Green was the color of the day, from the stripes on the Bell helicopter, to the pilot’s gloves and headset, to the precious stones glittering within the mountains below.
Just a 40-minute chopper ride northeast of Bogotá, the famed Muzo emerald mines of Colombia are undergoing a profound physical and cultural transformation. In the central department of Boyacá, a North American company is formalizing a once outlaw industry still tarnished by its violent past.
Until his death from cancer in April 2013, Victor Carranza was the undisputed czar of Colombia’s “green fire.” Over the decades, illegal actors in the nation’s armed conflict vied to overtake the lucrative business, including left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries.
In the 1980s, the “Green War” broke loose when cocaine kingpins tied to Pablo Escobar attempted to muscle out Carranza, and left over 3,000 dead before the Catholic Church negotiated a peace deal in 1991.
The same bishop that led the truce among the opposing factions had also officiated the wedding just four years earlier between a Colombian and Charles Burgess, a former Marine and employee of the United States government, who spent the majority of his career in Latin America.
As President of Minería Texas Colombia (MTC), Mr. Burgess has operated the Muzo gem deposits since 2009, working alongside Carranza during his twilight years before buying the mining rights.
“It was pure happenstance that I met Carranza, but we developed a mutual trust,” Mr. Burgess told The City Paper. “He always kept his word, was very polite, and completely unpretentious. What you saw was what you got […] He also protected what was his. He made no apologies. He once said to me, ‘I’m no angel’ […] But he saw that if you get into bed with the ‘narcos,’ you lose everything […] He knew the only way to change the industry was with foreign capital and from the bottom up.”
Below ground, the mesh between old traditions and new practices was clear. In the “Cathedral” mine, excavated by indigenous tribes well before the Spanish conquest of the Americas, a swinging metal elevator shaft dropped over 160 meters into humid darkness. Oxygen ventilation and lights ran along the tunnel sides. Gaggles of engineers, geologists and drillers climbed up and down ladders in a labyrinth of white calcite, black earth and sparking pyrite.
Jefferson, who had mined in Boyacá for 40 years, gingerly scraped at a small, shiny green patch on the wall. Like a surgeon requesting his scalpel, he asked his peers to bring him a different tool. The fistful of bright emeralds, resembling a cluster of pomegranate seeds, fell into his helmet. He immediately placed the largest gems into a plastic tube, and the smaller rocks into a white sack, all of which would be examined at a laboratory in the nation’s capital.
“The artisanal miners are indispensable,” said Mr. Burgess. “Emerald mining is unlike any in the world […] we can’t have a $300,000 stone ruined by a machine. The miners from the Carranza era know exactly how to hit and at which angle, and are aware of how much pressure is on them. Their knowledge is just priceless.”
“Carranza used to just point and say ‘dig there.’ He was a mystic when it came to emeralds.”
In fact, Mr. Burgess told The City Paper that MTC has offered many of the older workers free laser eye surgery in order to maintain their level of input.
Above ground, miners turned off their headlamps and smoked cheap Mustang cigarettes. In a matching circle of jeans, boots and sweat-streaked shirts, they explained that emerald mining is far more complicated than, for example, gold or copper, given the difficulty in knowing where to find deposits, and determining the direction and size of the vein after a discovery.
“Carranza used to just point and say ‘dig there.’ He was a mystic when it came to emeralds,” one worker said.
MTC has invested tens of millions of dollars into Muzo, and its new exploration sites are a far cry from the era of burrowing tunnels on hands and knees. Instead, Bobcat jeeps drove 730 meters into what felt like New York’s Lincoln Tunnel. The workers, covered in black soot from head to toe, pushed two-meter hydraulic power drills into the rock, unfazed by the deafening noise.
With plans to excavate at 400 meters, the Muzo mines will be the deepest in Colombia.
Where Smith and Wesson-touting guards used to prevent a worker from slipping a sizable emerald into his mouth, a modern security system is now in place. Two sets of cameras recorded every dig.
Tonnes of earth containing unknown quantities of emeralds were placed into metal containers, which were safeguarded by plastic ties and metal locks. Instead of Carranza’s illegal private militias, which landed him a brief stint in jail, private security officials carried machine guns.
After Carranza’s death, Colombian media outlets speculated about the risks of competition to fill the gem baron’s shoes. Indeed, various emerald bosses and co-signers of the peace accord have since been murdered.
Nevertheless, Mr. Burgess dismissed the possibility of large-scale violence: “It’s media hype. What you have is a small group of money launderers and thugs fighting among themselves. It’s a crime problem. As a legal company, we fill the power vacuum.”
Yet the Muzo mines have not been without their share of problems. Over the last several years, thousands of armed men have twice stormed the MTC grounds and tunnels. According to Burgess, Pedro Rincón, who is currently in prison on a wide array of criminal charges, was behind the attacks, and even provided the mobs with free lunch.
“To the credit of the government, the police responded peacefully and with minimum force,” said Burgess.
Still, the presence of a United States-based company has created some resentment in the poor surroundings. In the Wild West days, the Boyacá-born Carranza ruled with both a carrot and stick. As if a paternalistic deity, he controlled by artificial means the flow of the local river, along which thousands of locals dug for overlooked emeralds. In nearby towns, green shards replaced coins. While prostitution and alcoholism soared, so did folkloric rags-to-riches tales.
According to Burgess, times have changed.
“Some people picture me whipping peons,” he joked dryly. “But we follow the law and that transforms the whole culture here. The old way was unsustainable for the modern day. We obey environmental regulations and can’t just dump dirt into the river […] We employ as many people as we can. A private company can’t take on the role of the state.”
In fact, MTC has brought a murky business into the light. The company employs nearly 800 workers, largely from Boyacá, and the lowest salaries are twice the national minimum wage. In addition to standard work hours, the company provides health care and other benefits.
As part of its community outreach, every afternoon MTC feeds 300 retired “guaqueros,” amateur prospectors from the Carranza period, and offers them the possibility of farming fruits and vegetables.
“Some people picture me whipping peons. But we follow the law and that transforms the whole culture here.”
In addition to modernizing equipment and techniques, MTC is trying to restore the image of Muzo emeralds. On March 16, in Basel, Switzerland, at the world’s principal trade show for precious stones, the company will officially launch the Muzo brand.
MTC plans on selling to leading global gem providers under its trademark, without going into main street retail. “The name was hurt because of the bad practices of the 1980s and 90s,” said Burgess, his black cap and jacket adorned with the gleaming green logo.
In comparison to its international competitors, Muzo emeralds do have several key advantages. First, the area has historically produced the largest and most chemically pure stones. Formation in hydrothermal rather than igneous rock allows for a brilliant green, unlike the stones tinted with blue and yellow in Brazil, Zambia, or surrounding Boyacá mines like Coscuez. As a result, per carat, the finest Muzo emerald typically reaches a price three times higher than a top diamond.
Second, the presence of a North American and formal mining company in Colombia coincides with a rise in the importance placed on traceability. Clients around the world increasingly request proof that their gems were mined ethically, for example without the use of child labor or physical force.
“Nobody wants a blood emerald, especially at the top of the market […] we control our emeralds from the moment they come out of the earth until they are sold,” said Burgess.
In regards to the ongoing peace negotiations between the national government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels, Burgess thinks that an accord will help the mining industry.
“Once Colombia is no longer distracted by a fight against FARC, it will turn its focus to the mafia leaders […] to the extent that the country can successfully bring an end to the armed conflict, it will operate with normal economic aspirations. Colombia has a very bright future,” he said.
On just over 90 hectares in Boyacá, Muzo arguably produces the best emeralds in the world. Without a doubt, there are more to find in Colombia, and Burgess welcomes the competition. Nevertheless, he believes that understanding the country’s quirks might be even more important than modern technology.
“Decades of experience abroad will not prepare you to operate here. Engineering is simple. Mining is simple. It’s everything else that goes along that is difficult.”