LA RINCONADA, Peru (Reuters) – From the Andes mountains, thousands of artisanal gold-diggers for years sent fragments of metal to a Swiss valley. There, a refinery purified the gold to sell to banks, watchmakers, fine jewelers and electronics companies. It circulated as ingots, phones and trinkets – some branded with names including Apple and Tiffany & Co.
A trade worth billions of dollars, it was championed by the Swiss refinery, Metalor Technologies, as part of a program with Peru’s government to integrate gold prospectors into the economy.
In early 2018, Metalor stopped taking the gold. The reason: It couldn’t be sure where the metal came from. Peruvian prosecutors had come to suspect Metalor’s main supplier was a front used by criminals to filter illegally produced gold into the world market.
Metalor is not under investigation in Peru, and there is no suggestion of illegality by the refiner. But the story of the project – and of how it was monitored by the companies and regulators involved – illustrates the risks of illicit commerce that lie beneath gold’s glamor.
Peruvian authorities are exploring criminal charges against Metalor’s supplier, a trading firm named Minerales del Sur, after seizing a cargo worth nearly $4 million destined for Metalor in 2018, prosecutorial and customs documents seen by Reuters show. Customs inspectors found some participants in the program were selling more gold than they could produce, according to customs reports.