The Connections between the merchants of gold and illegal mining in Colombia’s Amazonia

By Daniela Quintero Díaz, David Riaño Valencia, David Escobar Moreno, and Sergio Silva Numa, EL ESPECTADOR, April 14, 2024

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)


A group of 18 journalists from the TRANSBORDER INVESTIGATIVE NETWORK of Ojo Publico (Public Eye) and their partners EL ESPECTADOR (Colombia), SUMAÚMA (Brazil), VISTAZO (Ecuador), and EL DEBER (Bolivia) reveal that between 2014 and 2023 five Andean Amazonia countries exported more than 3,000 tons of high purity gold from informal sources. Companies from India and United Arab Emirates have companies and representatives that have been investigated or have connections with illegal mining as the providers of their gold.

In Colombia, 80% of exported gold is illegal. Some of the gold comes from protected areas in the departments of Guainia in Amazonia, very close to the borders with Venezuela and Brazil. There, in the eastern extreme of the country converge armed actors, indigenous communities, and companies that export gold and are being investigated by the Attorney General’s Office. This investigation, which makes up part of the series “The routes of dirty gold out of Amazonia”, coordinated by the Transborder Network of Ojo Publico (Public Eye), reveals that just between 2014 and 2023, Colombia exported at least 115 tons of gold of unknown origin.

In the first weeks of September of 2023, the Venezuelan Armed Forces carried out a big operation against the illegal exploitation of gold in Yapacana , a national park of the state of Amazonas in Venezuela. Many miners, looking for better luck, fled to a place nearby. It’s not known exactly how many, but several arrived—or returned—to Puerto Inírida, the capital of the Department of Guainia at the eastern extreme of Colombia. The Inspector General’s Office then registered 160 families displaced; the Mayor’s Office declared a yellow alert for the hospital and—an indigenous leader now recounts—more dredges appeared in the Guainia River, the principal “road” in the region. The exodus from the mines at Yapacana was some 14,000 people.

Guainia, a place you can only get to by airplane or a river that can carry people, food, plantains, motorcycles, wood, and solar panels in canoes, was not always a place overwhelmed by the illegal mining that’s now responsible for 80% of the gold production in all of Colombia. The indigenous communities in this territory assure that before the decade of 1980, they didn’t know anything about gold.

But ever since then, illegal extraction has intensified so much that they couldn’t even halt a situation where Guainia glittered in national and international media. In 2014, after ten years of scientific research and work among indigenous communities, campesinos, academics, and NGO’s, the government declared Ramsar site as one of its most popular ecosystems, the star watershed of Inírida. It’s a complex of wetlands of more than 250,000 hectares where three great Amazonia rivers converge.

With that figure, they expected even more protection of its biodiversity from any activity that could put it in danger. After all, the department where the Puinawai National Nature Reserve (1,092,500 hectares) is also located, is in a biological corridor that connects the plains of Orinoquia with the Amazon forest that makes up part of the Amazonia Forest Reserve and reservation, one of the oldest rock formations on earth. It is intended, almost totally, for conservation.

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However, contrary to expectations, the territory took a different direction. Between 2015 and the first quarter of 2023, they extracted at least 1,565 kilograms of gold. The United Nations estimates that 95% of the gold was extracted illegally, and environmental authorities in the department have documented the way that the mining rafts have expanded.

“The mining came with the white people, some Brazilians and some from the center of this country. They came down the river with their dredges, and they expanded. Nobody stopped them,” says a leader of the Curripaco ethnic group. “Now they are ‘repelling’ the territory with those dredges, and we are being pushed into this system, working with them, because here gold moves everything. But we aren’t ancestral or artisanal miners,” he insists. Like him, 80% of the people of Guainía are indigenous.

How can this gold from Guainía be turned into gold that’s legal? What are the cracks in this market that also finances the armed groups that are outside the law? EL ESPECTADOR, as part of the TransBorder Network of “Ojo Público”, traveled to this department to investigate the pieces of this puzzle.

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There is a statistic that helps us to see the dimensions of what is happening in the opaque gold market in this country. The analysis of the data base for gold exports in the Amazon countries—constructed as part of this research series “Las rutas del oro sucio”—reveals that between 2014 and 2023, Colombia declared that it had produced 503 tons of gold, but had exported much more, 574. In other words, more than 115 tons (enough to fill four semitrailers up to the top) had an unknown origin.

However, this quantity is conservative. Reports from official sources estimate that 80% of the gold produced in Colombia is illegal.

(Graph omitted)

The Attorney General’s Office, as EL ESPECTADOR has learned for this investigation, is trying to find the reasons for that enormous gap. Currently, it’s investigating several of the principal exporters of Colombian gold, including C.I. Metales Hermanos (Metals Brothers), which definitely has connections with the extraction of minerals in Guainía. In their hands, the prosecutors have evidence similar to evidence regarding two marketers, –CIJ Gutiérrez and Goldex—which shook up the gold market several years ago when they were being investigated for allegedly having fictitious providers and false front businesses to certify the origin of the gold they were exporting. Most of the gold came, according to the prosecutors, from illegal deposits like those that exist in Amazonia now, which are later incorporated into the legal and global markets.  

All you have to do is look at photographs captured in flyovers by the Amazonia Regional Alliance for Reduction of the Impacts of Gold Mining (which joins together organizations like Amazon Conservation Team, Gaia, and the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF)) to learn the dimensions of what’s happening in the Colombian Amazon. Not only at the border with Perú, but also with Brazil, and with Venezuela, the mining rafts are removing the rivers and making space in the middle of the jungle for the extraction of tiny fragments of gold.

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In the case of the border with Venezuela, where we went, one of the points where mining has been extended the most and has already ignited alerts among environmental authorities, is the Atabapo River, one of the tributaries that make up the Ramsar Star River wetland at Inírida, where every kind of mining is prohibited.

With an aggravating factor: in Colombia, as happens with other countries that share in Amazonia, illegal mining has been promoted by criminal organizations. A 2021 report, prepared by the Department Opposing International Organized Crime in the American States (OAS) confirms that gold has turned into a source of financing for those groups. Another recent investigation by Ojo Público shows that in several regions of the country, illegal mining represents more than 50% of the total economy for the criminal groups.

The unknown origin of 155 tons of gold

To get to the Atabapo River, on the border with Venezuela, we embarked at Puerto Inírida at 5:00 a.m. It’s November of 2023, and after a long hour of navigation, we found the first signs of mining exploitation: a pair of long canoes with men aboard, loaded with blue plastic containers (holding 55 gallons) that usually contain up to 200 liters of gasoline. A few meters farther, the first dredges appeared. They are floating structures that look like a house, with a roof thatched with palm, a motor, a compressor, and a pair of hoses, gasoline, hammocks, and around ten men.

“The administrator lives here, the motor mechanic, the hose man, the divers, and the only woman, the cook. They work day and night for months, suctioning the river bed to extract the gold,” explains Carlos*, an indigenous man from the area, who has worked more than seven years in illegal mining.

It’s a place, he says, where “everything has to do with gold.” “One part is for the workers, who receive between one and two grams per day. Another is for the indigenous community, where they have to cross (because 90% of Guainía is Indigenous reservation); another is paying for the gas, the food, and the “vacuna” (payment) to the armed groups that operate in this area. The dredge owner, (who usually is not an indigenous person) also keeps some of it,” he explains. If anything is left, it goes to provisions and profit.

Pablo William Acosta, who has been the Mayor of Puerto Inírida since January of this year, is frank in admitting what’s going on in his city. “Mining is an informal activity in this Municipality, but it’s no secret to anyone that it’s really the dynamic of the economy.”

To know what’s happening in the rivers of Guainía, the Corporation for Sustainable Development in the North and East Amazon (CDA in Spanish), the environmental authority in the region, made a diagnostic study of mining in 2020. “At that time, there were no more than 30 rafts in three rivers: the Inírida, the Atabapo, and the Negro River,” says Jenny Rojas, the CDA Director in Guainía. “But now, the situation is more troubling; there are more than 35 rafts just in the Guainía River.”

Álvaro Pardo, who for years has been a great critic of the way the Colombian government has managed mining, and now is Director of the National Mining Agency (ANM in Spanish) also tells how he has traveled this river and has witnessed the dredges stalking the gold. He says they are making a great effort with the Minister of Defense to put an end to it, but he recognizes that it’s no simple task.

In his words, informal mining, along with illegal mining and the criminal mining, which feeds the finances of groups that are outside the law “is now a structural problem in the sector that increases every time the international price of gold shoots up. While we were traveling around Guainía, where we feel heat above 40 C. degrees (104 F. degrees), before the middle of the day, its value reached a new peak: USD $70 per gram. It’s continuing to go up. Right now it’s quoted at $76.

Pardo also admits that it’s a situation that’s been crossed with irregularities. For example, he says that in ANM he has found people who were reporting gold being extracted with a legal title, when, in reality, they had exploited it in a different location. And people who, even though they are dead, continue “extracting” gold and are listed in the registries. And some others who have never had anything to do with mining are listed with the agency as “subsistence miners”.

These ingredients make it difficult to know what the “traceability” is of most of the gold extracted in Colombia. In theory, every gram that’s exported should be registered on paper to permit knowledge of the precise point from which it came. That way the foreign companies can be certain that it doesn’t come from an illegal deposit and the tax officials and the National Customs (DIAN in Spanish) can be sure that every actor declares and pays the taxes on their activity.

But the figures analyzed for this investigation expose that this process doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to work. Analysis of the exportations data base—constructed as part of the investigative series, “Las Rutas del Oro Sucio” (“The Routes of the Dirty Gold”)—reveals several inconsistencies.

One of the most alarming is that, between 2014 and 2023, Colombia sent more than 574 metric tons of gold, but the mining authority has registered only the production of 508 tons. In spite of the fact that between 2014 and 2016 this country exported less than it produced. From 2017 to 2023, the quantities of exports reported were much greater than what the country declared it had produced. As a result, at least 115 tons of gold have no known origin. Where did these tons of gold come from and what is the destination of this gold, the origin of which is not known?

The country to which Colombia exports the most gold is the United States, which between 2014 and 2023 bought nearly 232 tons. Italy is the second largest importer now, though it didn’t have important participation before 2019 but now has imported 88 tons. Switzerland, even though it has reduced the quantity of gold purchased from Colombia, received 67 tons in nine years. All in all, gold transactions in foreign countries between 2014 and 2023 add up to USD $21,320,000,000, more than a thousand times what Lionel Messi has earned with his current team, Inter Miami.

(Chart omitted)

One more element demonstrates the complexity of this market: In the top 15 companies exporting Colombian gold (which concentrate more than 72% of the gold exported since 2014) there are at least three companies with criminal cases brought by the Attorney General’s Office for money laundering: CIJ Gutiérrez, CI de Metales Preciosos de Colombia (Precious Metals of Colombia), and CI Metales Hermanos (CI Metals Brothers).

Some of them, like CI Gutiérrez, the largest exporter in the country, and CI de Metales Preciosos (Meprecol) have experienced the seizure of assets, meaning expropriation by the government for engaging, directly or indirectly, in illicit activities) and are now being administered by a government agency, the Society for Special Assets (SAE). Between 2014 and 2023, these companies have sent 83 tons and 43 tons of gold, respectively, to foreign countries.

CI Metales Hermanos, another of the principal exporters of Colombian gold, is in the same situation. According to the Attorney General’s Office, between 2009 and 2015, this company made fictitious purchases from nonexistent people and inflated their transactions so they could certify the origin of the gold. Some of them, reveals the file to which we had access during this investigation, were done with the inhabitants of the indigenous reservation known as Chorobocón in Guainía. However, the community does not admit to those sales.

“Some years ago, some gentlemen came with their lawyers and asked us to sign some things, because some kilos of their gold had been seized. They came to the community because we were the only ones that had a mining area and because they had registered boatmen. So they came and asked the boatmen to sign a paper that said that the gold was mined here and we were selling it to them,” explains the captain of Chorobocón, the highest authority of the community. “ They offered the community ten million pesos (some $2,600 USD) for the signatures, but the authority at that time refused to do it,” he recounts.

In spite of the fact that Chorobocón was the first Indigenous Mining Area that was formalized in this country, in the ‘90’s, there actually were no mining titles in effect, as they were lost in 2006 because there were no registers that would count the gold extractions and no reports of royalties required to be paid. However, as was also confirmed by the captain, gold continued to be extracted informally from the rivers.

The papers supporting the money laundering

In the 20 streets that make up the urban part of Puerto Inírido, only one store has a big sign that says “we buy gold”. It also says NIT, the identification number saying that it’s a legally registered business. But it’s not the only place where gold is being sold. In this little settlement that shows the way to the jungle there are more than a dozen jewelry stores and places dedicated to the same activity.

In the back of one of those sites where gold is being bought and sold without much control, there is a small oven that reaches temperatures of more than 1200 C. (2192 F.) There, explains a man behind the counter, they melt the grams that they buy from the different miners. Not only those that are registered as “subsistence miners”, a category that the Colombian government has created to recognize and formalize the artisanal miners, but also those who work on the dredges.

According to the “Single National Registry for Buyers and Sellers” at the National Mining Agency, in Guainía there are 1,556 miners registered as subsistence miners. All of them are prohibited from using machinery or explosives or working underground. And none of them can extract more than 420 grams of gold per year.

Although there are some that do comply with the rules, investigations by the Attorney General’s Office, to which EL ESPECTADOR has had access as part of the CrossBorder Network by Ojo Público, reveal that this registry (RUCOM) has also been used to “certify” or launder the gold extracted from illegal deposits. In other words, a source in the Attorney General’s Office who has investigated illegal mining but who asked to remain anonymous, states that there has been a way to launder or “whiten” the illegally originated gold.

The National Mining Agency is asking them to fill out some forms with the name of the person registered in RUCOM, the place of the extraction, and the quantity of grams they have sold (with a monthly limit of 32 grams). “But any person can register, fill out the forms, and with those papers, sell the gold that has come from illegal deposits. Then, the merchants pay the royalties as if the gold had come from a formal exploitation, and obtain the authorization to export it,” he explains. When they surpass the top amount of production, they write to friends or families in the system, and that’s how they carry out this activity. “In the Mining Authority, there’s no way to verify that this gold was legal. There’s where we see the failure in the system.

Álvaro Pardo, Director of ANM, says it’s not true that they are buying illegal gold, and he reiterates that they are making efforts to see that that doesn’t happen. In the case of the subsistence miners, he assures that the limit on grams is one of the controls that the agency has. “There you can’t leak out the gold that’s been laundered to dollars or is of doubtful


But he also admits that, in the time he has held his position (a year and a half) he has detected certain inconsistencies with these registers. For example, there have been artisanal miners that were not able to extract the 420 grams a year and so they sell the remainder of their “quota” for 100,000 or 200,000 pesos (USD $20 or $50) to other people so they can use them. In other cases, they have found dead people whose names continue being used to continue to sell gold with the registry (RUCOM).

“ I have some other very serious complaints about what went on in previous years: A lot of people that had nothing to do with mining said they were on RUCOM. There are also people with limited funds who are asked to take their name off the registry and sell the quota. That way others can legalize the gold that was illegal. That’s very serious. But at the ANM we are putting a stop to that situation,” says Pardo.

Although the Mayor’s Offices in every municipality are the ones required to register and verify those subsistence miners, it’s easy to demonstrate the fragility of that system by going into one of the places where gold is bought and sold in Puerto Inírida. While we are in one of them, a dark man, tall and thin, comes in and pulls out of his pocket a small bag full of diminutive fractions of gold and a piece the size of a couple of centimeters. He pours them into a cup on a scale; they add up to 3 grams. They pay him in cash, and he leaves. They didn’t ask him for any documents; they didn’t check the registry of boatmen. Neither did they count how many grams he had sold in that month or in that year.

Transactions With Indigenous Reservations in Guainía

Something similar to this problem was what the Attorney General’s Office detected in the case of the Antioquia company CI Metals Brothers and its transactions with the Chorrobocón Indigenous Reservation. The investigation documented transactions worth 38,860,000,000 pesos (USD $12,700,000) with the Reservation in Guainía. And according to the prosecutors, the company made those payments through the Colombian Miners Cooperative (Coomilcop), represented by Sergio Alejandro Varón Moreira.

Sergio Varón has been accused of being the leader of a plan for the indigenous to appear as suppliers to CI Metales Hermanos but right now his whereabouts is unknown. “He was the legal representative of that association of miners. But I think he made a mistake about the law, and he disappeared,” recalls the indigenous authority at the reservation.

The Attorney General’s Office had undertaken an investigation in 2018. The prosecutors suspected that the stockholders of the business, the brothers Carlos Felipe and Jorge Andrés Ortíz Yepes, were guilty of money laundering, aggravated criminal conspiracy, and illegal enrichment by private parties. With the evidence that they had put together, on April 4, 2019, the lead prosecutor in the case filed the charges in a court in Medellín and requested an arrest that would not involve jail time for the Ortíz Yepes brothers and other company officials. The judge ordered electronic monitory and prohibited them from leaving the country.

A few months later, in November 2019, the prosecutors filed the written criminal charges, including a key finding: it stated that the transactions between CI Metales Hermanos had had with the indigenous reservation for the purchase of gold had never existed. But the company had indeed registered transactions worth millions from various suppliers. “The majority of transactions from and to the running accounts of CI Metales Hermanos total more than 500,000,000 pesos (USD $164,000) (each one). Most of them were by cashier’s check,” reads the file to which EL ESPECTADOR had access for this investigation.

In another paragraph the leaders of the investigation demonstrated that in the municipalities where the businessmen said they had acquired the gold, there isn’t any gold, or the deposit was not of the magnitude that they had reported. The prosecutors also established that many of the companies from which CI Metales Hermanos said they had acquired the gold were, in reality, fictitious suppliers.

Only in a few cases did the addresses of the workplaces of the suppliers that CI Metales Hermanos reported actually correspond to small buyers and sellers of gold. On many other occasions they were phony addresses, addresses of family residences or junk yards. Even so, between 2014 and 2025 the company exported 6.78 metric tons of Colombian gold. The last export they made was in 2015. After September of 2016 their operation was seized and placed in the hands of the Special Assets Society. In total, according to the prosecutors, CI Metales Hermanos laundered 1.9 billón pesos (USD $580,000,000) through illegal gold.

Now the Attorney General’s Office is preparing for the next hearing, scheduled for May of this year. For the moment, the attorneys for the company have focused on explaining that the mining activity for the gold that the company sold was carried out by very informal groups where the miners were not registered and other miners that were not interested in doing that. Among their arguments, they asserted that the foreign commerce operations carried out by CI Metales Hermanos were in compliance with the rules which at that time regulated the commercial activity in precious metals between Colombia and the United States.

The iconic cases of “laundering” gold that are still continuing

The case of CI Metales Hermanos is the most advanced of the money laundering cases that the Attorney General’s Office is pursuing against companies that buy and sell gold and are connected to illegal mining, but it’s not the only one. The first investigation of that kind was made nearly a decade ago, in 2015, and it occupied a special place in the memory of Colombians. It was against Goldex which, with time, began to be known as the biggest “money launderer” in the country.

Goldex belonged to Úber Hernández, known as “the czar of gold”. Although he was accused of criminal conspiracy, money laundering, procedural fraud, and falsification of documents in 2015, he was released a year later because the statute of limitations had expired. The charge of “money laundering” that was filed against officials of the company will expire in 2025.

Besides the scandal that was set off in that case, in the proceedings, there was a very unusual event that captured the attention of all of the media: one of the defendants committed suicide right during the hearing. Now, six or seven cases that the prosecutors have opened against the officers of that company are a long ways from conclusion. (They are continuing with their preliminary hearings.) Meanwhile, sources close to the proceedings warn that the crimes are close to the date of expiration of the statute of limitations.

Another iconic case in Colombia is the case of CIJ Gutiérrez, one of the oldest merchants of gold in the country. It was constituted in 1936 and it continues to occupy first place in the exportation of Colombian gold in the last decade (83 tons, valued at more than USD $3,000,000,000. The Attorney General’s Office has also accused its stockholders of money laundering and illegal enrichment.

In the file, to which EL ESPECTADOR has had access, the company maintains that it has evidence to confirm that, as in the Goldex case, the company used the names of dead persons, names that don’t exist in the Registry data base, or shell companies to justify the source of the gold. In addition, it connects the company with armed groups.

Between 2006 and 2008, the company carried out alleged operations with the company of Jairo de Jesús Rendón, alias Germán Monsalve, the brother of former paramilitary chieftains Daniel Rendón Herrera, alias “Don Mario”, and Fredy Rendón Herrera, alias “El Alemán”. They were both leaders of the now-defunct United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) in the departments of Antioquia, Meta, and Chocó. The first is now incarcerated in the United States, since 2018, for drug trafficking. The second is free from custody after submitting to the legal system.

In fact, the Attorney General’s Office points out that in 2010, CIJ Gutiérrez carried out operations valued at 1,900 million pesos (USD $1,029,200) with Jairo Hugo Escobar Cataño, also known as the “czar of gold”, now convicted and imprisoned for the murder of four miners in Remedios (Antioquia Department) and for having financed criminal groups in Bajo Cauca.

Since 2019, CIJ Gutiérrez is being administered temporarily by the SAE (Special Assets Association) while officials determine whether it was used for illegal purposes. However, in August of 2023, a judge dismissed the case against the company for the third time, because it appeared to him that the criminal complaint filed by the prosecutors was “confusing”. In October of 2020, and in February of 2023, two other judges had already dismissed the case, finding that the prosecutors had not adequately sustained the charges against the members of the company.

For their part, the Goldex lawyers, who were also defending the directors of CI Metales Hermanos, argued that “the prosecutors were not able to demonstrate that the origin of the gold is illegal, or to demonstrate that the companies are connected to illegal groups.” In other words, in the two most emblematic cases in the Attorney General’s Office on money laundering by the use of gold, there has not been one single conviction.

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