WikiLeaked

Inside the Zimbabwean diamond racket

The latest WikiLeaks document dump is decidedly Africa-centric, and among other things includes a sizeable stack of cables from the U.S. embassy in Harare, Zimbabwe. One of them, an account a diamond-smuggling operation involving several top government officials, would have a decent shot at be optioned in Hollywood. First, the background: Zimbabwe’s economy has more ...

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

The latest WikiLeaks document dump is decidedly Africa-centric, and among other things includes a sizeable stack of cables from the U.S. embassy in Harare, Zimbabwe. One of them, an account a diamond-smuggling operation involving several top government officials, would have a decent shot at be optioned in Hollywood.

First, the background: Zimbabwe’s economy has more or less vanished over the past decade, but the Mugabe regime does have one thing going for it: diamonds. In 2006, a huge diamond field called Marange was discovered in eastern Zimbabwe, prompting a mad dash for the riches. A British company called African Consolidated Resources, taking over a claim that had belonged to diamond giant DeBeers, opened large-scale mining operations, only to be forcibly evicted by Mugabe’s government, which took over the diamond field in 2007. The national mining company attempted to run things there for a little while, but eventually excavation was ceded to a small army of independent hand-panning prospectors, giving rise to a lawless, Wild West environment; the Zimbabwean military was reported to have gunned down illegal miners from helicopters in its efforts to gain control over the chaos.

The Marange diamond operation has been a stone in the shoe of the international community ever since. The Kimberley Process, the international gem-trade-governing body that certifies exporters in an effort to control the trade in blood diamonds, has accused the Zimbabwean government of committing various human rights abuses at the Marange mines, and eventually stopped certifying the diamonds mined there. Mugabe, in turn, has blasted the Kimberly Process as illegitimate, and continued to export diamonds without the group’s stamp of approval (he has found plenty of buyers in China and India). The whole affair has led to some soul-searching about the means the international community has chosen to regulate the diamond industry; an International Crisis Group report in November suggested it was time to “rethink” the Kimberley process, since the Zimbabwean trade had demonstrated so many gaping holes in it.

It was in this context that Andrew Cranswick, CEO of the recently ousted African Consolidated Resources, met with U.S. embassy officials in November 2008 to spill the dirt, so to speak, on who was cashing in on the diamond field — including many officials of the government that was nominally trying to bring the situation to heel. (At the time, Zimbabwean diamonds were still Kimberley-certified — but the Marange exports were being sold on the black market.) Cranswick is of course hardly a disinterested party here, so caveat emptor; “it is clear,” the cable — signed by U.S. Ambassador James McGee — notes, “that Cranswick is a businessman trying to find any pressure point he can through which to leverage his own claim. At the same time, he sheds light on an industry that is enriching many of the same old corrupt Zimbabwean elite — and causing violence and deaths that so far have received little attention.”

Indeed, the account of how the Zimbabwean diamond trade worked is pretty interesting reading. First there are the principals: Eleven Zimbabweans including Mugabe’s wife, prime minister, and minister of mines and mining development, plus the local governor. (The cable notes that the embassy’s own inquiry yielded a similar list of names.) Then there’s the pipeline: Once they were sold to “a mix of Belgians, Israelis, Lebanese (the largest contingent), Russians, and South Africans,” the low-grade diamonds were smuggled into Dubai and traded in an economic free-trade zone there, while gem-quality stones found their way to Belgium, Israel, or South Africa.

Back on the diamond field, meanwhile, things were slipping ever deeper into chaos, as prospectors from half a dozen other African countries flocked to Marange for a cut of the action, and efforts to control them “led to hundreds and possibly thousands of homicides.” This was known at the time, but still, the details here are engrossing:

In response to aggressive police action, diggers began arming themselves with handguns and in some cases automatic weapons. They also formed loose gangs in an attempt to protect themselves as well as “claimed” areas. Cranswick said that some members of the police and army have deserted in order to join the digging, and they typically brought their firearms with them. Some former police even still wear their uniforms as they search for diamonds.

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