Ian Birrell

Sacrificing to the false god of gold

A team of Miami Herald journalists investigate the vast environmental cost of goldmining in Peru and its link to murderous cartels

Illegal gold mining in the Amazon rainforest area of south-east Peru, September 2019. Credit: Getty Images

Deep in Peru’s Amazon rainforest sits a desolate zone, stretching for miles and pockmarked with chemical-tainted water that glistens orange and blue. This was the centre of the country’s illegal gold-mining operations, where tens of thousands of desperate people dug into the soil in search of a precious mineral that could make the difference between destitution and wealth. For every ounce found in the crime-infested badlands, nine tonnes of toxic waste are thought to be left behind in an environmental catastrophe that will contaminate the region for decades.

No wonder Pope Francis, on a visit to the impoverished area, called gold ‘a false god’ when so much wreckage is left behind in its wake. Yet one tonne of this illegal metal left the nation each day, an informant told an amazed investigator almost a decade ago — the weight of a male walrus and worth about $40 million. Much of it was used to wash drug money for local gangsters, laundered with forged papers from front companies to make it seem legitimate, and then shipped abroad, where it could be melted down for sale in respectable outlets across the world.

‘… and in that direction, three festivals have been cancelled.’

When the American investigator did his sums, he realised to his horror, if his source was correct, this meant that illicit gold worth $15 billion a year was leaving Peru, yielding five times the profits of cocaine for cartels. Meanwhile, three Miami businessmen were cultivating a flamboyant local playboy — the father of ten children by five women — and suspected money launderer, who was hoovering up gold for sale in the States. He was nicknamed Peter Ferrari for his love of flashy sports cars. The trio, working for a respectable American firm, hastily did a deal with the Peruvian to buy all his gold.

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