The indictment of a Miami-based businessman allegedly involved in a multi-million dollar gold smuggling ring has shed further light on the role played by Caribbean islands in transnational gold trafficking.
In a statement released on June 23, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) accused Jesus Gabriel Rodriguez Jr., the owner of South Florida transport company Transvalue, of "facilitating a $140 million transnational illicit gold smuggling operation aimed at laundering cash with alleged ties to criminal activity."
Between March 2015 and September 2016, Rodriguez purportedly used a network of contacts to import thousands of kilograms of illegally sourced gold into the United States from the Caribbean island of Curaçao, according to an unsealed affidavit cited in the DOJ statement. The affidavit suggested the gold was likely being "illegally mined and smuggled out of Venezuela."
US prosecutors also allege that Rodriguez hired brokers to ensure the gold shipments made it past customs at Miami International Airport -- an endeavor that also involved submitting documentation falsely stating that the gold originated from the Cayman Islands and not Curaçao.
On arrival in the United States, Rodriguez's company then used armored vehicles to move the imported gold, as well as cash, to a Florida refinery belonging to NTR Metals -- the Miami-based subsidiary of Elemetal, one of the largest gold trading companies in the United States. The company purportedly had internal policies in place to prevent money laundering, including not buying gold from Curaçao, according to the DOJ.
The imported gold was eventually purchased with "clean" money by associates who earned commissions by procuring the illicit product for NTR Metals, according to the same statement.
This is not the first gold smuggling case to implicate NTR Metals. In 2017, three of the company's former employees pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering after purchasing billions of dollars of illicit gold from Latin America and the Caribbean, according to separate DOJ statements.
InSight Crime Analysis
Caribbean islands like Curaçao and the Cayman Islands, as well as Aruba, have become convenient transit points for illicitly sourced gold, bound for the United States and elsewhere.
Strategically located between gold-producing countries in South America and the lucrative gold markets in the United States and Europe, these islands serve as a practical through routes for aerial and maritime illicit gold shipments destined for foreign consumers.
But there are other benefits. Perhaps most importantly, routing illicitly-sourced gold through an array of brokers and islands in the Caribbean provides smuggling networks with a means of disguising the metal's illicit origins.
In the case of the Florida network, for instance, the imported gold is thought to have originated from South American countries like Colombia, Venezuela and Peru, according to statements made by Walter Norkin, assistant attorney for the DOJ's Southern District of Florida, cited by EFE. Once in Curaçao, the gold was purportedly flown to the United States, then to the Cayman Islands and then back to the United States again, in an apparent attempt to conceal the shipments' illicit origins.
To be sure, around 90 percent of the gold leaving Curaçao and Aruba between 2014 and 2018 came from Venezuela, according to a 2019 report by the Miami Herald citing government sources and documents leaked by Aruban customs. Much of this reportedly arrived in the Caribbean via private planes, which hopscotched between islands. While the imported gold appeared to have its paperwork in order, island officials said its legal status was questionable, the Miami Herald reported.
In 2019, Curaçao banned the import, export and transit of Venezuelan gold, with Aruba following suit soon after. But investigators believe it is still entering the islands, after moving through Colombia and other Latin American countries where it is "legalized," according to local media.