Smuggling networks are feeding illegal mining operations across the Amazon Basin with mercury, despite global efforts to clamp down on the use of the substance.
The side effects of this chemical's use have had a profound impact on the environment, contaminating rivers crucial to the survival of Indigenous communities or leaving behind pools of toxic mercury in deforested areas.
The United Nations has sought to stamp out the production and trade of products containing mercury with its Minamata Convention on Mercury, which 128 countries have signed on to. But such international efforts are of little importance to wildcat miners in the Amazon who use mercury to separate gold from soil and sediment.
InSight Crime unpacks what is fueling the region’s illicit trade and how liquid mercury is trafficked through the Amazon.
Peru: Magnet For Smuggled Mercury
But illicit mining hubs like the nation’s region of Madre de Dios never seem to run short. As InSight Crime reported in 2016, a public state of emergency was declared in the region due to soaring mercury contamination linked to illegal mining.
According to César A. Ipenza, an environmental lawyer and professor at Universidad del Pacifico in Peru, mercury has been flooding into the nation illegally from Bolivia.
Ipenza pointed to Peru’s porous border area with Brazil and Bolivia, where mercury is just one of many products illegally trafficked, including gold, weapons and drugs.
The frontier town of Desaguadero, which connects Peru's southeastern Puno region with Bolivia's La Paz department, is a particular hotspot for this trade, according to Vilma Morales, a chemical engineer and one of Peru’s leading mercury experts.
Citing sources within Peru’s General Directorate of Environmental Health (Dirección General de Salud Ambiental - Digesa), Morales explained that criminal groups dedicated to trafficking through Puno had been linked to a number of murders and that officials often turned a blind eye to smuggling attempts.
Mercury also finds its way into Peru via Ecuador. In the Peruvian city of Piura, Morales spoke with miners who habitually traveled to the nation’s border with Ecuador to fetch more mercury.
Some large-scale seizures have been made in Peru. In 2019, customs officials in Puno confiscated a shipment of some 110 liters of mercury found in an abandoned truck pulled up on the Huancané highway, in the city of Juliaca. Authorities valued the cargo – which had come in from Bolivia – at 300,000 Peruvian soles (around $82,000.)
But ant trafficking – where a product is smuggled in small batches to avoid detection – is far more common, as passengers carry mercury in flasks onboard public buses. Others conceal the chemical underneath car seats as they cross the border.
Without risking smuggling mercury at the border, there are numerous other ways Peruvian miners can get their hand on the chemical. Last year, the Center for Advanced Defense Studies revealed that some individuals on Peru’s list of authorized mercury users had a documented history of alleged involvement in illegal mining.
The group also detailed how supplies belonging to Peru’s main importer of mercury, the Triveño Mining Company del Perú SAC, had allegedly been reaching unauthorized "independent buyers."
Finally, Luis E. Fernandez, director of the Carnegie Amazon Mercury Ecosystem Project (CAMEP), told InSight Crime that mercury destined for industrial use and in dental work might also be filtering into illicit supply chains.
Bolivia: The Ideal Transit Point
Bolivia is the second largest importer of mercury globally, according to a 2020 study on the trade published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature National Committee of the Netherlands.
And the Andean nation has become a new center for South America's trade in the metal since neighboring Peru started cracking down, Mariel Cabero Ugalde, an expert in environmental justice with the conservation organization, told Mongabay.
Networks supplying Bolivian traders with the chemical have ties to transnational criminal organizations involved in the drug trade and human trafficking, according to the group.
Imports of illegal mercury have been found coming from Mexico and Chile and local media reports have identified illegal mercury trading happening in the large cities of Cobija, Trinidad, Santa Cruz, Oruro and Potosí
Oscar Campanini Gonzales, director of Bolivia's Center of Documentation and Information (Centro de Documentación e Información Bolivia – CEDIB), told InSight Crime that mercury sales are often "quick and agile," facilitated by the use of online platforms, including Facebook.
Of Bolivia's four exporters with ties to Peru, two have partnered up with Peruvians previously involved in smuggling chemicals used in the drug trade, according to Campanini.
A CEDIB report revealed that "mercury trading networks are cartel-like structures with multiple layers of importers, wholesalers and retailers involved. They are well established and generally operate in secret, as most of the trade is informal."
Guyana’s Open Door Feeds Brazil, Suriname, Venezuela
Last year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature National Committee of the Netherlands revealed Guyana’s doors had been left wide open for the entrance of mercury, which appears to feed illegal mining operations in neighboring Suriname, Brazil and Venezuela.
Despite ratifying Minamata in 2014, Guyana still leaves ample leeway for lots of mercury to enter, only capping yearly imports at 34.5 tons in 2019. If successful, this would be a significant drop from the 80 tons imported in previous years.
However, in its 2020 report, the conservation organization revealed an "informal mercury import" had never been seized by Guyanese officials.
Investigators found that the metal enters Guyana illegally from China, with container ships avoiding customs checks at the seaport of Georgetown.
And while the chemical is used to fuel gold mining in Guyana, it is also reportedly funneled off to feed illicit operations in neighboring countries.
Mercury is trafficked across the border to Brazil’s state of Roraima, according to local sources consulted by media outlet InfoAmazonia. The chemical is readily bought at the Takutu River, where illegal crossings are used to smuggle many contraband goods and people.
Once across the river, mercury is often reportedly smuggled onward to Roraima’s capital, Boa Vista.
The chemical is also believed to reach neighboring Suriname. “The border is porous and largely unpatrolled and it would not be difficult for anyone to take contraband including mercury in either direction,” Ian Sutherland, responsible for the Netherlands conservation organization's investigation in Guyana, told InfoAmazonia.
And mercury is trafficked from Guyana to Venezuela via air or maritime routes, albeit usually in far smaller quantities.
Colombia's Toxic Trade
Colombia also has no shortage of mercury.
But demand for mercury in illegal mining hot spots across the country – from the department of Chocó to the Amazon region – is met by a range of sources.
Data from the Colombian National Customs and Taxes Administration suggested South America’s illegal mercury trade had its origins in China, according to a 2019 report published by World Widlife Fund (WWF) and Fundación Gaia Amazonas, a foundation seeking to protect the Amazon rainforest together with the people who live there.
Mercury filters into the departments of Nariño and Putumayo through the nation’s southern border with Peru, often concealed inside 2.5-liter bottles, geological engineer, Jairo Herrera revealed.
Much of the mercury that enters the country irregularly is reportedly transported to Medellín, from where it is distributed to illegal mines in northern Antioquia and Chocó.
Mercury in Colombia has also been moved in the form of "internal contraband." InSight Crime learned smuggling networks that source the metal "legally" for its medical uses feed rampant wildcat mining in Chocó.
Trade has also moved online since the chemical became more difficult to get hold of. It is readily sold via platforms like Mercado Libre and Facebook in Medellín.