These idyllic Caribbean islands are trading illegal Venezuelan gold. Can it be stopped?
12 Aug 2019

It was a typically hot Saturday afternoon in Aruba when Rafael González Zambrano thought he had completed a routine operation, one he had been doing for about seven years already.

After declaring the goods he was carrying, the Venezuelan-born man with a Dutch passport was escorted to his plane by officials from the local customs agency. He was taking a KLM flight to Schiphol airport in Amsterdam and then on to Dubai.

Zambrano is a gold carrier for Paoro Armored Transport, which makes about $1,500 for each trip delivering precious metal to international clients.

But this time things went wrong. He was just settling into his business-class seat, when a team of Netherlands criminal investigators, the RST, rushed into the cabin, detained him and seized the 110 pounds (50 kilos) of gold he was carrying.

Paoro Armored Transport is a small player in an international network of jewelers, banks, transporters, and smelters who are sometimes indirectly financing human rights violations, fueling armed groups and supporting corrupt Venezuelan government officials by facilitating their gold sales.

In addition to Zambrano, the director of Paoro Armored Transport was also arrested in what has become a test case for authorities trying to understand the scope of an international network trading in minerals that fuel conflict.

“Our neighboring country” — this is how Netherlands’ Foreign Minister Stef Blok refers to Venezuela. Although thousands of miles of ocean separate Europe and Latin America, Aruba and Curaçao, constituent countries of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, are less than 50 away from the South American country.

And the financial health of the small islands depends in large part on Venezuela — and especially its oil — as big refineries on the resource-poor islands are the motors of the economy. The islands were hit hard, therefore, by the collapse of the oil sector in Venezuela, which laid bare a lack of alternate industries.

The absence of gold deposits made the Dutch Caribbean unpopular with European colonists centuries ago, but more than 500 years later, the islands have become a hub for the multibillion-dollar gold trade.

And much of that trade depends on the illegal gold coming out of Venezuela.

By Bram Ebus, McClatchy, 23 July 2019

Read more at McClatchy

Photo: dronepicr [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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