Multi-billion$$$ gold smuggling racket blown wide open
– smugglers’ US visas revoked
In recent years, Guyana has been cashing in on high gold prices, with miners and investors taking the risks and plunging headlong into the industry. They borrowed heavily from the banks, used their life’s savings and even took heavy machinery on credit.
Things were looking good, with declarations reaching an all-time high in 2013 – over 481,000 ounces, and with gold earnings reaching an unprecedented US$716M that year.
However, as world prices plunged last year, gold exports contracted 20 percent, with only 387,508 ounces declared to the Guyana Gold Board by licensed traders. Export earnings fell to US$470M.
It was widely believed that scores of miners, disheartened by the price drop on the world market, pulled out, causing production to fall. However, there is emerging evidence that the huge drop is a direct result of a well organized smuggling racket that involved not only ordinary business persons but also licensed gold exporters. The racket also involves senior officials and key personnel at the country’s airports.
For this year alone, gold declarations have fallen behind 30 percent, when compared to the same period of 2014.
It was one of the major contributory factors that caused the economy to reflect a lower growth rate last year as gold was the biggest foreign currency earner, ahead of rice and sugar. It has fallen behind now.
According to a senior Government official involved in the investigation, the coalition administration was alerted to the situation by the US authorities, since the issue goes way beyond mere smuggling. It also involves money laundering.
This newspaper has since learnt that the US Embassy here in Georgetown has revoked the visas of a number of persons, including businessmen, licensed gold exporters, their workers and even members of their families.
As a matter of fact, the prevalence of gold smuggling has been likened to that of the lucrative drug trade in Guyana, the Government official said yesterday.
Both licensed and illegal gold traders are battling each other to take control of the trade.
The situation has gotten quite worse over the last two years. It is estimated that between 10,000-15,000 ounces of gold per week is being smuggled out via the Ogle and Cheddi Jagan International Airports. Some more is being taken overland to the border at Corentyne to Suriname and via Lethem to Brazil.
At the very least, it means that Guyana is losing out from revenues that can be earned from at least US$500M in gold sales.
It also means that the amount being smuggled annually is more than what is declared to official buyers like the Guyana Gold Board and the licensed traders.
With Guyana charging up to 7 percent of the value in royalties and taxes, places like Suriname and Brazil have become attractive markets because of the lucrative profits due to the lower taxes in those countries.
The gold racket has spread its tentacles as far as Belgium in Europe and the Middle East.
According to the official, Government and the Guyana Gold Board have called in the Special Organized Crime Unit (SOCU) to lead the investigations. And it is no wonder – the smuggling racket is highly organized. Small unlicensed traders have worked out a system using direct flights to JFK International Airport, New York. They would buy up to 100 or 200 ounces. With gold at a four-year low of just over US$1,100 per ounce, the money involved is not chicken feed.
Kaieteur News was told that Customs officers and other security personnel at the airports are tipped off when the traders are flying out, and would turn a blind eye to what is being taken out.
“The situation has become a wild west one. It is hurting the country. We are talking about saving here and saving there. The gold smuggling, simply put, is creating a big hole at the bottom of the pot. It is big money…millions of US dollars monthly. We are losing big time. And everybody is getting a cut of it,” the government source said.
Investigators have found that quite a number of the illegal gold traders are holders of US passports or “green cards” who would have seized the opportunity to make a quick buck. It is a fact that most of these traders know each other. They would line up at JFK to declare the gold after disembarking their flights.
With regards to the larger licensed traders, the smuggling is even more sophisticated, this newspaper was told.
Official Customs documents are reportedly recycled, with persons being paid off at the airports. Yesterday, Minister with responsibilities for Natural Resources, Raphael Trotman, admitted that a probe involving a number of agencies like the Guyana Gold Board and SOCU is underway.
“The smuggling of gold has been given priority because every ounce of gold smuggled, we are not getting royalties…we are being robbed.”
He said that the gold is being smuggled across the border at Brazil…it goes up to Europe, and of course gold is being smuggled to the US.
He declined to give details, but insisted that the gold smuggling issue is a priority for the administration.
Yesterday, General Manager of the Guyana Gold Board, Lisaveta Ramotar, also confirmed that an investigation is ongoing, but she declined to go into details. She made it clear that any gold leaving the country through CJIA has to be approved by the Guyana Gold Board. If there is no permission, she stressed, then it is leaving illegally.
“Every ounce of gold that leaves this country undeclared is of concern to us. It is revenues for the country. We feel strongly about this, but it is under investigation by SOCU.”