How Venezuela turns its useless bank notes into gold
Primitive but successful
With the country's economy in meltdown, an estimated 300,000 fortune hunters have descended on this mineral-rich jungle area to earn a living pulling gold-flecked earth from makeshift mines.
Their picks and shovels are helping to prop up the leftist government of President Nicolas Maduro. Since 2016, his administration has purchased 17 tonnes of the metal worth around $650 million from so-called artisan miners, according to the most recent data from the nation's central bank.
Maduro's gold program
The Trump administration is pressuring the United Kingdom not to release $1.2 billion in gold reserves Venezuela has stored in the Bank of England. U.S. officials recently castigated an Abu Dhabi-based investment firm for its Venezuela gold purchases, and have warned other potential foreign buyers to back off.
The existence of Maduro's gold program is well-known. How it functions is not.
To get a glimpse inside, Reuters tracked Venezuela's gold from steamy jungle mines, through the central bank in the capital of Caracas to gold refineries and food exporters abroad, speaking with more than 30 people with knowledge of the trade. They included miners, intermediaries, merchants, academic researchers, diplomats and government officials. Almost all requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, or because they feared retribution from Venezuelan or U.S. authorities.
A blip on international markets
The Bolivarian Revolution now leans heavily on ragtag laborers such as Jose Aular, a teenager who says he has contracted malaria five times at a wildcat mine near Venezuela's border with Brazil. Aular works 12 hours daily lugging sacks of earth to a small mill that uses toxic mercury to extract flecks of precious metal. Mining accidents are common in these ramshackle operations, workers said. So are shootings and robberies.
"The government knows what happens in these mines and it benefits from it," said Aular, 18. "Our gold goes into their hands."
A crucial assistance
Venezuela sells most of its gold to Turkish refineries, then uses some of the proceeds to buy that nation's consumer goods, according to people with direct knowledge of the trade. Turkish pasta and powdered milk are now staples in Maduro's subsidized food program. Trade between the two nations grew eightfold last year.
But scrutiny is intensifying as Venezuela's politics reach the boiling point. In recent days, many Western countries have recognized Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido as the South American nation's rightful president.
Maduro's adversaries have called on foreign buyers of Venezuela's precious metal to stop doing business with what they say is an illegitimate regime.
"We are going to protect our gold," opposition legislator Carlos Paparoni told.
Their activity is laying waste to fragile forest ecosystems and spreading mosquito-borne diseases. Miners complain of shakedowns by military forces sent to guard the region, whose homicide rate is seven times the national average. Venezuela's ministries of defense and information did not respond to requests for comment.
Because Venezuela's currency, the bolivar, is worth less every hour someone holds it, the state pays a premium over international prices to make it worthwhile for those who could smuggle gold out of the country to exchange for dollars.