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The Weekly | How Tainted Gold May Have Ended Up in Your Phone

Episode 12: ‘Apple’s Gold’

Producer/Director Brent McDonald

If you’re reading this on your phone, you may be holding illegally mined gold from Colombia, where the precious metal has replaced cocaine as the main source of income for organized crime. The growing demand for gold as a conductive metal used in phones and other electronic products has helped spawn a deadly illegal trade that’s harder to track than other black-market commodities like blood diamonds or drugs.

“The Weekly” travels to Colombia, where violent paramilitary groups have infiltrated every level of the supply chain, extorting prospectors, gold traders and some of the country’s top mining officials. Our correspondent Nicholas Casey traces gold tainted by criminal enterprises to see who profits, and who looks the other way. He discovers a route from illegal Colombian mines to the source that Apple and other major companies use to buy metals to make phones and other products many of us carry in our pockets every day.

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Nicholas Casey is the Andes bureau chief for The New York Times, covering most of the countries in South America, including Venezuela and Colombia. Before joining The Times in 2015, Nick was a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where he reported on drug cartels in Mexico and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the last Gaza war. In 2016, he won the George Polk Award with photographer Meridith Kohut for their coverage of Venezuela. Follow him on Twitter at @caseysjournal.

Brent McDonald is a senior video correspondent at The Times based in Mexico, where he focuses on coverage of Latin America. His work has been honored with National Murrow Awards, a World Press Photo award, a POYi Multimedia Photographer of the Year prize, and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Deadline Club Award. Follow him on Twitter at @docubrent.

Nicholas and Brent’s Top 3 Takeaways

In Apple’s most recent report on the materials it uses, the company says it “commits to use minerals in its products that do not directly or indirectly finance armed conflict or benefit armed groups.” In Colombia, we found evidence that Apple and other companies may get gold from suppliers that help finance armed groups. Apple also says it audits all of its 101 gold suppliers. But our reporting found those audits did not give a full picture of the supply chain.

Illegal gold is melted down and mixed with other gold at various points in the supply chain, masking its criminal origins. Like blood diamonds that finance warlords, this tainted gold helps fuel extortion, violence and even murder.

Gold is a profitable way for armed groups and international gold traders brokering illegal gold to launder money. In April, Colombian prosecutors charged executives of the country’s largest gold exporter, C.I.J. Gutierrez, with laundering $740 million worth of illegal gold. Most of that gold was exported to refiners in the United States — including companies that supply Apple and other major companies.

Show Notes

Behind-the-scenes commentary from our producer/director.

Slide 1 of 12 Image

We arrive at dawn in the small mining town of Puerto Lopez, Colombia, for the three-hour journey by mule into the mountains to meet Pedro Ramirez at his illegal gold mine. According to police records, Chilapo, as Ramirez is known, should be under house arrest for trafficking firearms, not running an unlicensed mining operation. 


Chilapo’s gold mine is in an area nearly 200 miles north of Medellín that is under the control of the violent National Liberation Army, known as the ELN, which makes much of its money from illegal gold.


Graffiti in the small mining town of Puerto Lopez marks the presence of the National Liberation Army, better known as the ELN, which has supplanted the FARC as Colombia’s largest guerrilla army. The ELN engages in extortion, kidnapping and car bombing, and receives much of its financing from the illegal gold trade.


Chilapo says his excavators can dig up about 20 pounds of gold a month, worth nearly $250,000 — but that’s before expenses that include thousands of dollars in extortion money paid to armed groups like the ELN and Clan del Golfo.


It’s a long, muddy slog to an illegal gold mine near El Bagre, Colombia. Mines that are accessible by boat or car are more likely to be raided by Colombian police and military forces, disrupting a primary source of revenue for guerrilla groups and drug traffickers.


A boy tends the water pump of an illegal gold mine near Puerto Lopez, where miners hose down the earth to separate gold from ore dug out by machines.


Small-time prospectors known as Baraqueros pan for gold flecks at an illegal mine in Colombia. They may find a few dollars’ worth of gold a day, while huge excavator machines can extract hundreds of dollars’ worth to satisfy the growing demand for precious metals used in consumer electronic products.


Dredge boats siphoning ore from the Nechi River in Colombia can transform a riverbank in mere weeks, as chemicals like mercury, a banned toxin commonly used to separate the ore, contaminate the water.


We visit a sprawling illegal gold mine that has leveled acres of rainforest and chewed away the earth. The mine owner directs men working the slough, where gold is separated from the raw ore with the use of water and chemicals, usually mercury. The owner told us she once had to jump into the river to avoid being attacked by criminal groups.



We sat down with Luis Alvarez, one of dozens of small-time gold buyers in El Bagre, Colombia. Alvarez pays a percentage of his monthly business to one or more armed groups, he said. He declined to name which groups, but the ELN and Clan del Golfo are known to control much of the area. 


A trader in El Bagre, Colombia, melts gold he bought from local miners into bars to sell to bigger traders. The gold will be mixed with other supplies and eventually wind up in the hands of an exporter in Medellín.


A small-time gold trader in El Bagre, Colombia, shows the gold bits he bought from local miners. He melts the gold down to remove impurities and then makes it into crude bars to sell to other traders and exporters.

Credit1/12Where Are They Now?ImageCredit“The Weekly”/The New York Times/FX/Hulu

Pedro Ramirez, known as Chilapo, remains at large from authorities who say he should be under house arrest for trafficking firearms. He moved the site of his illegal gold mine since we visited him near Puerto Lopez, Colombia, last December. The amount of money being made from illegal mining in the town appears as high as ever.

ImageCredit“The Weekly”/The New York Times/FX/Hulu

Luis Alvarez closed his gold shop, known as a compraventa, in El Bagre, Colombia, northeast of Medellín. He’s looking for another, safer line of work — ideally a job that won’t require paying a regular extortion fee.

ImageCredit“The Weekly”/The New York Times/FX/Hulu

Mauricio Sanchez and his family continue to receive death threats since they fled El Bagre after the murder of his friend, William Castillo. Sanchez and his family receive special protection through a government program for community leaders targeted by armed groups. He says the two bodyguards and armored vehicle he has are not enough.

ImageCreditJim Wilson/The New York Times

Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, met this year with President Iván Duque of Colombia to discuss, among other things, illegal mining. Apple continues to rely on a supply chain that includes gold from Colombia to make its products, but the company has said that it opened an internal investigation of the information presented by The Times.

[Watch the full episode of “The Weekly” on FX and streaming on Hulu.]

Complete Coverage

For more than 50 years, Colombia had been rocked by violent conflict among the government, left-wing rebels and violent paramilitary groups that financed their war through the illegal drug trade.

Though the largest guerilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as the FARC, agreed to a disarmament and peace deal nearly three years ago, other violent groups have stepped up to take over criminal enterprises.

And the peace deal that inspired so much hope appears difficult to implement: many of the rebels who put down their arms have resumed fighting, and the promise of security and stability has been upended by persistent violence.

The Colombian army has redoubled its efforts to confront the criminal, guerrilla and paramilitary groups, raising the specter of familiar human rights abuses.

Senior Story Editors Dan Barry, Liz O. Baylen, and Liz Day
Colombia Producer Yerlin Pineda
Producer Lizzie Blenk
Directors of Photography Victor Tadashi Suarez and Vanessa Carr
Video Editor David Herr
Associate Producer Lora Moftah


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