Friday, April 5, 2013

The End of an Era for Emeralds?

Victor Carranza with one of his giant emeralds.
The death of Victor Carranza, known as the emerald czar, may mark the end of a wild chapter in Colombia's emerald industry, marked by sudden fortunes, larger-than-life personalities and explosions of violence.

Born in 1935 in Boyaca, Carranza built an emerald empire, using both legal and illegal means. During his long career, he was also linked with narcotrafficking and paramilitarism. But, magically, multiple legal cases against him were mysteriously shelved again and again.

"Media such as El Tiempo investigated and repeatedly denounced these facts, but prosecutors took no strong measures," El Tiempo observed dryly .

Carranza's enemies and business rivals also tried to murder him many times. The so-called 'Green Wars' between emerald czars in the 1960s and '80s killed thousands - but not Carranzo. In the end, it was prostate and lung cancer that got him.
A street in the impoverished town of Muzo,
home to some of the globe's richest emerald mines.
(Photo: El Tiempo)

Carranza's rise from poverty to an emerald empire probably will not be repeated. Today, the industry is becoming corporatized - Carranza himself was in partnership with a Houston, Texas mining company in Muzo, Boyaca, the epicenter of world emerald mining. In recent years, as the easily-found stones have been cleaned out and mines have gone deeper, making a living as a guaquero, or wildcatter, has become more and more difficult. The poor people who sift thru mine tailings for emeralds the mine missed say the stones are becoming scarcer and scarcer.

An emerald-dealer friend has told me about the old days, when he and a group of other miners would head out into the wilderness and start digging, looking for a vein of emeralds. Sometimes they'd get lucky; sometimes, the mineshaft would collapse, burying the miners inside.

Colombia is still the world's largest producer of emeralds, and its stones are of particularly high quality. However, this industry, worth more than $100 million per year, and the source of huge fortunes like Carranza's, has left the majority of the residents of Muzo in poverty.

With Carranza's death, officials in Boyaca's emerald region fear that the violence could restart.

Lessons for Another Violent Colombian Industry?

As troubled as the emerald business has been, it looks decidedly peaceful compared with another Colombian industry: illegal drugs. And there might be a lesson in that.

El Espectador reports that during the Green War of the 1960s the emerald industry was mostly illegal. In 1973, the government shut the illegal mines and auctioned them off. One of the major buyers was Victor Carranza.

After that, the industry remained relatively quiet for decades, until narcotraffickers invaded the region in the 1980s, according to El Espectador. Violence raged again until the emerald miners, with the intermediation of the region's catholic bishop, signed a peace treaty in 1990.

A fragile peace has held ever since, altho several recent killings have the emerald region on edge. Recently, 20 emerald miners signed a peace treaty intended to head off possible confrontations. Carranza himself has been an advocate for peace - which is, after all, good for business.

Some observers now fear that Carranza's death could destabilize things and trigger another Green War. But Msr. Luis Felipe Sánchez, the bishop of Chiquinquirá, told El Tiempo recently that things have changed. There's less money in the region now, and more government control, he said. Also, there's less coca, "which produced more violence than did the emeralds."
Bishop Luis Felipe Sánchez has overseen peace
treaties among emerald miners. (Photo: El Tiempo)

The similtarities between emeralds and cocaine are obvious: both are valuable, highly-desired commodities dealt in by aggressive, less-than-scrupulous businessmen. But there's one fundamental difference: emeralds are legal, while cocaine is not. Because of that difference, the government can try to mediate emerald conflicts; Emerald miners can sue each other instead of killing; And religious leaders can endorse peace treaties.


Today's El Tiempo has two articles with interesting details about Carranza, including how he starting out in a small town carrying sacks of potatoes for his mother, who worked in a local market, and eventually headed Forbes magazine's list of the richest Latin Americans. As a young man, Carranza supposedly spent several years in prison for killing a man who tried to steal his emeralds. He would later spend several more years in detention - and then be absolved and compensated by the state.

Carranza and his immediate family employed 100 bodygaurds, according to El Tiempo, 20 of whom lived in Carranza's luxury apartment in north Bogotá. Carranza's bedroom could be entered only by entering a secret code which unlocked the armored door.

Carranza was implicated in massacres, paramilitarism and drug trafficking, but none of those charges ever stuck. In the end, he worked for peace in the emerald business - obviously, for a man who controlled 40% of the industry, peace meant profits.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


Odd Frantzen said...

Thank you for this text. I liked it.

Stuart Oswald said...

Oh Dear, I see you are still peddling this. Emeralds do not affect your health or your mind like the other (supposed) desirable you try to liken it too.

Miguel said...

Hi Stuart - Good hearing from you. Who's saying that emeralds affect anybody's mind? Or that cocaine's desireable? But economics are economics, and there are similarities.


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