” Which is just the sort of ugliness the Kimberley Process was meant to do away with.

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