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Ruby rush triggers gangland turf war in Mozambique

Illegal miners have flocked to Montepuez in search of fortune, spurring drug trafficking and armed attacks that have turned the region into Africa’s Wild West

By Susan Njanji and Adrien Barbier  /  AFP, MONTEPUEZ, Mozambique

Illegal miners dig in an area rich with gold and rubies on the outskirts of Montepuez, Mozambique, on Feb. 15.

Photo: AFP

The stakes are high in Montepuez, where the discovery of rubies has led to violence among miners that has turned the northern town into what some describe as Mozambique’s own version of the Wild West.

Discovery of the red gemstone in 2009 sparked a “ruby rush,” with thousands of miners arriving to seek their fortune, but often finding only grim conditions, conflict and danger.

“We have a lot of foreigners who come from a lot of countries to look for rubies,” Montepuez Hospital chief medical officer Tania Mabota told reporters.

“There’s conflict for territory, because it’s a means of subsistence for the artisanal miners,” she said. “One stone is enough for a person to be attacked.”

The rubies attract informal — also referred to as artisanal — miners from Mozambique, Tanzania, Nigeria and other nations, whose work is illegal, unlike legitimate companies.

A cohort of gem traffickers has also arrived to trade in the stones.

Treating a dozen cases of injuries each month and the occasional death, the hospital finds itself on the front line of a turf war between gangs of illegal miners.

“Miners are killing one another for the gems,” Montepuez district administrator Etelvina Fevereiro said.

“We have organized crime, armed attacks and trafficking of all kinds of drugs from cocaine to hashish,” Fevereiro said.

Police in February rounded up 3,672 illegal miners, more than two-thirds of them clandestine migrants.

“The operation is very important because of the levels of disorder and anarchy,” journalist and commentator Fernando Lima said. “The situation there is just like in a Wild West movie.”

The rush that has engulfed the remote region, 1,650km north of the capital, Maputo, started six years ago.

Rubies were discovered when a local woodcutter picked up a stone, which was passed on for expert analysis.

“Mozambique didn’t realize it was sitting on such an amazing resource,” said Pia Tonna, marketing and sales director for British firm Gemfields PLC, the biggest of several mining companies operating in the area.

Producing nearly 40 percent of rubies sold on the world market last year, Mozambique has become one of the world’s leading sources.

The African ruby is now seen as an alternative to the highly prized Myanmar ruby.

Gemfields said it is proud to be supplying rubies mined “responsibly” and “ethically” and to share its profits with locals.

“Bringing those rubies to the market on an international platform, realizing the true value of that product, is only going to help the country,” Tonna said. “It’s going to help the country as a whole, that means you get more schools, more infrastructure.”

However, some locals have said that they have enjoyed no benefits, believing instead that they were robbed of their livelihoods and claiming that they were violently removed from mining territory allocated to large operators.

Farmer Celestino dos Santos Jesus said that police killed his son three years ago when he was found digging for rubies in an area intended for official mining.

“He was 25 years old, he went to look for rubies,” he told reporters. “He was killed by the [police] rapid intervention force.”

He added he had been too afraid to report the death to authorities.

Contacted by reporters, the local prosecutor did not respond.

Between 2014 and 2015, the local prosecution service opened investigations into at least 10 cases of alleged killings or violence, Mozambican media have reported.

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