The Blood Rubies of Montepuez
Some 40 percent of the world’s rubies lie in one mining concession in Mozambique, where a troubling pattern of violence and death contradicts the claim of “responsibly sourced.”
Just as America’s 19th-century gold rush attracted prospectors from near and far, Mozambique’s ruby rush has led to an influx of impoverished artisanal miners, unlicensed buyers, smugglers, shady middlemen, and gangs of thieves — all looking to extract wealth from the rich red soil. To protect the massive concession from encroachment by artisanal miners, MRM initially relied upon two government security organizations — the regionally controlled Protection Police, backed up by the nation’s elite military corps, the Rapid Intervention Force (FIR).
Additionally, MRM has about 109 of its own internal security staff patrolling the site to safeguard the company’s property, and it has hired Arkhe Risk Solutions, the local subsidiary of South African firm Omega Risk Solutions, which has deep experience in protective services for extractive industries, as a private security force. Arkhe Risk Solutions employs approximately 470 security officers assigned to MRM, whose job it is to guard the concession, arrest miners digging illegally, and hand them over to local police. Gemfields said its own staff are unarmed and that Arkhe forces have just 12 shotguns supplied with rubber bullets and two pistols, meaning that roughly 3 percent of its forces have weapons.
The government and company securities work closely together. Under the terms of its license, MRM provides basic logistical assistance to government forces, including helping to accommodate them, Gemfields said in a written statement. While government forces have a specific mandate to safeguard the ruby deposits for Mozambique on and off its concession, MRM does not direct them nor do they answer to the company, Gemfields said.
As violence mounted in Montepuez, the government last year replaced FIR with the Natural Resources and Environment Protection Force, a police usually assigned to protect state-owned lands from wildlife poachers and illegal loggers.
What has struck fear into the Montepuez community though is a shadowy gang of thugs known locally as the “Nacatanas,” Portuguese for the machetes they carry. These plainclothes men operate on MRM concession areas, charging into artisanal mining areas wielding heavy sticks and machetes, beating the miners and chasing them into the bush, according to eyewitnesses, local residents, and unlicensed miners. Their command structure is unclear. Gemfields said it neither employs nor sponsors any force carrying machetes. But their presence at the mining concession is unmistakable. This reporter observed them living in company housing along with government forces on MRM property and saw them clearing out an artisanal mine in full view of an MRM security officer. Interviews with miners, local police, prosecutors, and community leaders confirmed that the Nacatanas operate with seeming impunity to rid the MRM concession of these small-scale miners. A video produced by the Gemological Institute of America showed shots fired amid confrontations between machete- and baton-wielding men at the hand-dug pits, with one man in a black T-shirt, emblazoned with the word “Security,” chasing miners off the MRM concession.
“Sometimes the security guards come and only grab our goods, including money and cell phones. Sometimes we have to hide in the bush. But when they come with their bosses, white people, we are always beaten and sometimes shot,” said an artisanal miner, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions. Other miners made similar statements.
MRM referred all questions to its parent company. Gemfields said it is investigating why there was shooting in the GIA video. While it said it is aware of the term Nacatanas, Gemfields understands the term is used to describe aggressive gangs associated with different groups of artisanal miners working the ruby deposits, not only those on the MRM concession. But it strongly denied they work on behalf of the company.
“The allegation that MRM, or any of its contractors, are sponsoring informal security forces armed with machetes called ‘Nacatanas’ is not only categorically false — it is preposterous and deeply offensive,” Gemfields said in a written statement.
Given the sprawling size of the MRM concession and the density of the bush, it is easy for the artisanal miners, known in Portuguese as garimpeiros, to work without being spotted. But the garimpeiros must dig deep to find rubies, leaving them vulnerable at the bottom of deep hand-hewn pits and in narrow tunnels when they are discovered.
Nacatanas aren’t the only ones to attack them; so too do uniformed government forces, according to eyewitness accounts and court records. Ordinarily, when security forces come across these artisanal mines, they force the garimpeiros out of the pits, sometimes using bulldozers to fill the mineshafts afterward. But, according to witnesses, garimpeiros have been assaulted, abused, and even killed during expulsion operations.
“My son Antonio Geronimo was fatally shot by the men of FIR in Ncoloto-Namanhumbir,” Geronimo Potia said, referring to a mining area within the MRM concession in Cabo Delgado. “He died on the way to the rural hospital.”
Antonio’s father said that no one from MRM or the police helped his son after he’d been shot in April last year. A group of Tanzanian and Somali prospectors pooled their money to take him to the hospital and pay for medical care and transportation. When Antonio died en route, they tied his body to a motorbike and took him home for burial.
Manuel Artur, an 18-year-old miner, met a similar fate. His father, Artur Pacore, said some of his fellow miners had seen an FIR officer shoot Manuel in the abdomen. “He crawled about a hundred meters but did not survive. He died on the way to Namanhumbir hospital,” Pacore said.
Jorge Mamudo, another artisanal miner, said an FIR agent shot at his right foot in the MRM mining area of Ncoloto on July 7, 2014. “When the FIR men arrived, I was in a pit,” Mamudo said. “They told us to come out from the pit. It took me about five minutes, and when I got out, an FIR member shot directly at my foot and went away. Some Somalis and Tanzanians helped me” get to the hospital, he said.
FIR did not respond to requests for an interview. Gemfields said the government replaced FIR on April 22, 2015, with the natural resources police, which has 35 personnel, mandated to protect Mozambique’s natural wealth, operating on or around the MRM license.
Miners say they are often unwilling to come out of the pits for fear of being shot or beaten by the security forces or forced to turn over any rubies they have found. The consequences can be disastrous.
Abdul, an artisanal miner from a village near the Montepuez concession, said he was there when his cousin was buried alive by what he said was an MRM bulldozer. Abdul, who asked to be referred to only by his first name, said he had been prospecting in the region for seven years. Then, in August 2015, tragedy struck. “Three of us were inside a 3- to 4-meter hole, digging. Two of us left to hide rubies in the bush, around 100 meters away from the pit, leaving my cousin behind. When we got back, we saw the bulldozer fill in the hole. My cousin was still inside.”
Gemfields said it would check its records to see whether Abdul’s cousin was buried in the collapse of a mine he had dug and added, in written response to questions: “The inference that MRM buries illegal miners alive by driving its digging machines over their excavations while they are in them is both libellous and unfounded.”
While its policy is to shut down and fill the artisanal mines on the MRM concession, Gemfields said it follows a stringent process to ensure that no MRM machine has ever killed a miner digging illegally, whether by accident or intentionally.
Local authorities claim there is no way of checking if miners are trapped down below. “The dimensions of the tunnels are deep and long, so we cannot affirm whether any deaths occurred,” said Arcanjo Cassia, the Montepuez district administrator. A committee is investigating the underground deaths to determine whether they are caused by tunnels collapsing or by machines that drive over and fill the artisanal mines, he said.
Mining executives in London have been put on notice about mounting violence and security problems at their MRM subsidiary. In a July 2015 report prepared for Gemfields, the firm SRK Consulting wrote that “conflict with illegal miners” constitutes one of “the most significant risks at MRM … related to social issues.”
The rising number of garimpeiros in and around the concession has led to a spike in violence generally. Between December 2013 and December 2014, the district registered its largest upsurge in crime ever, with an average of one assault per day, according to Cassia. Fifteen fatal shootings occurred over the same period, including six murders in broad daylight between June and August 2014. Figures for 2015 were not yet available.
Pompilio Xavier Wazamguia, Montepuez’s attorney general, attributes much of the crime to building tensions between armed security forces charged with protecting the ruby deposits and unlicensed miners prospecting for gems. “Our forces are the ones using weapons, not the miners,” the attorney general said in an interview. “Some security force members were tried and convicted.”
His office processed more than 10 murder cases against police officers between January 2013 and January 2015, plus 35 to 40 cases involving armed robberies allegedly by police officers stealing from locals and miners, according to the attorney general. In another case, two policemen were convicted of severing a resident’s arm, he said.
The surge in crime has led to a severe backlog with some 950 cases pending in the Montepuez district court and in the provincial court in Pemba. Tracking these cases is extremely difficult in a remote part of the country where records are kept in paper files and courts are not computerized, making it hard to determine the extent to which private or government forces tasked with securing the Montepuez ruby concession were responsible for the reported deaths and assaults. Of the nine trials and convictions of security forces implicated in attacks and murders of miners in the ruby mining region since 2012, government forces are implicated in six to date.
Gemfields said it was aware of the FIR shooting and killing of two miners digging illegally, one Mozambican and one Tanzanian, on the MRM concession area. Two Arkhe security guards also have been accused of violence including one killing, a Gemfields spokesman said.
Arkhe security guard Severiano Francisco was charged in the shooting death of Calisto Carlos during a confrontation on July 6, 2012, with some 300 miners digging illegally at the MRM concession. The provincial court judge in Pemba. Dr. Essimela Momade, ruled in 2013 that the evidence in the case was inconclusive and has released Severiano on personal recognizance. The Montepuez attorney general, whose office compiled the evidence, said he was investigating what happened.
Gemfields pledged to investigate any other incidents.
Many of the worst cases involving artisanal miners remain uninvestigated. According to garimpeiros interviewed for this article, members of the Nacatanas have infiltrated the ranks of miners to discover new veins of the precious stone. When rubies are found, the miners are forcibly removed, sometimes with fatal consequences, but some of the attacks and killings are never officially reported for fear of retaliation, said Wazamguia, the Montepuez attorney general.
Gemfields’s denial that Nacatanas are employed or sponsored by MRM is contradicted by the Montepuez attorney general, local officials, miners, and even company security personnel who spoke to this reporter on the condition they remain anonymous for fear of their safety.