Capitalism in criminal mode

A gold mining operation next to a river in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park. Photo is from the Guardian.

By: Raúl Zibechi

In Latina America a criminal or mafia capitalism is expanding geometrically, in whose practices the differences between formality, informality and crime dissolve, as Peruvian researcher Francisco Durand maintains and how he has previously analyzed the Argentine Marcelo Colussi (

Each time we have more data and studies that evidence the modes in which this predatory and criminal capitalism operates that, evidently, is the form that the system assumes in this period. The Quehacer magazine, Number 10, from the Desco Center in Lima, highlights in its July edition that illegal gold mining exported no less than 3.9 billion dollars in 2020, exceeding that of drug trafficking (

In parallel, Bolivian Senator Rodrigo Paz points out that his country “is besieged by the gold, contraband and drug trafficking mafias,” which add up to the overwhelming figure of 7.5 billion dollars ( Drug trafficking contributes $2.5 billion a year, smuggling $2 billion and gold $3 billion. “The government, not being able to access external loans, lets these resources flow because they move the national economy,” he tweeted.

To get an idea of the importance of these figures, one must compare the $7.5 billion of illegal economies with the country’s total $9 billion exports. An incredible proportion that reveals the importance of mafia economies. Illegal gold has displaced drug trafficking in both countries, even though Peru is the world’s second largest producer of coca and cocaine in the world.

A soldier patrols La Pampa, an area in Peru that was once lush rainforest, Photo: Brett Gundlock for Nature.

Most significantly, however, is how the illegal gold circuit works until it becomes legal gold. In Peru alone, there are 250,000 informal or artisanal miners who live in terrible conditions, are extorted and violated by intermediaries, until they reach the collectors. Legal and illegal miners participate in the extraction and commercialization process, with a fine dividing line between the two, since often the same collector buys in both markets.

Processing plants usually have double accounting, to access both the legal and illegal mineral. Gold converted into bullion or jewelry leaves for the two most important final destinations: Switzerland and the United States. The former imports 70 percent of the world’s gold. Bolivia and Peru produce almost 30 percent of gold illegally, a portion that reaches 77 percent in Ecuador, 80 in Colombia and 91 in Venezuela, according to the book Non-formal Mining in Peru (

This book reproduces a fragment of the work of the Swiss criminologist Mark Pieth, who highlights the contrast between La Rinconada, in Puno, “at more than 5 thousand meters high and with temperatures of minus 22 degrees, where 60 thousand gold prospectors squeeze into a town that 25 years ago was home to only 25 families. “

In that village “an unbearable stench of urine and human feces” dominates and the living and working conditions are “horrendous.” This reality is contrasted with “the glamor of gold in Switzerland,” where the Swatch watch company “spends 50 million Swiss francs annually, just to present its new gold watches, and beautiful models present jewelry for the enjoyment of those who can afford them” (p. 73).

Mafia capitalism causes enormous environmental and social damages, such as pollution and deforestation, homicides and disappearances, rapes and femicides, perpetrated by the mafias. One of its consequences is human trafficking for various purposes: sexual and labor exploitation, sale of children and organ trafficking. In mafia capitalism, people are just another commodity that can be torn to pieces with total impunity by state complicity.

A gold mining operation. in the Peruvian Amazon. Photo: NBC News.

Finally, we would have to answer a question that allows us to complete the picture, one that researchers in general do not ask: what is the State that corresponds to this mafia capitalism, which destroys everything to accumulate more and more capital?

It is a state for war, for dispossession against those below. But it has a peculiarity that differentiates it from the dictatorships that devastated our region: it’s painted with democratic colors, it calls elections although there are fewer and fewer freedoms, since monopolies block freedom of information and expression. In short: a criminal-electoral State.

Those who pretend to be a government must know that they will administer a criminal and predatory capitalism, impossible to regulate. That’s why the progressive rulers continue with extractivism and large infrastructure works, and look the other way when the murders of social leaders take place.

Looking aside is a way of letting go, as Switzerland does when it imports gold bathed in blood and death. Asked why Switzerland continues to import this gold, Mark Pieth concludes: “They want to do trade, to make an island of pirates” (p. 74).

Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada, Friday, December 30, 2022, and Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee

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