When Juan Granda ventured into Peru’s Amazon rainforest to score another illicit load of gold, he boasted that he felt like legendary Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. “I’m like Pablo coming … to get the coke,” he told two co-workers in a text message in 2014.
A 36-year-old Florida State University graduate who once sold subprime loans, Granda was no cartel kingpin. But his offhand comparison was apt: Gold has become the secret ingredient in the criminal alchemy of Latin American narco-traffickers who make billions turning cocaine into clean cash by exporting the metal to Miami.
The previous year, Granda’s employer, NTR Metals, a South Florida precious-metals trading company, had bought nearly $1 billion worth of Peruvian gold supplied by narcos — and Granda and NTR needed more.
The United States depends on Latin American gold to feed ravenous demand from its jewelry, bullion and electronics industries. The amount of gold going through Miami every year is equal to roughly 2 percent of the market value of the vast U.S. stockpile in Fort Knox.
But much of that gold comes from outlaw mines deep in the jungle where dangerous chemicals are poisoning rainforests and laborers who toil for scraps of metal, according to human rights watchdogs and industry executives. The environmental damage and human misery mirror the scale of Africa’s “blood diamonds,” experts say.
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