Published by The Spectator (15th May, 2021)
Dirty Gold: The Rise and Fall of an International Smuggling Ring by Jay Weaver, Nicholas Nehamas, Jim Wyss and Kyra Gurney (Hodder & Stoughton)
Deep in Peru’s Amazon rainforest sits a desolate zone, stretching for miles and pockmarked with chemical-tainted water that glistens orange and blue. This was the centre of the country’s illegal gold-mining operations, where tens of thousands of desperate people dug into the soil in search of a precious mineral that could make the difference between destitution and wealth. For every ounce found in the crime-infested badlands, nine tonnes of toxic waste are thought to be left behind in an environmental catastrophe that will contaminate the region for decades.
No wonder Pope Francis, on a visit to the impoverished area, called gold ‘a false god’ when so much wreckage is left behind in its wake. Yet one tonne of this illegal metal left the nation each day, an informant told an amazed investigator almost a decade ago — the weight of a male walrus and worth about $40 million. Much of it was used to wash drug money for local gangsters, laundered with forged papers from front companies to make it seem legitimate, and then shipped abroad, where it could be melted down for sale in respectable outlets across the world.
When the American investigator did his sums, he realised to his horror, if his source was correct, this meant that illicit gold worth $15 billion a year was leaving Peru, yielding five times the profits of cocaine for cartels. Meanwhile, three Miami businessmen were cultivating a flamboyant local playboy — the father of ten children by five women — and suspected money launderer, who was hoovering up gold for sale in the States. He was nicknamed Peter Ferrari for his love of flashy sports cars. The trio, working for a respectable American firm, hastily did a deal with the Peruvian to buy all his gold. This was the start of an extraordinary rollercoaster ride that saw them hustle huge quantities of gold before their adventure ended in prison cells.
Dirty Gold, by an award-winning team of Miami Herald journalists, tells the tale of these ‘three amigos’ who smuggled more than $3.6 billion of illegal gold into the US between 2013 and 2016 for one of the nation’s largest gold-trading firms. Their leader was the London-born Samer Barrage who ‘spoke with a posh British accent and owned homes in Nicaragua and Spain’. The others were a hard-living young graduate, who did much of the work on the ground, and a tragic family man in his forties, mocked as ‘Fat Ronnie’ by his comrades, who, through misplaced loyalty, ended up with the longest sentence when their world crashed.
The first half of the book crackles along as the greedy trio — their banter on WhatsApp later obtained by investigators — build up their empire. Thanks to their deal with Ferrari, their company saw its purchases of Peruvian gold rise 15-fold in the first year alone. ‘The bosses did not ask many questions — the gold was pouring in and that was all that mattered,’ write the authors. An airport bust simply meant gold smuggled into neighbouring countries, such as Ecuador and Bolivia, which saw exports to the US instantly triple, despite no new mines opening. In Chile their contact was a former college student in his early twenties, claiming to be melting down coins, who became the country’s biggest exporter of scrap gold overnight.
The rise of the amigos makes for a reasonably entertaining yarn — although the ease with which these goons build an empire based on smuggling and the lax practices of a reputable US firm is depressing. Unfortunately, much like the scam, the fun falters as the narrative shifts to their downfall. The pages become clogged with duller characters, while it is hard to get enthused by rivalries between US agencies, despite the best efforts of the authors as they stretch out their plot and create snappy chapter titles such as ‘Dude, This Is Insanity’. Yet they deserve credit for exposing the dark underbelly of the jewellery industry and giving us another glimpse into the real cost of the global obsession with gold.