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Dirty Gold: Chasing the trace of
the London Bullion Market

The secret story of the companies that financed the millionaire
trade of illegal gold in South America

By Óscar Castilla C., Nelly Luna Amancio and Fabiola Torres López
June 9 2015

"The one who buys [my gold] must know where to take it"

Gregoria Casas ‘Goya’, illegal gold miner from Madre de Dios, Perú

A team of OjoPúblico toured camps of illegal mining production in Huepetuhe and La Pampa, the largest area of deforestation in Peru; it also sailed the Madre de Dios, Beni and Madeira rivers in search of Bolivian and Brazilian dredges; the team reached the mines in the mountains of the Cordillera del Condor, near the border between Peru and Ecuador, and traveled to the depths of Caqueta and Amazonas regions dominated by the FARC and drug trafficking in the jungle of Colombia. This excursion to the centers of the gold rush in five countries allowed us to identify companies from US, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates that financed the removal of tons of illegally obtained gold in South America.

The richest forest in southern Peru is crossed by a desert-like scar that gives the idea of a planet about to split: on one side is the Tambopata National Reserve in Madre de Dios, one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world; on the other, the last forest that should cushion any external threat. In the middle area there are no trees, only fallen trunks; nor rivers but rocks, dirt and fetid lagoons. It is called La Pampa, and is the largest illegal mining camp in Peru. The epicenter of one of the most devastating gold fevers in the Amazon history is just an hour distant from the border with Bolivia and Brazil, but thousands of kilometers away from the corporations that have benefited the most from the devastation.

Through a travel to mining centers in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia, accessing to judicial and police documents on illegal trafficking of metal and analyzing the exportation of gold from South America, OjoPúblico identified the major financiers of the gold fever that has devastated large parts of South America in recent years—a group of companies from the US, Switzerland, Italy and the United Arab Emirates, associated or linked to the London Bullion Market Association (Lbma), the union that sets the international price of gold and that gathers the major traders of this asset in the world.

These companies -Metalor Technologies and MKS Finance, from Switzerland; Northern Texas Refinery (NTR Metals) and Republic Metals Corporation (RMC), from the US; Italpreziosi from Italy and Kaloti group from the emirate of Dubai-, are also suspected of buying hundreds of tons of illegal gold from south American exporting firms managed by illegal mining operators linked to money laundering, organized crime and cross-border smuggling of metal.

The judicial authorities of Peru have targeted these companies (which also acquire gold in Medellin, La Paz and Guayaquil) because of the 25 criminal cases opened after the confiscation of one ton of metal in Callao between 2013 and 2014, and because of other processes of money laundering from illegal mining. The investigation includes the real capital of these corporations, their millionaire transfers of money to buy gold from mining areas of southern Peru in recent years, as well as the contacts that the executives of these companies made with the owners of exporting companies in Lima and other Amazon countries to ship loads of illicit origin to their subsidiaries in Miami, Zurich and Rome.

Aerial shot of the largest illegal mining camp in La Pampa, a few kilometers from the Tampobata National Reserve in Madre de Dios, Peru / Andina.

The journalistic investigation of OjoPublico also traces the routes of illicit gold trafficking in South America and deepens the research on the responsibility of companies linked to the London Bullion Market (some of them certified as high quality bullion, good delivery traders) in the destruction of areas such as Huepetuhe and La Pampa in Madre de Dios; riverbeds of Pando and Beni rivers, in Bolivia, that reach the Madeira river, in the Brazilian forest; the jungle of Caqueta river and the Choco forest on the Pacific of Colombia, as well as Nambija mountains on the border with Peru.

Judicial documents reveal that these corporations negotiated the millionaire purchase of Amazonian gold with bosses of illegal mining, collectors from organized crime, owners of ghosts exporting companies and figureheads who pretended to be businessmen. They also made business with money traffickers, currency exchange houses, controversial Russian and Chinese investors, peruvian, bolivian and brazilian smugglers, board members of companies located in Caribbean tax havens and even people investigated by the DEA.

Four of these companies are direct members of the London Bullion Market; the other two, NTR Metals and Kaloti, are related to business groups (the refinery Ohio Precious Metal, from the US, and Dubai Multicommodities Centre, located in that emirate) included in the Lbma. In recent years, all of them centralized their operations in Lima, but also bought gold from a group of dubious exporting companies from La Paz, which received the metal from the high Andean plateau and the Bolivian Amazon on the border with Brazil; from Medellin, a city where the mineral from Colombian tropical forests dominated by the FARC is gathered; and from the border between Ecuador and Peru.

The London Bullion Market is the union that sets the international price of gold and concentrates the biggest metal traders in the world”

OjoPúblico knew that until last year, Metalor, Kaloti and Italpreziosi rented spaces at Hermes, a company of custody and transport of securities based in Chorrillos, an hour away from Lima airport. Of this group, the only one that keeps its place at Hermes is the Swiss refinery, included in judiciary files since the late 90s for purchasing gold of dubious origin from Peru. It is unknown if MKZ (owner of the PAMP refinery in Switzerland), NTR Metals (which left its space at the headquarters of Prosegur, a second security company in Surco, a few months ago) or Republic Metals Corporation have offices or representatives in the peruvian capital.

The main peruvian officers in charge of the confiscation of illegal gold in 2013 and 2014, Julia Principe, Attorney against Laundering, and Gustavo Romero, the Customs Supervisor of the tax authority (Sunat), confirmed that the six companies mentioned in this report are part of prosecutor and police investigations against the local exporting companies involved in cases of money laundering from illegal mining.

The origin: Engelhard Corp.

The case of Peru, the largest gold producer in Latin America and the fifth producer in the world, is illustrative of the regional scene. During the 90s, the main buyer of illegal metal in the country was the American transnational Engelhard Corporation, one of the largest refineries in the world in the past century. However, its operations fell in 2000 when the tax authorities prosecuted its subsidiary in Lima and its suppliers for tax fraud (it had built a network of front companies managed by figureheads) and for smuggling gold extracted from Ecuador and Bolivia.

After the fall of Engelhard, MKS and Metalor sent millions of dollars to Lima to buy tons of minerals from a group of exporting companies located in areas convulsed by the gold mining: the main companies were Universal Metal Trading (UMT, included among the 500 largest companies in Latin America until 2012), AS Peru, E & M Company, Minera Tambopata, Sociedad Minera Rinconada, Minerales del Sur, Corporación Minera Ananea and Titan Contratistas Generales. All of them, including other low profile companies, are investigated as a part of the 25 criminal cases opened after the confiscations in Callao, and for other processes for collecting illegal metal, or are mentioned in investigations for money laundering and tax fraud.

Since 2012, Kaloti, NTR Metals and Republic Metals Corporation (which run their operations in South America from Florida) and Italpreziosi (from Tuscany) began to compete with Swiss firms for the purchase of gold. A few companies stood out among its suppliers: the front companies of Pedro Pérez Miranda, a business man investigated for money laundering; Darshan International group, linked to a tax haven in the Virgin Islands; and the Sanchez Paredes brothers, owners Comarsa and San Simon, also processed for money laundering from drugs. These exporting companies, and other lesser-known, stockpiled metal and kept it in the vaults of Hermes and Prosegur, before sending it on commercial flights to Miami and Rome.

If the 150 tons exported by smuggling are counted, Peru would be the second largest gold producer in the world after China”

OjoPúblico concluded that the mentioned peruvian exporting companies sent more than 180 tons of gold to companies in Switzerland, Italy, Dubai and the US between 2008 and 2014. This amount of metal was larger than the combined production of Bolivia and Ecuador during the same period and even much larger than the last annual exportation from Brazil and Colombia together. During that time, the dispatchs of Universal Metal Trading, with headquarters in the areas of illegal mining in the Amazon of Peru until 2013, were only surpassed by the ones of the largest gold mining companies in South America: Yanacocha (in Cajamarca) and Barrick (in La Libertad and Ancash). The UMT gold (a large part of wich was stockpiled by Leonardo Callalli, a man from Cusco who is now in prison for money laundering from illegal mining) came directly to MKS Finance in Geneva.

Peru is the world's fifth largest gold producer (with peaks of 208 tons of metal in 2005), according to the Ministry of Energy and Mines (Minem). The tax authority (Sunat) reveals that between 20 and 25% of gold exportations is illegal (40 tons). However, these figures pale in comparison with the findings of this report. For example, in 2010, the Minem collected the statements of miners from all the country and reported a production of 180 tons of mineral; but actually 330 tons had left the country. If the 150 tons exported by smuggling (more than 40% of the total) were taken into account, it would mean that Peru is the second largest producer after China.

Four gold ingots seized before being sent abroad in last April at the airport in Cusco, Peru / Sunat.

Millons of dollars under suspicion

Since 2012, when one of the authors of this report revealed at El Comercio the first links between the Swiss refineries and the collectors of illegal gold in Peru, the Prosecutor Office against Money Laundering and the Financial Intelligence Unit (UIF) initiated secret investigations on millionaire transfers made by members of the London Bullion Market, which gathers the world's largest banks, refineries and trader companies of gold and silver. At the same time, the Sunat confiscated more than a ton of illegal ingots that were about to leave the airport in Lima, headed for NTR Metals (founded in 2004), Kaloti, Republic Metals Corporation and Italpreziosi (created in the 80's) and Metalor Technologies (which uses that name since 2001).

Peruvian authorities are also investigating the payments made in advance by some foreign companies to acquire metal and cover the exporting and transportation costs from the gold mining areas. After accessing to the financial documents of the operations, OjoPúblico confirmed the millionaire money transfers from banks in Switzerland and the US, to accounts of individuals and legal entities in Madre de Dios, Cusco, Puno and Lima. Some of these payments were eventually confiscated by police operations against illegal mining mafias.

On the trips to the mining areas of Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia, we also knew that the six foreign companies bought gold from regions of the Amazon and the high plateau of South America, which are currently threatened by illegal mining, smuggling and drug trafficking. As it happened in Peru, we identified the largest providers in La Paz, Quito and Medellin, some of which are under suspicion because of the origin of the mineral.

Teaser of the webdocumentary “Las rutas del oro” ("Golden Routes"), that records this research travel. / Audrey Cordova R. (SPDA)

Bolivia: From La Paz to Miami

EIn the case of Bolivia, the gold from the north of La Paz, Beni and Pando jungle (near the border with Brazil) ends up in the US. After analyzing its exportations of metal, OjoPublico knew that this country sent abroad up to six tons a year between 2003 and 2011. Suddenly, the production of metal -under the control of mining cooperatives in this country, since there are almost no large investor in this local industry- rose quickly until record levels. In 2012 mineral shipments exceeded 20 tons, and in 2014 totaled 30 tons. These figures, never seen before, caused serious political questions in the Andean nation.

The political opposition to the government of Evo Morales denounced that the gold sent from La Paz was illegal because it was declared as metal waste and did not pay the corresponding taxes, a practice that involved a group of Bolivian exporting companies with the complicity of the Customs. However, there’s no explanation yet for that record production of mineral. After Sunat discovered that shipments from Bolivia to the US passed through the airport in Lima, Peruvian authorities believe that the increase in Bolivia production is due to the gold that they received from the areas of illegal mining in Madre de Dios and Puno, in southern Peru.

The six foreign companies bought gold from South American regions threatened by illegal mining, smuggling and drug trafficking”

During the journalistic investigation in this country, we identified that one of the largest recipients of mineral of dubious origin is Atomic Gold, an almost unknown company located in Miami (which is not a member of the London Bullion Market), along with NTR Metals, Kaloti and Republic Metals Corporation. They received even the gold that was declared as metal waste by Bolivian exporters. OjoPublico also knew that one family of La Paz, formed by Ronald Saavedra Orosco, her sister and nephews, operated the largest shipments of mineral to the US: 14 tons in the last four years.

Other people in La Paz identified for its gold exportations in recent years are the Bolivian investor in Miami, Peter Lopez Salazar, of Auribol (who sent 10 tons to the US); Sthepani Rivera Herrera, whose track is very difficult to follow (7 tons of metal), and Jose Valdez Rubin de Celis, manager of Royal Gold (8 tons) and other company called World Precious Metal. All these companies were included by Bolivian Customs and regulatory authorities in the investigation to establish the origin of their assets (many of them shipped large quantities of metal just after they had created their companies) and to know the origin of the mineral sent abroad since 2012.

Some minutes before dawn, a convoy unloads smuggled goods at a trade sale of gold near the border between Peru and Bolivia / Audrey Cordova R. (SPDA)

Colombia: From Goldex to Metalor

The illegality around gold mining covers all of South America, but in Colombia these links involve drug trafficking and the armed actions of the FARC. The Colombian government recognizes that 87% of metal production units operate outside the law and that this activity has displaced cocaine trafficking in some regions taken by the rebel group, such as Choco, Caqueta and Amazonas. This was confirmed by Oscar Amaya Navas, Attorney of Environmental Affairs, who told OjoPublico that 50% of illegal mining is associated with organized crime gangs.

The reports of the Colombian Customs, unknown until now, indicate that the exporting companies of this country sent more than 310 tons of gold between 2010 and 2014: 40% was received by Republic Metals Corporation and 20% by Metalor. Furthermore, it was established that Goldex -whose owner, John Hernandez Santa, was arrested this year for money laundering and financing terrorism-, was one of the largest suppliers of such corporations. This exporting company, investigated for laundering about one million dollars, sent more than 30 tons of metal to members of the London Bullion Market.

According to Colombian authorities, the metal sent by the Hernández Santa company was supplied by front companies in the regions of Cordoba, Chocó, Antioquia, Huila and Santander, or from ghosts intermediaries. The investigation also established that Goldex, as well as almost all gold exporters in Colombia, are not based in Bogota but in the strategic city of Medellin, capital of Antioquia and close to centers of gold production in that country.

A child plays in the native community Villa Azul, on the banks of the Caqueta River gold, a zone dominated by the FARC, in Colombia. / Audrey Cordova R. (SPDA)

Ecuador: Illegal gold and smuggling

In the case of Ecuador, the gold of its main mining provinces –Zamora Chinchipe (on the border with Peru), El Oro and Esmeraldas (on the northern border with Colombia), also end up in the US. The product that Republic Metals Corporation and NTR Metals (main recipients of the exportations of mineral from that country) receive, comes from these remote areas, where the mineral was exploited informally, in a polluting and rudimentary way for decades. 

After travelling to Ecuador and reviewing their reports of gold exportations between 2010 and 2014, OjoPublico knew that some commercial flights took off from Guayaquil with more than 70 tons of metal in those years. The shipments were made by more than 140 exporting companies -some of which were not registered for this activity- and were headed to the US (NTR Metals received 19 tons, and Republic Metals Corporation, 13 tons), Switzerland and Hong Kong (China), in the last two years.

Among the list of 140 exporters in that country, the economic group of the Ecuadorian Jorge Piedra Rengel stands out from the others. He is a geologist that appears as one of the largest suppliers of US companies, because of the shipments from Expobonanza, Expausa and Compañía Minera Mollopongo. This person is also the manager and shareholder of other 13 companies dedicated to the exploitation and exportation of minerals. Five of these companies have been dissolved already. Piedra Rengel also owns two other mining companies in Colombia: Torrebruma and Realmonte, based in Medellin.

Illegal mining in Ecuadorean Nambija mountains, near the Cordillera del Condor on the border with Peru / Audrey Cordova R. (SPDA)

Other exporting companies that should be considered because of the amount of gold that they manage are: Elipe, Expisum and Ecuador Goldxport, which were strangely dissolved after sending their loads of metal. These firms also shipped large quantities of gold, although they do not appear in the mining sector: property developer Capertone; entrepreneurs Eduardo Andrade Idrovo, owner of companies of dump trucks, and Genaro Mera Cardoso, trader of appliances and State supplier.

The reports of exportations obtained by OjoPublico indicate an unusual increase in gold shipments from Ecuador in 2012: that year around 10 tons left the country, the double of the annual average that is sent abroad; in 2013, the amount reached about 15 tons; and in 2014 shipments exceeded 30 tons. The contrast between the official reports of gold production and of the shipments abroad between 2010 and 2014 give an even more alarming picture: despite the mining reform initiated by the government of President Rafael Correa in 2009, to formalize the artisanal miners, only 30% of the gold produced in Ecuador in the last five years had a legal origin.

A revealing episode occurred on the night of last March 5th in the canton Arenillas in El Oro province, when Ecuador border police intervened two armored vehicles coming from the border with Peru. Inside the vehicles there were ten private security officers armed with pistols and rifles. The group was protecting a load of 90 gold ingots, valued at $2.5 million. When they had to identify themselves, the officers showed the waybill of the load, but could not prove the legality of their origin.

The police realized that it was an operation of gold smuggling from Peru, which destination was to be mixed with Ecuadorian metal and exported 'legally' through Guayaquil. The ingots that were confiscated that day are now at the Central Bank of Ecuador. Their carriers are in prison. But this is not the end: if something is known about the gold rush that devastates the Amazon is that it always finds new routes to reach its destination.


In recent days OjoPublico made contact with the London Bullion Market Association (Lbma) and the six foreign companies that were mentioned in the investigation. All of them confirmed reception of our query, except Italpreziosi, from Italy.

In the Lbma we made contact with two officials of Communications and Public Relations, but there was no answer.

Republic Metals Corporation, of the US, denied through his lawyer Alan Silverstein that they had been investigated in their country or abroad, and considered that it was "defamatory" to say that they bought gold of dubious origin. However, they did not identify any direct contact in Miami (where their refinery is located) or in Lima that we could interview to talk about the cases for gold confiscations and money laundering in which they are mentioned.

The group Kaloti, from the United Arab Emirates, through its Operations chief, Alvaro Rodriguez, asked for details of the questions that we had on the actions of the company in the purchase of illegal gold. We sent a short questionnaire, but until the deadline of this report, it has not being answered. MKS Finance, from Switzerland, also answered through a communications consultant, to indicate that they would communicate as soon as possible, but neither did they.

We wrote to Samer Barrage, Sales Vice President for Latin America and the Caribbean of NTR Metals, but the one who answered was the lawyer Jose Ugaz, whom we sent a questionnaire. There was no answer at the deadline either. Metalor, from Switzerland, also answered through Reto Steiner, Marketing and Sales director of the company. The high official said that he would send our consultations to the respective area of the company, but there was no answer.

General edition: David Hidalgo Vega. Design and development: Antonio Cucho Gamboa. Photography: Audrey Cordova Rampant (Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental, SPDA). English translation: Pierina Pighi Bel. Social networks: José Luis Huacles. Travel research was conducted as part of "Las rutas del oro", a transmedia project of SPDA, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and OjoPúblico.