Emerald Czar a Test for Colombian Justice

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New evidence has emerged linking Colombian “emerald czar” Victor Carranza to paramilitary groups, but it is unlikely to be sufficient to convict this linchpin of the country’s multi-million dollar emerald industry.

Carranza is Colombia’s Teflon man, who, over a 30-year period, has beat back numerous attempts to assassinate or prosecute him. His ability to survive is surpassed only by his business acumen – he remains one of the world’s top emerald dealers and one of Colombia’s largest, and most politically-connected, landowners.

Accusations of paramilitarism and drug trafficking have dogged him his whole career. The latest come from demobilized paramilitary chief Freddy Rendon Herrera, alias ‘El Aleman.’ Rendon testified before the Justice and Peace Tribunal in March 2011 that Carranza gave financial and logistical support to paramilitary groups in the 1980s, and later co-founded the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) under the alias ‘Clodomiro Agamez.’

This comes weeks after testimony by an anonymous demobilized AUC member who says he used to be part of paramilitary group the ‘Carranceros.’ The witness claims that Carranza used his emerald business to fund the Carranceros by giving its members access to his emerald mines, reported Colombian newspaper El Tiempo.

This latest evidence is, however, likely to be insufficient to bring down Carranza, who has thus far managed to survive every legal, political and physical attack against him. The emerald czar has remained judicially unscathed by repeated testimony from various former paramilitaries over his close links with their groups.

Carranza has long faced accusations that that he founded and funded the Carranceros, based in the Meta and Vichada departments, to protect his emerald mining business from incursions by drug traffickers and left-wing guerrilla organizations in the 1980s. The group was later renamed the Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Meta and Vichada (‘Las Autodefensas Campesinas de Meta y Vichada’), and at one point became part of the AUC, before officially demobilizing in August 2005.

A number of paramilitary leaders have testified on dealings with Carranza. A group including Daniel Rendon Herrera, alias ‘Don Mario’ (brother of Freddy Rendon), stated in August 2010 that Carranza’s men, the Carranceros, had taken part alongside the AUC in massacres carried out in the 1990s. They also said that Carranza had given the paramilitaries the use of his private aircraft to transport cocaine and wounded fighters, and that members of the militia had trained on his farm in Puerto Gaitan, in Meta department.

Carranza managed to avoid conviction, even after a mass grave containing the bodies of 50 people was found in 1989 on a property in Puerto Lopez, Meta, which had belonged to him. He was absolved of involvement after testifying that he had sold the property several years previously.

The “czar” was imprisoned in 1998 on charges of drug trafficking and maintaining a paramilitary army, but was released in 2001, and later cleared of all charges and compensated for wrongful imprisonment.

Likewise, attempts by Spanish courts in 2002 and 2010 to get Carranza extradited on charges of money laundering and then for his alleged ties to paramilitaries both fell through.

Carranza’s luck has continued to hold – he survived two assassination attempts in recent years, thought to have been ordered by Pedro Oliverio Guerrero, alias ‘Cuchillo,’ and Daniel Barrera, alias ‘El Loco.’

Carranza’s influence in Colombia is significant. Testimony by former paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso in 2010 suggested that Carranza had links to now-President Juan Manuel Santos, claiming that the two men arrived at a meeting together in 1997. Other influential individuals, including former Defense Minister Camilo Ospina, have been accused of links with the emerald magnate.

Carranza also wields substantial economic power. He is arguably the most important player in the emerald industry, a key sector of Colombia’s economy. According to Forbes, Carranza “dominates Colombia’s emerald business” while the New York Times reports that he owns two of Colombia’s four largest mines and “a large share in a third mine.”

Analysts consulted by Professional Jeweller in 2002 claimed that Carranza’s imprisonment led to a reduction in global emerald trade. In 1995 Colombia exported $456 million dollars of emeralds, plunging to $75 million by 2004. The magazine said that it was hoped Carranza’s release from prison would “revitalize” the sector.

In view of his alleged political connections, influence on the national economy, and the frequent failure of attempts to jail Carraza, it will likely take significantly more than the latest testimony to successfully bring formal legal proceedings against the emerald czar. But genuine attempts to investigate and pursue these new allegatons could provide welcome evidence of the efficiency, independence and transparency of Colombia’s justice system.

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