There are several good reasons to deal in emeralds instead of drugs in Colombia. First, emeralds can be worth 50 times as much as cocaine, ounce for ounce. Second, in the great turf war, the emerald men have achieved an uneasy truce: Until a year ago, the emerald trade was even more dangerous than drug trafficking. A "green war" killed some 4,000 people over a five-year period. Recently, I flew into the mining town of Qupama to see how the peace was holding up.
I landed on the unpaved municipal airstrip. In the town, just one block is paved, Victor Carranza Street, named for the owner of the mine and the builder of its airstrip, schools, and churches.
An emerald dealer with a pistol in his belt told me he had $10,000 in his boot. He advised me: "Don't talk to the enemies of Mr. Carranza." He thought a second and said: "And don't talk to the friends of Mr. Carranza, either."
LAWLESSNESS. Colombia's emerald trade is unrestricted. Carranza built the airport to avoid the four-hour overland trip south to Bogot. Over the years, highwaymen have relieved thousands of dealers of their money, their gems, and often, their lives.
Carranza's mines in Qupama and elsewhere produce the greenest, largest, and clearest emeralds, the benchmark by which others are judged. He is also credited with--or accused of--imposing order at gunpoint in the mining area. At 56, he is king of the mines and is gearing up for his biggest challenge yet: cornering the international market through an emerald exchange.
Colombia produces 60% of the world's emeralds and nearly all the finest ones. "I don't know of any other item where a single country controls 60% of the production of anything--certainly not oil, not diamonds," Carranza says. He has been trying to coax the second-place Zambians to toss their 25% share of world production into his bourse. To house it, he is erecting a glass-and-steel building in Bogot. Now, the grade-school dropout has to lure the world's emerald buyers to Colombia.
Until recently, Carranza was content to oversee the mining. That alone made him one of Colombia's biggest fortunes. "Well, the biggest legal fortune, anyway," says Javier Duque, the mine's retired communications man.
LAISSEZ-FAIRE. Carranza was arrested a couple of years back, when two bodies were found buried on one of his 40 farms. Carranza told the authorities that the farm was not his. Anyway, he says, it's "tradition" in that neck of the woods to bury a body that has turned up on your property. Questions about his past bedevil his quest for the bourse, which will require government cooperation.
The emerald wars have plagued Colombia for centuries, ever since the Spanish conquistadors first spotted the precious gems. Thousands of Indian miners eventually died to satisfy the rapacious Spaniards. In modern times, the Colombian government tried to monopolize the trade, but the violence grew too big to handle. In the late 1970s, Colombia sold concessions to Carranza and others and then stepped out of the way. Says mine administrator Germn Bernal of the government sell-off: "They just abandoned this. People moved in, and it was the strongest who survived."
Strongest of all proved to be Carranza, who repelled three successive invasions by Jos Gonzalo Rodrguez Gacha, a cocaine dealer once allied with the notorious Pablo Escobar. Gacha assembled as many as 800 men on the mountain ridges and charged into the valley in a takeover attempt that was stymied by Carranza's private army. Carranza says he supplied the government with information on the whereabouts of Gacha, who later was slain.
Around Qupama, a whole lot of people depend on how many emeralds Carranza finds. The entire regional economy ebbs and flows with the gems. When luck is with Carranza, the price of everything rises, from food to beer to a date with one of Qupama's prostitutes. When times are lean, theft and murder rates rise, and the police often come to the camp begging for gasoline.
When I ask Carranza whether he or the government is more powerful in the region, he laughs. "I am," he says. "The government doesn't exist here." Nor does it demand that the undermanned, gas-starved police force maintain peace in the region. That's left to Carranza. Three years ago, he called the five warring emerald gangs together. Says Carranza: "I told them, 'You have two months to make peace. If you don't make peace, I'll make peace the way I make peace.'"
Carranza runs the mines with a firm hand. His 400 miners at Qupama earn the minimum wage--about $110 a month. They work 20 days in a row without leaving the facility, then have nine days off. The miners, who come from all over Colombia, get to dig for themselves on Day 21. Any emeralds they find then are theirs. "We all live with the dream that we will leave here rich," says Duque. For luck, the miners pray to the Virgin of Carmen, and votive candles are the biggest seller in the camp store.
HELLISH HOLES. For Carranza, the way to keep the uneasy peace in his mines is to keep women and liquor outside the fence. Miners who disobey these rules are sent into the gloomy underground tunnels, which, the camp doctor says, get hotter than 100F, with 100% humidity. The most common disease he treats is fungus of the ears and toes.
Watching over the camp, encircling it, is a band of 80 armed men, a remind-er that guerrillas, thieves, and armed bands still roam the nearby hills and that turf battles may not be over yet. Carranza's own brother was kidnapped recently by guerrillas, who demanded a $300,000 ransom. Such attacks prompted Carranza to form several paramilitary organizations, authorities in Bogot say. Carranza downplays the arms buildup. "What is one of those groups, really, except family--all looking out for each other?" he asks.
Actually, the government has entered into partnership with Carranza in building the bourse. Officials hope his past won't damage their efforts. "We know his international image is not the best," says Jairo Cuevas, former head of the government agency that grants Carranza's franchise. "But until he is actually found guilty of something, there's nothing we can do."
For three years, the government has mostly looked the other way, as tempers simmered and arms were stockpiled. The tension is palpably building. And now, local priests are warning their flocks that a renewal of the "green war" may be just a gunshot away.