How Colombia’s Emerald Czar Outsmarted the Law

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Colombia’s famed “Emerald Czar,” Victor Carranza, is dead of natural causes. As was clear when I interviewed him, Carranza, more than any other underworld figure in Colombia’s history, knew how to play the bad guy without ever getting killed or being convicted.

When I first met Carranza in 2000, he was being held at a government training base on the northern edge of Bogota while he was investigated for murder, kidnapping and the formation of right-wing paramilitary groups.

A 20 foot-high red brick wall surrounded the compound, but there was little more that evoked a prison. Inside, the authorities used a grass field for exercises. There were several structures that looked like elementary school buildings, where the security unit had classrooms. One of these buildings, towards the back of the complex, housed Carranza.

Carranza was known as the “Emerald Czar” due to his tight grip on the country’s emerald business. He was one of the biggest landowners in the country and had survived nearly every underworld war imaginable. He was one of the few who’d taken on Pablo Escobar and his right hand man, Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, alias “El Mexicano,” and lived to tell the tale. More recently, he faced down Daniel Barrera Barrera, alias “El Loco.” All these one-time rivals are now dead or in jail. At the height of his power, he allegedly had private armies stretching across the country, but he was never convicted of a crime.

In the makeshift facility, the lack of security didn’t seem to bother Carranza. He walked into a small room, set up with wicker chairs and cushions for him to receive visitors, with an air of invincibility. He’d been in custody since 1998, but he still received dozens of calls and visits every week. His wife came to see him on Thursdays and Saturdays. He had not relinquished his hold on his business, and hoped to get out very soon. His wish would be granted.

Carranza was small, about 5″5. As a colleague who visited mines with him said, he was the perfect height to avoid hitting his head in the crawls. He was fit for a man in sixties. As we settled into the chairs, he said he’d taken up a diet and exercise regimen since being jailed, but had still gained weight. He had high cholesterol due to his heavy consumption of red meat and rich food. He was using a treadmill and taking strolls around the compound every day to burn some calories. When he felt bad, he would take a pill. When he didn’t have the pill, he told me, he would drink aguardiente, Colombia’s local hooch.

Modest Beginnings in a Violent Trade

Carranza was born in Muzo, a mining town in the Boyaca province, in 1935. He was just 7 years old when he started running errands for the miners. There was no state regulation of the business, which represented a gold-rush of sorts for the impoverished region. Would-be miners gathered what instruments they could and picked at the sides of mountains. The gems they found went to small markets in places like Muzo. There, middlemen bought the stones to take to Bogota. Carranza played courier for a few years before heading into the mines himself. His mother, he said, was upset with his decision but could do little to stop him.

Carranza and some friends eventually became miners themselves. When they found a profitable area, they fought off other groups. The mining region was like the wild west. The first mines were legalized by the government in 1953, and machinery appeared, along with more people. Banditry became common, but the government still stayed away. The miners were left to resolve their disputes on their own, which they usually did with guns. It is a tradition that continues to this day.

Carranza told me he’d carried a gun his whole life but never used it. “Only messing around with friends,” he said. “Three or four shots at cans and stuff like that.” Things got more messy as the emerald industry became big international business. By the early 1980s, there were but a few big players who controlled the whole operation. Carranza was one of them, working with Gilberto Molina, then the boss in the region.

Drug traffickers were naturally drawn to the emerald business since it represented big profits, little state involvement, and a good way to launder money. Molina dealt drugs. Authorities said Victor did too, but he denied it. Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha tried to monopolize the business, but the Molina-Carranza group resisted. The fight that ensued was known as the Emerald War.

El Mexicano killed Carranza’s nephew in Bogota. In 1988, men dressed in military uniforms barged into Gilberto Molina’s house during a party and sprayed gunfire at the guests. Carranza barely escaped the bloodbath, and knew he had to be more careful in the future. He gathered a large cadre of armed guards and sent some of them to get training from Israeli mercenaries — these men would become one of Colombia’s emerging paramilitary groups, working together with the armed forces to fight leftist rebels.

The “Carranzeros”

One of those who attended the course was Camilo Zamora Guzman. Guzman loved disco, and would dance like John Travolta, pointing his finger to the ground, then back to the sky. “Travolta,” as he became known, was one of the first to testify against Carranza. He later recanted due to threats, but his statements gave a good insight into how the Carranza group operated.

According to Travolta, soon after he joined, he was sent for training to La Reforma, Victor Carranza’s ranch in Puerto Lopez. During a one-month course, he learned how to handle AK-47’s and R-15’s, launch rockets, toss grenades and shoot a 9mm pistol from a moving car. Travolta said the head trainer was a retired Israeli colonel turned mercenary they simply called “Daniel.” Daniel was frequently at Carranza’s ranch, Travolta testified. His assistant was Carranza’s nephew, who everyone knew as “Rambo.”

Soon afterwards, Travolta met the whole clan: “Big Balls,” “Large Mustache,” “Three Tongues,” “Big Shirt,” “Doll,” “Death,” and “Scar.” The paramilitaries also introduced him to the police and government intelligence network in Meta: “Surgery,” “The Killer,” and “Little Lieutenant.” There were politicians, city councilors, deputies, mayors and their assistants. The big landowners, and in particular the ranchers, were also there to help with safe houses and money. They worked together, he was told; they were on the same team. They traded weapons, shared cars, and, at the end of the day, had a few beers.

They also ran “errands” together with the army’s 7th Brigade, raiding local villages to get supplies, gather intelligence, and intimidate their enemies. Two members of the B-2 intelligence unit served as intermediaries and coordinated the joint actions. In some areas, they would split the duties: 20 soldiers from the 7th Brigade, 20 paramilitaries, on trips lasting up to three weeks. But no one in Carranza’s organization really wanted to go on these raids. They wanted to assassinate people, because that was how they could climb up through the ranks.

Carranza’s paramilitary organization was split into several regions: Puerto Lopez, Acacias, El Dorado and Bogota. Each region had a group of about 15 assassins. Some areas were more organized than others. In El Dorado municipality, most of the public officials worked for or were sympathetic to Carranza: police, judges, the army. Anyone who was not sympathetic had to leave. The guys in Puerto Lopez specialized in assassination. They were called “pistoleros.” But the coordinating center of the organization was in the mid-size city of Villavicencio where Carranza bought a house for his boys. The commanders in the region met there every day to strategize.

The El Dorado group called themselves the “Autodefensa Oberera Campesina.” Some of the groups took on more vicious names such as “Black Snake,” while others were simply known by their boss’ name, the “Carranzeros.” There were also groups operating in the neighboring provinces of Casanare and Vichada. Don Victor and other important contributors had ranches there that needed protection.

Carranza’s oldest and most sophisticated protection system was in the emerald producing region a few hundred miles north of Bogota. He and Molina had dozens of armed men on the roads leading into the towns. These men communicated via radio any odd movements in the mining area. They also cleared people out of the mines at gunpoint if Don Victor thought that too many independent miners were digging for “his gold.”

A “Farmer” and Peacemaker?

Carranza had a very calm and cheerful way of expressing himself. He was like a neighbor chatting away with nothing better to do. “I’m not a person of caviar or champagne,” he told me. “I’m a person of yucca and farms and peasants.” However, he had a subtle way of staying in control of the conversation, so that I didn’t want to interrupt. He rarely showed when he was angry. He never said he hated Rodriguez Gacha, even though he’d killed his nephew and his business partner. This could also be because Carranza won the “emerald war” when El Mexicano was gunned down by policemen in 1990.

Nevertheless, the war with Rodriguez Gacha had taken its toll. Carranza lost dozens of men and some family. He was in control, but the fighting would continue for a few more years. Peace in the emerald region would only come when a local priest stepped in and pushed both sides to the negotiating table. “What we found,” Carranza told me, “was that everyone was thinking about the past. ‘He did this to so-and-so and so I was going to do it back,’ they would say. But we needed to look to the future.” Carranza and the priest moved the pieces into place, and an accord was reached in 1993.

The truce held through the rest of the decade, mostly because Carranza was able to consolidate his control over the emerald business. He was even able to clean up his image. In 1995, US Embassy representatives visited the legendary Emerald Czar at his Muzo mines to talk about the latest developments in the industry. Local press got wind of the visit, and of the thank-you note from the embassy to Carranza.

“It was an unexpected pleasure for us to see Victor Carranza in action in the mines scratching away at the mountain in search of more emeralds,” one of the officials wrote. The official added that the embassy would encourage US-emerald mining company Kennecott or any other interested US company to form a partnership with Carranza’s Tecminas. “We’ll never forget the experience,” he ended the letter. The embassy later issued a statement saying that the employees didn’t know who Carranza was.

Carranza’s Defense

Carranza never really told me why he hated the guerrillas so much. He mentioned they’d started harassing him in the early 1980s. “They’d ask for a little money, then a little more. Pretty soon it became too much for anyone.” He said he’d never given them anything, a claim hard to substantiate. Carranza was the biggest landowner in Meta province. He disguised much of his land and mine holdings in the names of third parties, making it hard to calculate his wealth, but he was undoubtedly one of the richest men in Colombia.

He mentioned that the rebels killed one of his nephews in 1985, but his rhetoric about the guerrillas was surprisingly low-key for a man the authorities were charging with forming paramilitary groups. “They once had ideals. Now they’re in it for the money,” he told me, referring to the rebels’ connections to drug trafficking. “You have to give them a business better than the one they’re in so that they say, ‘Yeah, OK. Let’s negotiate.’ But what business is better than the one they’re in? There isn’t one. That’s why peace is so difficult. Every day they make money.”

When I met with Carranza, his family had 35 full-time bodyguards plus the assistance of the men in both the Meta ranches and the mines. The Emerald Czar wouldn’t go anywhere without a large contingent of people. He told me that was why people confused him for a paramilitary leader.

“If we’re going to leave the area, we’ll call some others. And say, ‘we’re going tomorrow.’ And they’ll say, ‘Why don’t we go together?’ And then we’ll have a whole bunch of us going at the same time. This is a big group. There are four, sometimes five cars. We all leave together. And then where are we going to eat breakfast? Anywhere where there’s a restaurant on the side of the road. So we go and we have the five or six cars from the farm. And when we all arrive, sometimes we have 10 cars, and the people get scared and they say we’re paramilitaries … We’re individuals. It’s just a coincidence that we get together on the side of the road and we have various cars. It’s the same if we’re going to eat lunch. There are 30 or 40 people, the majority of them with revolvers, and the people say we’re paramilitaries.”

Not surprisingly, Carranza described himself as a community leader. “I’m a hard-working person from the mining region,” he said. “Everyone knows my attitude. I’ve never been in trouble. I know the situation, and I know how to give advice … Even today people look for me. They say, ‘We’ve got a problem. Can you help us?’ … The government’s been around here: judges, police, army. But what happens is the people don’t believe in the authorities. That’s why they look for me.”

A few months after I spoke to him, a judge dismissed the charges against Carranza, and he was released.

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