Inside Colombia's Emerald Battle

Two recent assassinations could signal the beginning of renewed fighting between the country's gem barons.
A Colombian 'guaquero,' or treasure hunter, looks at a stream near a emerald mine in Muzu, northern Colombia (Eliana Aponte/Reuters)

BOGOTA, Colombia - A gunshot to the neck ended the life of 64-year-old Pedro Ortegon as he handed money to a homeless person on a busy street in downtown Bogota. His teenage assassin was apprehended half a block away as he attempted to escape on foot.

"You only survive in that world by operating in this grey area in which you have armed men working for you."

But this was not just another incidence of the street crime that plagues Colombia's capital city. The July 25 homicide not only ended the life of one of the nation's most prominent emerald barons -- one of the nation's handful of magnates who trade in the precious gems -- but also dented hopes for a lasting peace among his allies and rivals.

It was the second broad-daylight assassination in Bogota of someone connected to the emerald trade in under a month, after Ortegon's lawyer was gunned down in the west of the city at the beginning of July.

While possible motives for the murders include personal scores being settled and a legal tussle over land being reclaimed by the state, all lines of inquiry lead back to Victor Carranza, popularly known as the "emerald czar," who died of cancer in April at age 77.

Colombia produces up to two-thirds of the world's emeralds, and until his death Carranza controlled an estimated 40 percent of the country's trade, concentrated in the mountainous Western Boyaca region, 100 miles north of the capital. He was also said to possess up to two million hectares of land, much of which had been signed over to family members, friends and associates, such as Ortegon. Like many of Carranza's business dealings, the land titles were acquired under dubious circumstances, leading the state to start legal proceedings to reclaim much of the territory.

From impoverished beginnings, Carranza carved out holdings which included many of the country's most lucrative emerald deposits. Starting in the mines as a child, he fought his way to the top so that in his mid-twenties he was granted one of the first official mining concessions. Later, he discovered the world's largest emerald, a 2.2-kilogram monster known as "Fura," which set him on the way to the billionaire status he eventually became famous for.

But Carranza's was not a simple rags-to-riches story. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the government was too weak and tied up with fighting left-wing rebel groups to maintain a presence in Western Boyaca, so order was often maintained by mercenary armies employed by the local barons.

"It was a very hard and remains a very difficult business in which to stay alive or out of jail," said Steven Dudley, co-director of InSight Crime, an organization that reports on organized crime in Latin America. "You only survive in that world by operating in this grey area in which you have armed men working for you."

During the 1970s and 1980s, a series of "green wars" erupted as emerald barons battled each other and fought off incursions from newcomers. In the 1980s, Carranza famously fended off a vicious attempt by Pablo Escobar's Medellin Cartel to enter the industry after he was lured by the money-laundering potential of the precious stones.

The wars cost up to 6,000 lives until a 1991 peace process brokered by the Catholic Church established a status quo dominated by Carranza. From then on he carefully cultivated an image as an apolitical peace broker.

"Carranza was not a man of peace," said Colombian Congressman Ivan Cepeda, who co-authored a book on the magnate's life. "What he did was win wars through paramilitary means and through relationships with the country's elites to build his monopoly."

Presented by

Charles Parkinson

Charles Parkinson is a British freelance journalist based in Medellin, Colombia. 

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