‘Selective and Silent’: The New ‘Green War’ for Colombia’s Emeralds

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Since the death of controversial “Emerald Czar” Victor Carranza in April 2013, a series of attacks against members of Colombia’s emerald industry have led to speculation that another “Green War” is imminent. However, the new battle for control of the sector is shaping up to be a low intensity conflict of targeted assassinations rather than the wholesale slaughter seen in the past.

Situated deep within the mountains 200 kilometers north of Bogota, Colombia’s emerald region has long been plagued by violence as rival families fight for control of the most productive mines. The original “Green Wars” claimed the lives of an estimated 6,000 people until the Catholic Church managed to negotiate a peace agreement in 1990 and enforce it with the help of Carranza, the most powerful figure in the emerald industry.

As Carranza’s health began to fail, however, his control over the region started to slip. The attacks began in June 2012 with the murder of Mercedes Chaparro, who managed one of Carranza’s mines. A few months later, another of Carranza’s associates, Jesus Hernando Sanchez Sierra, was shot 11 times at an upscale mall in Bogota — but miraculously survived.     

Both attacks were widely attributed to Pedro Rincon, alias “Pedro Orejas,” another prominent emerald businessman considered to be Carranza’s most powerful rival. In what may have been a retaliation killing, one of Rincon’s lawyers was shot dead in January 2013.    

In the nine months leading up to Carranza’s death, the assassinations continued — often in broad daylight — and a total of 25 people with ties to the emerald trade were killed.  

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profile

It is difficult to determine exactly how many people have been assassinated since Carranza’s death, because in spite of the region’s geographical proximity to Bogota, the emerald barons rather than the state remain the true authorities. 

“For a long time the national government didn’t worry about [the people in the emerald region],” Bishop Hector Gutierrez Pabon, who helped enforce the peace agreements, told InSight Crime. “They were a bunch of [peasants] killing each other and the government said ‘let them kill each other, leave them alone.'”

Although regional officials would now like to paint the area as a bastion of tranquility — the Secretary of Government in the mining town of Muzo told InSight Crime that in this municipality there has been “total calm and peace” since Carranza’s death — a source from Muzo who worked in the emerald industry claimed assassinations happen in the region on a weekly basis, although many are never reported.

However, there have been a number of high-profile murders that have added to speculation about an outbreak of violence. In July 2013, Carranza’s associate Pedro Ortegon was gunned down in Bogota and four months later a grenade attack against Pedro Rincon and his family killed four and injured nine, although Rincon himself survived. 

The most recent high-profile assassination was that of Jose Alejandro Rojas Gonzalez, known as “Martin Rojas,” an associate in Carranza’s company Esmeracol who was killed in Bogota on May 10. Due to his prominent role in the peace process, his death has been interpreted by some in the region as a declaration of war against Carranza’s family and business partners.          

Power Vacuum

There are a number of theories about who is behind the most recent assassinations and what their motives are. Given Carranza’s hegemony over the mines, most of the violence is likely the result of different factions vying for control of this $120 million industry, as well as the score settling that has always plagued this region.  

Luis Felipe Sanchez, the Bishop of Chiquinquirathe emerald region’s largest city told InSight Crime that while old power struggles have been reignited, rival groups are now “confronting each other in a very selective, silent manner.” He added that none of the intellectual authors of the most recent assassinations have been identified and he doubted these murders would ever be solved. 

In addition to power struggles, a dispute over a productive strip between two mines owned by rival families could be partly to blame for the assassinations. Known as “El Consorcio,” this strip is located between Cunas, a mine owned by Carranza’s heirs and associates, and La Pita, owned by Rincon’s group. Bishop Sanchez said that after Carranza’s death, both parties agreed to mine the strip together, but have since disputed the terms of the arrangement. 

In spite of the current conflicts, Church officials say they aren’t worried about the outbreak of another Green War, mainly because the national government has reinforced its presence in the region and is currently working with the Church to maintain the 1990 peace agreements. 

After the grenade attack against Rincon’s family, authorities increased the number of security forces in the area and now appear to be applying the carrot and stick approach. On a recent visit, according to Bishop Sanchez, the Ministry of the Interior threatened to take punitive measures against emerald companies if they don’t come to an agreement on control of the mines. However, the national government has also promised to pave the highway between Muzo and Chiquinquira to facilitate the transport of emeralds, and several government ministries are working with the Church to address the social inequalities and lack of infrastructure in the region. 

In an uncharacteristic show of force in the emerald zone, Colombian authorities have also arrested Rincon for his alleged links to organized crime and arms trafficking. Given the fact that Rincon has been under investigation for years — he was briefly arrested in 2009 for homicide, but never convicted — his current incarceration could be a warning to other emerald barons. 

Another factor likely to mitigate the violence is a decrease in emerald production. Whereas emerald dealers exported more than $480 million in gemstones in the 1980s, at the height of the Green War, the industry only produced $127 million for export in 2013. “There won’t be a Green War because the production has decreased a lot, there’s no money,” Bishop Sanchez explained. 

Armed Groups in the Emerald Region

While Carranza’s death may not lead to an all-out emerald war, it could provide criminal groups — several of which already operate near the emerald region — with an opportunity to infiltrate the industry. In the past, the emerald barons defended the mines against emissaries from Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel, and Carranza’s private army chased the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) out of the region. 

Now that Carranza is gone, however, the FARC and ELN have returned to the area, according to Pedro Claver Tellez, a journalist who has written several books about this conflict. 

There are also reports that emerald barons have attempted to forge alliances with criminal groups, with Rincon’s enemies rumored to be seeking the help of the most powerful of Colombia’s paramilitary-criminal hybrid groups — the Urabeños — to seize control of the sector.

They may not be alone. In an article published the week Carranza died, Semana magazine cited an unnamed government source who said arms and men were flooding into the region from the regions of Uraba, Valle del Cauca and the Meta — the bases of the three principal criminal and paramilitary successor groups; the Urabeños, the Rastrojos and the Popular Revolutionary Anti-Terrorist Army (ERPAC). 

SEE ALSO: Urabeños Profile

In contrast, the senior police commander in the department of Boyaca, where most of the mines are located, has assured Church officials that there are no criminal groups operating in the area. Even if this is true for the moment, emerald mining would certainly be ripe for criminal infiltration.

The industry is only loosely regulated and part of Colombia’s emerald production leaves the country clandestinely. As one emerald dealer who has worked in the business for 40 years told InSight Crime, an emerald is a “little tiny thing you just put in your pocket, it’s really hard to trace. Gold is like a dump truck compared to emeralds.” 

In addition, criminal groups in Colombia already control mining operations in other parts of the country, and illegal gold mining is estimated to be the second largest source of revenue for criminal and guerrilla organizations.

Although the private armies of the remaining barons and complexity of emerald mining would make it difficult for criminal groups to exert direct control over the industry, they could profit from extortion or providing protection for operations — a common practice in the illegal gold sector

Outside groups might ultimately be wary of getting into the emerald business, however, for the same reasons that foreign companies are. Compared to gold and minerals, mining emeralds has high overhead costs and produces a relatively small profit which, coupled with the heavily armed factions fighting for control, makes it an extremely risky venture. 

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