How a ‘Gold Mafia’ is looting Southern Africa, washing dirty cash

An investigation by Al Jazeera has revealed some of Southern Africa’s largest gold-smuggling operations, exposing how these gangs help criminals around the world launder billions of dollars while aiding governments in circumventing international sanctions.

Gold Mafia, a four-part series by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit (I-Unit) based on dozens of undercover operations spanning three continents, and thousands of documents, also shows how government officials and businesspeople are profiting off the illegal movement of gold across borders.The investigation reveals how billions of dollars’ worth of gold is smuggled every month from Zimbabwe to Dubai, allowing criminals to whitewash dirty money through a web of shell companies, fake invoices and paid-off officials.

The investigation also shows how Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government is systematically using gold smugglers to get around the chokehold of Western sanctions imposed on the country. The money laundering and gold-smuggling schemes involve one of Zimbabwe’s most influential diplomats, and go all the way up to the president and his circle.

The smugglers include millionaires, one of whom was accused of almost bankrupting Kenya through a similar, corrupt scheme also involving gold.Gold smuggling, money laundering
Posing as criminals from China looking to launder over $100mn, Al Jazeera’s undercover reporters managed to gain access to these smugglers and gangs.

Zimbabwe is a key player in these operations. Gold accounts for almost half — over $2bn — of the country’s exports. But the nation faces a strict international sanctions regime, and even though its gold trade is not in itself banned by the West, the broader strictures against Zimbabwe make it harder to export the precious metal through official channels.

However, using a web of companies and patronage from some of Zimbabwe’s most powerful individuals, smugglers have turned those constraints on trade into an opportunity to launder billions of dollars and help the government in Harare get around some of the consequences of sanctions.

The process is as simple as it is cunning: Criminals from around the world with large volumes of unaccounted cash can give that money to the Zimbabwe government, directly or through smugglers. The Zimbabwe government desperately needs US dollars since the county’s own currency has little international value following years of hyperinflation.

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