Authorities have uncovered that an eastern coastal region of Guatemala, known to be a cocaine corridor, has been used in the trafficking of jade -- a gemstone used for millennia by the ancient Mayans that has undergone a recent investment boom in China.
Local authorities and politicians are suspected of facilitating the illegal mining and smuggling operation, according to the Public Ministry.
On October 1, Guatemalan police seized a container with 10 tons of unprocessed jade that had been mined close to Morales, one of the most important cities in Izabal, an eastern coastal department. Four workers accompanying the truck were arrested, Prensa Libre reported.
The arrests and seizure took place after the Attorney General’s Office began to investigate a US citizen selling jade in Antigua, a colonial-era city favored by tourists.
Since then, a dozen people have come under investigation, including two Chinese nationals who own land in Izabal on which the jade was mined, according to an investigator who spoke with InSight Crime under the condition of anonymity.
Prosecutors said that the seized jade was to be exported as a shipment of serpentine, a kind of stone residue used in construction. This is a common trafficking technique where raw precious metals and stones are billed as lesser-valued minerals without major export restrictions.
Prosecutors suspect the involvement of local authorities and politicians in the illegal mining operation, as the smugglers needed to bypass mining and environmental regulators before the jade departed the port of Santo Tomás de Castilla, on Izabal’s Caribbean coast.
A series of audio recordings obtained by InSight Crime appear to show Izabal governor Erick Bosbelí Martínez talking about jade mining activity.
The Attorney General’s Office, however, has said that the governor is not currently under investigation in the affair. He has denied involvement and has said that the accusations against him are part of a campaign to discredit him for his efforts to combat crime in the department. “These recordings are to incriminate me, I could be talking about anything,” he told the newspaper Soy502.
In one of the audio recordings, the governor asks an associate whether someone could "take pictures of the operation." The operation is a reference to illegal mining, according to an investigator with knowledge of the case. The investigator, who spoke with InSight Crime under the condition of anonymity for security reasons, provided context about what was said in the recordings.
(Recording of Bosbelí Martínez talking about the "operation")
In another recording, he says to hide the "machinery" because he is worried. He also refers to speaking with Guatemala City officials to keep his associates from being bothered.
(Recording of Bosbelí Martínez talking about the "machinery")
In another recording, when talking about a jade-rich location close to the Maderos village, Bosbelí Martínez says that “if there is material, it’s more money earned.”
(Recording of Bosbelí Martínez talking about the "material")
Bosbelí Martínez, who was appointed governor of Izabal by outgoing President Jimmy Morales, also refers to a possible meeting between Asian citizens and the president.
(Recording of Bosbelí Martínez talking about the meeting)
An agent involved in the jade bust told Soy502 that the October operation was only possible because it did not involve local officials. “We cannot trust anyone,” environmental crimes prosecutor Aura López told the newspaper. “They can regularly rely on the support of local authorities. We have opted to work with staff from other places to prevent information leaks.”
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At least two public officials that work for state investigation agencies in Izabal told InSight Crime that the traditional drug trafficking clans in the department, like Los Mendoza and Los Lorenzana, have also ventured into the jade business.
During the operations, authorities have seized at least four excavators, machines used to explore the soil where the jade seams are located. On at least one occasion, the owners hid the machinery after warnings from local officials, according to the investigators.
InSight Crime Analysis
The eastern coastal region of Guatemala has long been a cocaine corridor due to its well-worn smuggling routes, nearby ports, and corrupt local authorities and politicians who facilitate trafficking.
In this case, cocaine has been joined by another valuable product: jade. Pure jadeite, the mineral seized in Izabal, is the most precious form of jade. This type of stone is only found in four places in the world: Myanmar, California, Japan and the mountain ranges of Guatemala.
SEE ALSO: Elites and Organized Crime in Guatemala
An investigator from the Attorney General’s Office told InSight Crime that the shipment seized in October was valued at 77 million quetzales, equivalent to some $10 million. This indicates that each ton of raw jadeite could have been sold for about $1 million, according to Guatemalan police.
In recent years, China has fueled a boom in the precious stone -- long seen as a symbol of wealth and good fortune. According to a 2010 New York Times article, an ounce of jade was selling for $3,000, more than gold. The jade frenzy, however, has also fueled massive illegal mining in nearby Myanmar, where the stone is extracted at top speed under dangerous conditions and then secreted over the border.
Reports of jade smuggling in Guatemala are few, but the amount seized in Morales indicates that authorities took down a major operation. On top of mining the jade, the smuggling of the stone out of the country required about 400,000 quetzales, or some $52,000, in bribes per month to each of his four alleged associates. This would mean that bribes to officials and authorities would total $208,000.
It is noteworthy that the jade extraction occurred in Izabal, one of the departments where the Guatemalan government has maintained a state of emergency since last October, following the murders of three soldiers. The army has conducted several operations in the state under the pretext of stopping drug trafficking operations.