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.

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."

For Cepeda, the brutality with which Carranza exerted his control remains close to home. His father was among thousands assassinated by paramilitaries because of their ties to peace negotiations between the government and left-wing guerrillas in the 1980s. The slaughter, which Carranza's men allegedly took part in, wrecked the talks and drove many to join the guerrillas.

But while Carranza enjoyed political influence and built up swathes of land in the years following the Boyaca peace deal, tensions remained. Various unsuccessful attempts were made on his life, and many of his associates were killed.

With Carranza's health ailing in recent years, the absence of an heir brought frictions bubbling back to the surface. A number of high profile attacks took place, including assassinations and intimidation against miners. Many blamed the escalation on Carranza's principal rival, Pedro Rincon, who goes by the alias "Pedro Orejas."

Carranza sought fresh talks among the barons, which began in late-2012, and for the first time he called on the state to intervene. When he finally succumbed to his illness, a hurried assurance of peace was issued by the industry's key players amid feverish speculation in the Colombian press about the possibility of renewed fighting.

But according to the Bishop of Chiquinquira Luis Felipe Sanchez, who represented the Catholic Church in the original peace process and oversaw the more recent negotiations, such a war is unlikely because the barons simply do not have the resources to wage it. "A war costs money," Sanchez told me shortly after Carranza's death. "But there is no money." Yet in the wake of Carranza's death, Colonel Luis Enrique Roa, commander of the national police in Boyaca, sent 25 extra units into the region's three most volatile municipalities, "to guarantee security and prevent any illegal activity," he said. Since April, Western Boyaca has remained relatively calm, be that for the lack of funds or the extra security forces present. However, recent events have demonstrated that, even if large-scale confrontations are beyond the means of those competing for control in the region, targeted assassinations are not. The teenager responsible for Ortegon's killing was apparently promised just under $8,000 for the job, of which he received approximately $1,000 up front. In an industry that generated $121 million in official sales last year, and which is controlled by a handful of families, such fees are not prohibitive. A further possibility that could lead to renewed fighting is that one of the illegal armed groups active in Colombia seizes on the apparent weakness to increase their influence in the area. The Urabeños, Colombia's most powerful illegal group, are known to operate in the mining sector, extorting gold mining operations throughout the country. These organizations are also hungry for control over prime drug trafficking corridors, which Carranza maintained in abundance. Indeed, according to armed conflict expert Prof. Gustavo Duncan, a link between drug trafficking groups and emerald barons is "known to exist, but it is not known how it works in detail."

Nevertheless, the military maintains that outside groups do not pose a threat to security in the region. "There is no presence of illegal groups in this area," Maj. Jose Antonio Hernandez, commander of the military in Boyaca, told me.

But regardless of whether such a group would use their abundant funds and military-grade weaponry to support conventional fighting in the area, the death of Ortegon has proven that the means and the will for violence remain. The question is whether these latest killings are the first steps on the road back to war.