Fighting Colombia's Green War: Treasure of the emerald forest

In the remote reaches of Colombia's wild frontier thousands of gem prospectors are descending on the richest seam of green gold the world has ever seen. Daniel Howden finds the poor and the desperate willing to risk gangster rule and paramilitaries in the hope of striking it rich

The tyres lean heavily on the sheer edge of the trail pushing a few loose stones over the precipice and scattering them into the clouds below.

It's impossible not to breath in and lean left as the trail narrows to the exact width of the jeep. White knuckles grasp door handles and steering wheels for a little false security.

On the horizon, strange shapes rise out of the clouds and climax in dark peaks. More than 6,000 feet up in the remote cloud forests of northern Colombia, the going gets really tough. Only the hardiest four-wheel drive can make its tortured way over the rocks and roots of these anorexic trails. The mountains of Boyacá are covered in coffee plants, yucca fields, sugar cane and tropical fruits but the real wealth of this province is hard, green and buried underground.

The overwhelming majority of the world's emeralds have come out of these hills.

The source of these precious stones is a tiny valley, an exhausting hike out of the town of Muzo, itself in the middle of nowhere. The first glimpse of the wealth hidden in these hills is dramatic. Hundreds of feet below the trail the black water of Rio Minero breaks cover from the green forest. Gushing down out of the dense vegetation, the running water polishes the rich seams of coal that reach the surface. Through the mist the sun catches the few unrusted patches of scrap metal roofs, to give the first sign of human life.

This is Colombia's wild frontier. A prospecting town, of sorts, it's home to a rag tag army of the poor, the desperate and the downright optimistic. There's no running water but the river and electricity is the preserve of those with petrol and a generator. Thousands of men, women and children live crowded into tin shacks perched on wooden stilts hammered into the mud and rock of the lush hillside.

They have been drawn here by an emerald rush, desperate to cash in on a temporary lull in the years of fighting between left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and the army.

Scores of mine shafts puncture the hills here. The brave or foolhardy scour the depths of these antique tunnels. Others sift through the waters of the Rio Minero, hoping for a glimpse of green. It's clear from the wild-eyed looks on the faces all around that this is a place for gamblers.

Juan, a 25-year-old man who now makes a living ferrying supplies on the tortuous 10-hour round trip to the nearest major town, remembers what it was like to be "guaquero", an amateur prospector risking all in the darkness of the mines. "It's like gambling, it becomes addictive," he said. "You always feel like the big one is coming."

Clambering up the banks. entire "guaquero" families appear, hauling their hammers and shovels after a backbreaking day. The men and boys are smeared black with the dust from the carbonised rock they've smashed in search of emeralds.

The 16th century conquistadors had heard of Colombia's fabled emerald deposits but had no idea where they were. It wasn't until 1564 when the Spanish captain Juan de Penagos literally stumbled upon the hidden treasure of Muzo. A horseman in his company was forced to stop after a strange object hobbled his mount. Lifting the horse's hoof he found a green rock the size of a child's fist embedded there. Within three years the Muzo Indians had been routed and the Spanish had a monopoly on the richest emerald mines in the world.

Their history has been no less bloody since the Spanish left. In the 1980s, the mines of Muzo found themselves in the sights of Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellin drug cartel, who thought the emeralds could be a means to launder the profits from the cocaine industry.

But the bosses of the emerald industry refused to roll over. The area around Muzo, the centre of Colombia's emerald industry, found itself on the front line of a bloody war. Up to 3,000 people died before the drugs cartels recognised it was impossible to win control of the gem trade.

The man who did more than anyone else to stop the cartels was Victor Carranza, whose brutal fightback earned him the title, the "Escobar of emeralds".

Carranza was born in Guateque, Boyacá, into a poor family. He knew little of his father who left them when he was a baby. When Carranza was still a boy, his older brother found a large emerald rock and promised to go to Bogotá, sell it and return with money to buy a small plot of land for the family. He never returned and Carranza has not seen or heard from him since. From then on, Carranza vowed that he would find an emerald of even greater value and set off to work in the mines as a prospector. Some say he was only seven at the time, others insist he was already 10. No-one disagrees that he achieved what he set out to.

In 1973, the Colombian government opened a Pandora's box by privatising the mines in Boyacá. Despite a number of loudly trumpeted initiatives to bring the emerald trade into the formal economy, it remains the black market preserve of gangsters, prospectors and dealers.

On any given day along Bogotá's Avenida Jimenez, emerald dealers huddle on street corners and congregate at Rosario Square, the heart of Colombia's unofficial emerald stock exchange. Here, rough gemstones are bought and sold to numerous dealers who form part of a chain of six buyers, starting from the mines of Boyacá to the streets of downtown Bogotá.

Groups of dealers, some in sharp business suits, carefully inspect their precious stones wrapped in bits of white scrap paper. Using tweezers they hold gemstones to the light and examine the different shades of green, searching for imperfections and the highly prized dark, bottle green colour and special sparkle. Prospectors and dealers compare their precious wares as they speak on mobile phones, waiting for dealers higher up the buying chain to meet in the square and secure a deal.

The withdrawal of state presence and control left a vacuum of power which Carranza would soon come to fill. Violence and lawlessness became the norm as rival clans and drug cartels sought to control profits from the emerald mines and mining rights, leading to the turf wars in Boyacá known as the Green War. Eventually, the softly spoken Carranza emerged as the undisputed winner, backed by his own private army which evolved into paramilitary outfits. In 1990, with the help of the Bishop of Chiquinquirá, Carranza signed a truce with the drug cartels ending the Green War, which by that stage had slaughtered thousands.

By the 1990s, he was known as the emerald tsar and had become one of Colombia's richest businessmen. In February 1998, his luck ran out and he was arrested in Bogotá on charges of financing paramilitary groups, including the notorious "Black Snake" unit. Carranza was released from jail in 2002, and, although under investigation, he remains at large.

The heart of Carranza's empire today stands on a raised plateau beyond the prospectors' settlements. Surrounded by ranks of towering wire fences, the mine offers a forbidding contrast to the chaos beyond.

But there is a surprising lack of heavy weaponry that is so much a part of daily life in Colombia. Only a bored-looking gatekeeper traipses back and forward with a pump-action shotgun hung from his shoulder. The gates open and close to release scores of exhausted miners, their bodies thickly caked in soot.

The man in charge of the mine is a strapping six-footer who gives his name only as Carlos. His American accent is testament to several years spent in the US studying for an MBA. But this is a long way from Virginia and Carlos has converted to the life of a miner with a religious zeal. "A lot of people died here," he said. "But there is a second emerald boom now... Every time the rains come it draws more people." The mine dominates life completely. "Children can't wait to hold a shovel and start looking for emeralds with their parents," he said. "It's all they think and hope for."

The guns are gone, says Carlos, or at least put away, for now. The reputation of Carranza is enough in itself to hold together a fragile peace. The government has issued Carranza with a 50-year concession to exploit his kingdom, unencumbered by police or taxes.

The 600 miners that work these shafts every day get paid no wage. The only way to survive is to dig up the gems and the fortune that could be waiting behind the next rock seems to blind everyone to the dangers.

Above and below ground, superstition and machismo rule. There's only one woman allowed near the mine. Women are bad luck, Carlos explains, and menstruating women are fatally bad luck. That is, of course, unless they are prostitutes. "Sleeping with a hooker the night before will bring good fortune," Carlos said with a broad smile. A lot of miners think the same way. The trail leading down to the mine is dotted with bordellos. They are the no-frills kind in keeping with the frontier town atmosphere. The most prominent at least offers some black humour in its choice of name, "La Nuestra", or "Mother in Law".

Standing in front of the battered cage that descends nearly 200 metres into the darkness, Carlos explains that the first rule of mining is to accept that you might not be coming back up. "When you understand that you're less likely to panic once something goes wrong down there," he said.

Going down in the cage is akin to be lowered into a pitch black waterfall. As the protesting motor rattles and releases the chains, the temperature rises fast enough to suffocate you. Water rains hot and hard over your body, soaking everything. At the bottom the cloying atmosphere is hotter than a sauna and the claustrophobic tunnels defy orientation. Meanwhile, warm water gushes in all directions.

After a bewildering journey across planks and ladders through the stooped shafts, the call comes through that emeralds have been found. The deafening noise of jackhammers in a confined space signal the find. Expertly wielded picks irritate the black surface and there they are. Impossibly green and shiny in the torchlight, raw emeralds stud the rock face.

Suddenly the risks and remoteness seem irrelevant. Excited miners crowd in and the oxygen levels plummet. Nobody cares. The precious stones are falling from the carbon and each swing of the pick promises to reveal a priceless rock.

Back above ground, all trails lead to the makeshift bars. Whatever money is made is drunk or gambled in these filthy shacks and life is lived day to day.

One man, so drunk on warm beer he can barely stand, has been here for more than a decade.

"I struck it lucky twice in 12 years," he slurred. Both times it made him about £1,500 - a fortune to a "guaquero". But he never left. Like so many of the others in the bar, he looks 20 years older than he actually is. "It's about believing in God and getting lucky," he said. "I still believe I will find another big rock."

Additional reporting by Anastasia Moloney.

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