Changing an industry with a sometimes dark past
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.”
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