The Gilded Age
Which makes the true man kill’d and saves the thief;
Nay, sometimes hangs both thief and true man: what
Can it not do and undo?
—William Shakespeare, Cymbeline
The baby was due at Christmas. It would be her first child. At the stylish ranch house she shared with her husband in the Miami suburbs, on a weekend day in November 2012, guests kept arriving amid explosions of Spanish. Te ves hermosa! How beautiful she looked, they said, as they kissed her on the cheek.
Everyone knew that Iska and her husband, Sam Barrage, did parties well. She must have spent weeks planning the shower. A chef made crepes and a bartender poured mimosas on the terrace by the pool, underneath the palms. Among the visitors were two of Iska and Sam’s closest friends: a married couple, Renato and Miriam Rodriguez. In a way, they were honored guests. Renato, who’d helped Sam put together the baby’s crib, would soon be named godfather.
The Rodriguezes hadn’t been at the house very long when Sam pulled Renato aside. It was time, he said. The two of them had to leave, right away. Renato knew why.
The two men worked together out of a small office in Doral, Florida, in a building under the glide path of Miami International Airport. Sam was Renato’s boss; Renato was Sam’s trusted second-in-command. They had unusual jobs: find, buy, and import gold—as much gold as they possibly could—from Central and South America. Their office was an outpost of a company based in Texas, and they were new to the precious metals business. Renato had been on the job for almost exactly one year, Sam for a bit longer.
Their fortunes were about to take a dramatic turn. In mineral-rich Peru, they had found a new supplier who appeared to have access to some kind of Andean mother lode. The supplier’s first shipment was arriving the Monday after the baby shower. Accustomed to handling gold from pawnshops and jewelry wholesalers—10, 20, 40 kilograms at most in a given transaction—Sam and Renato now had coming to them 120 kilograms of freshly mined gold. It was a huge score for the two friends. The price of gold stood at $1,715 per troy ounce, not far from an all-time high. They’d done the math. The shipment from Peru was worth $6.6 million.
They kissed their wives goodbye. In Renato’s Ford SUV they drove off, leaving some awkwardness in their wake. According to guests at the shower, Iska was “unhappy” and “not thrilled” that Sam left. Then again, Iska understood that her husband’s job was the reason they had what they did.
Renato and Sam were headed to their office, but first they had to go shopping. At the Harbor Freight hardware store on U.S. 1, they spent $395.89 on a heavy-duty stand-up drill press. They loaded the machine into the SUV and drove it to Doral. Their office amounted to a few bland rooms and a garage with a loading dock. An electrician was waiting for them. This was the only day he was available to install the drill so that it would be ready in time for the arrival of the Peruvian gold.
That Monday, an armored truck delivered four small wooden crates, each the size of a boot box. With the claw of a hammer and a small crowbar, Sam and Renato pried open one of the lids. They stared down, spellbound. Glowing there inside the crate, sending its aureate light up into the men’s faces, was the gold. It took the form of doré bars. Rough, unpolished, unrefined—doré is recently mined metal that has been melted down, sometimes right at the mining site, and molded into crude bricks of irregular size and shape. Unlike the smooth, spotless bullion found in bank vaults and heist movies, doré is coarse, pocked, scaly. It’s like something discovered in the belly of a galleon after 500 years at the bottom of the sea.
Renato picked up one of the bars. The heft surprised him. He turned it over in his hands. Alone it was worth “about $200K,” he recalled much later, in one of the many emails he sent to me from his cellblock in federal prison. “I was in awe of it.”
The friends transferred the bars into the garage, where the electrician had set up the drill. Before paying the Peruvian supplier in full, they needed to make sure they weren’t getting scammed. This was how the gold business worked: Upon receiving a shipment, they took samples and assayed the purity. Normally, they melted gold in a small crucible and extracted samples from the burbling magma, but the sheer quantity of doré in the crates required heavy equipment.
Renato and Sam took turns placing the bars under the drill. The bit sunk into the soft metal “like frozen butter,” Renato recalled. They drilled holes into each bar in an X pattern, from one corner to the other, then flipped the doré over and did the same thing on the other side. This produced a pile of gold flakes that were submitted to the scrutiny of a tabletop X-ray machine. Sample after sample, the machine showed levels of 95 to 98 percent Au. Almost pure gold.
Satisfied, Renato and Sam packed the bricks into reinforced containers made for transporting precious metals, locked the lids shut, and watched as the armored truck carried the gold away. It was bound for a refinery in Ohio, owned by the company they worked for. There the doré would be melted down in cauldrons with gold from other sources, sent through a series of pipes and vats and chemical solutions, and refined into lustrous bars that were 99.99 percent pure—“four nines,” as they say in the business. Those would be sold to a roster of buyers, chiefly banks, which in turn would sell them to other buyers, dispersing the gold into a complex network of commodities exchanges and futures clearinghouses and bullion depositories, along with the ledgers of hedge funds and mutual funds and the central banks of many nations.
Out of a low-slung, nondescript office in Doral, Sam and Renato had effectively baptized the Peruvian substance into the global financial system. That same day, they wired payment to the supplier, whose company was registered with Peru’s tax authority under an unusual name: Minerales la Mano de Dios. The Hand of God.
There was a catch. (There’s always a catch.)
A few weeks prior to the shipment’s arrival, when Mano de Dios first offered to sell them gold, Sam and Renato learned the identity of the person behind the company. Linked to narcotics trafficking, he’d done time in prison. He was someone Sam and Renato had been told they shouldn’t do business with, ever. His name was Pedro David Pérez Miranda, but they also knew him by the anglicized alias that had already appeared in thousands upon thousands of pages of investigative documents generated over the years by the Peruvian government. It was the pseudonym by which everyone he knew knew him.
Who was Pedro Pérez Miranda? No one, really. He was Peter Ferrari.
Criminal or not, Ferrari had access to a lot of gold. According to Renato, he and Sam rationalized: What people don’t know won’t hurt them. If a tree falls and no one’s around, does it really make a sound? They were just doing the job they were hired to do, growing the business. Rumors about narco-trafficking were just that—rumors. If they didn’t buy Ferrari’s gold, someone else would. They stood to make a lot of money, and to make sure their families never had any financial worries. Who throws away a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? Surely they could mitigate any risks.
So they decided to lie. The friends assembled the materials needed for their employer to approve a supplier, making double, triple sure a certain name did not appear anywhere in the file. The listed owner of Mano de Dios was a testaferro (figurehead) named Miguel Ángel Martínez Napuri. For good measure, Renato wrote up a short report saying that he had met with Napuri and spoken with him about “business”—a complete fiction. They emailed the materials to their company’s compliance director, Steve Crogan, for approval on November 6, 2012.
Crogan replied by email two days later. “How could we possibly find anything wrong with a company by this name,” he cracked. “If we denied, we’d be dodging lightning bolts from above! On a serious note, all appears in order.”
Renato recalled what happened next: “We rolled with it!” He added, “At this point we did not know, or at least I did not know, where [Ferrari] was getting his gold from.”
If only it were so simple.
Renato and Sam were hard at work, getting their hands dirty in the garden of cultivated ignorance. What they didn’t know—or didn’t want to know—was that the place Mano de Dios’s gold came from had been transformed into a hell on earth.
In 1511, the king of Spain gave his New World explorers an order: Get gold, humanely if possible, but at all costs get gold. Humanely was not how it happened.
When gold was discovered on Hispaniola, the native population was forced into serfdom to mine it. Within a few decades, the Taino people had been almost completely “exterminated in the gold mines, in the deadly task of sifting auriferous sands with their bodies half submerged in water,” writes Eduardo Galeano in his seminal book Open Veins of Latin America. Rather than carry on, some of the enslaved people killed their children and then themselves. Francisco Pizarro’s men entered the Temple of the Sun in Cuzco, the Incan capital in modern-day Peru, and melted down breathtaking works of high-karat art because bars were easier to stack and transport back to Spain. Hernán Cortés did the same after he captured the Aztec treasure house. “They crave gold like hungry swine,” one Aztec observer said of European invaders. A conquistador named Hernán de Quesada, whose brother founded Bogotá almost incidentally while searching for El Dorado, also set off in search of the mythical golden city, taking 6,000 captured natives into the jungles and mountains of what is now Colombia. None survived.
Gold wasn’t the only metal the Spanish wanted. In Quechua, the language of the Inca, the mountain was called Sumaj Orko, “beautiful hill”—a perfectly shaped conical peak made almost entirely of silver that sits in present-day Bolivia. In 1573, colonists began conscripting indigenous people to toil in the mountain’s shafts, working under a form of forced labor known as the mita system. “It was common to bring them out dead or with broken heads and legs,” wrote a contemporary observer. The biggest boomtown in world history, Potosí, grew at the foot of Sumaj Orko; its population at one point rivaled Paris’s. Up to eight million people, many of them children, are estimated to have died working in Potosí’s mines.
Spain was merely a middleman for all the blood metal. The crown used its colonial spoils to pay off the massive debts it had accumulated in Europe’s banking houses. Gold and other precious metals financed the late Renaissance and, next, the industrial revolution.
The pillaging continued, bringing with it other forms of cruelty. In the 18th century, the miners who came to the Minas Gerais region of Brazil during a gold rush were also slave traders; they preferred buying their human beings from the West African slave port of Ouidah, because the people sold there were said to possess magical powers for divining the richest sources of gold. In 1886, after gold was discovered in Tierra del Fuego, a European engineer orchestrated a genocide there, exterminating the Selk’nam people, hunter-gatherers who had lived in the region for millennia. In the 20th century, General Augusto Pinochet abolished the rights of mine workers in Chile’s lucrative high-desert gold and copper pits. Vladimiro Montesinos, Peru’s murderous spy chief, allegedly took bribes from multinational mining corporations to help them secure control of Yanacocha, which in the 1990s was the world’s most productive gold mine.
By then a new kind of colonist had emerged in Peru. On foot, they came down from the Altiplano, from some of the poorest places on earth, migrating to low-lying rainforests where they’d heard gold was in the ground. They hoped that the tools and skills their forebears had used since time immemorial—shovels, portable sluice boxes—would help them find wealth.
They came to a remote department in the country’s southeast called Madre de Dios—Mother of God—that was covered almost entirely with dense jungle. In time, the new colonists earned enough money to rent heavy equipment. They could dig faster. There were no laws to stop them; squatter’s rights ruled. You took what you wanted. The miners began tearing down forests, clearing the way to search for the glittering flakes that could change a man’s life forever. Or end it.
There once was a sawyer who lived in the rainforest. His name was Alfredo Vracko Neuenschwander, but everyone called him Don Alfredo. He grew up in Madre de Dios. His father, also a logger, was an immigrant from Slovenia, but Don Alfredo treated the forest like he was a native. He took from it only what he and his family—a wife, a daughter, and two sons—needed to survive.
Don Alfredo was tall and slim, and he wore black horn-rimmed glasses that made him look like an Apollo mission engineer. His timber concession, which he obtained in 1975, was located in a part of Madre de Dios called La Pampa. To the west was the high sierra. To the east was the jungle, vaporous and immense. Don Alfredo and his family lived in a small compound—a house and a handful of outbuildings—in a one-hectare clearing he’d hacked out of the jungle. The roofs were thatch. There was no electricity. He’d built everything himself out of the wood—achihua, pashaco, copal, tornillo—found on the roughly 6,000 acres of his concession. His sawmill consisted of wooden poles propping up a metal roof over a large circular saw and an ancient planer manufactured by the American Saw Mill Machinery Co., in Hackettstown, New Jersey. Nearby was an orchard of yucca, papaya, banana, and cupuaçu, a football-shaped fruit with meat prized for its pear-like taste. Fat boas slid under the fruit trees. Flocks of oropendola birds shrieked in the canopy alongside howler monkeys.
For the better part of a decade, starting in 2007, Don Alfredo tried to save his land and the rest of La Pampa from informal gold mining. It was then, and remains today, an industry of wildcatters: people who don’t pay taxes, who don’t bother to seek government licenses or perform environmental-impact studies, who just start digging. Informal mining accounts for as much as 20 percent of the world’s newly extracted gold. In other words, up to one-fifth of the global gold business, worth more than $30 billion a year, according to some estimates, is a black market. And like all black markets, the illegal gold trade is vulnerable to the whole range of organized iniquity: bribery, human trafficking, money laundering, murder for hire, terrorism. The South American gold business is particularly fraught with these dangers, the Peruvian one perhaps most of all. It’s the kind of place, in the words of one industry participant, “where you can do everything right and still get in trouble.”
No one knew the ugly side of Madre de Dios better than Don Alfredo. On a sunny November day in 2015, he waited for the authorities to arrive. At his behest, they’d scheduled an interdiction—the Peruvian National Police would go into the jungle, find a mining site that Don Alfredo had recently reported, chase off or arrest the miners, and destroy their equipment with explosives.
Afternoon turned into evening. The police were delayed. The setting sun flared off the nearby Guacamayo, a stream that runs into the Rio Inambari, which flows into the Rio Madre de Dios (from which the region takes its name), which runs into the Beni, which joins the Mamore, which feeds into the Madeira—a tributary, at last, of the Amazon. Don Alfredo stood on the balcony of his home, listening for the sounds of arrival: the motors of police vehicles turning into his driveway off the Interoceanic Highway, which stretched from Rio de Janeiro to Peru’s Pacific coast. Completed a few years prior, the highway had transformed a series of rude dirt tracks and ancient footpaths into a modern thoroughfare navigable by trucks and heavy equipment, easing the way for miners to infiltrate ever more deeply into Madre de Dios.
Don Alfredo almost certainly would have heard the motorcycles approach, their rumble fainter than the phalanx of police vehicles he’d expected. The two bikes appeared on his property, carrying four riders. The men stopped in the driveway and dismounted. They were carrying guns and wearing black balaclavas.
Don Alfredo opened his mouth to scream.
Renato Rodriguez gave Sam Barrage his first job. It was 1999, and Renato was working in the loan industry in Miami. A transplant from the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, he’d started out at Florida Title Loans, a company that lent money to people willing to put up their cars as collateral. If you missed a payment, you lost the title. Renato was basically a repo man, and he didn’t like it. He would come home from work and tell his wife, Miriam, “I tried so hard to talk this guy out of doing the loan. But what can I do? He was hell-bent.”
So Renato had quit that job and taken one with a company called Beneficial Finance, another lender of last resort. Its interest rates were high—25 percent—but at least it didn’t repossess cars. Renato thrived. Six feet tall, strong but getting thick in the middle, he had a kind face and a teddy bear vibe. He was good with people. He rose through the ranks to branch manager, then district manager.
He’d initially gotten into loans because he hoped to save money to open his own business. It had been his dream to own a restaurant ever since he made pies as a teenager at a pizza joint in New York, where he was raised by hard-working Ecuadoran immigrants; they’d held the same jobs—laundryman and cleaner, respectively—at a Brooklyn hospital for 40 years. But the more Renato earned at Beneficial Finance, the more his restaurant fantasy faded. “Things were going really, really well,” Miriam recalled. Eventually the couple had twin daughters, and Renato’s income meant that Miriam could focus on raising them. “We could take Disney trips with the girls. We’d go up to New York to visit,” she said. “We were living comfortably.”
When Samer Hadi Barrage came in for his job interview at Beneficial Finance, Renato was impressed. Sam had cosmopolitan charm—he’d grown up in London, the son of aristocratic Lebanese parents. His father was a high-powered banker and sent his sons to Stowe, a boarding school on a former ducal estate in Buckinghamshire. Sam’s path to university and then to some posh profession in a world capital seemed all but assured until his parents divorced. When his mother remarried, it was to an American physician, and she and her sons moved to the doctor’s hometown in, of all places, Macon, Georgia. Sam went to Mercer University and had just graduated when he interviewed with Renato. (Sam declined to comment for this story.)
They were from different worlds, but Renato and Sam hit it off. They were a distinctive pair: the Brooklyn kid, the London swell. They hung out, played golf, went to ball games; they hawked high-interest loans. Over the years, their families grew close. Sam married and had a son. Then a strikingly beautiful woman came to work at Beneficial. Her name was Iska. Sam got divorced and married her. They all hawked loans.
In time, the multinational bank HSBC swallowed up Beneficial Finance, and the friends’ roles in the business evolved. Instead of lending $2,500 at 25 percent, they sold customers second mortgages. “Then first mortgages. Then subprime mortgages. Then subprime mortgages with just stated incomes,” a former coworker said. “People were using their house like a piggy bank. At the time, everybody thought it was going to go on forever.” It didn’t, of course. In 2007, the financial crisis swept the world. A year later, the friends were looking for work.
After a stint selling cell phone contracts for T-Mobile, Renato landed a job as a branch manager at Wells Fargo—while representatives of the company were engaged in vast account fraud that wouldn’t come to light for several more years. Sure enough, according to Renato, his bosses pressured him to “do unethical sales.” (He told me he refused.) It was another port of call in what was becoming a career-long voyage through the squalor of American finance.
Renato wanted out of Wells Fargo. He knew that Sam had found an interesting gig in the gold business. He begged his friend to hire him, to rescue him from the muck. In November 2011, they were reunited. This time, though, Sam was the boss.
A month after he was hired, Renato’s new employer, NTR Metals, flew him to Dallas for the company’s infamous Christmas bash. Held at the Omni Hotel, the party had a casino theme, with felt tables where employees won chips they could cash in for expensive prizes. The bar and its top shelf were open. At the center of the festivities were two brothers, Steve and John Loftus.
The Loftuses had got their start in low-income residential real estate—“Maybe a step up from slumlord? Maybe a half-step?” one former employee said—and then spun their profits into a closely held empire of gold. In 2003, they launched an industrial recycling business focused on decommissioned jet engines, which could be stripped for the surprisingly large quantities of precious metals woven into their guts. With hand tools, the Loftuses tore the engines apart themselves. Soon they had a company that bought items from pawnshops and jewelry stores at a discount, melted them down, and resold the amalgamated metal at a higher price.
The brothers sold most of their gold to Metalor, a major refining company, but the Loftuses held on to some of what they bought. They were making a bet, and that bet was that the price of gold would rise. In January 2003, gold cost $342.20 a troy ounce. The Loftuses doubled down, amassing their long position. They got richer. By 2010, they’d expanded their business into a nationwide chain of storefronts, which they called NTR, for North Texas Refinery. Each store bought scrap gold locally and sent it to the Dallas headquarters. Two years later, the price of a troy ounce was at $1,600, which meant the Loftuses’ initial bet had paid off nearly fivefold. That April, they bought Ohio Precious Metals (OPM), one of the few gold refineries in the United States. It was in the small town of Jackson, Ohio, in a building where the fungi used in Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup was once cultivated. NTR was buying so much gold, and planning to buy so much more, that it wanted its own refinery. The Loftuses’ businesses were eventually organized into a conglomerate, called Elemetal LLC. (The Loftuses declined multiple requests for comment.)
Sam Barrage played a key role in the brothers’ grand aims. Sometime after the HSBC layoffs, Iska had found a job managing the NTR store in Miami. As a plus-one at the company’s Christmas party in 2010, Sam cornered the Loftus brothers and pitched them an idea: There’s a lot of gold in South America—let me, a fluent Spanish speaker, go get it for you. Within a month, Sam was hired as NTR’s vice president of sales for Latin America, or, as the company sometimes called it, LATAM. The LATAM venture was based out of NTR Miami, which was already stocked with Iska’s friends and family. Her father, Cesar, handled the smelting and assaying. Cesar’s assistant was his son, Iska’s brother, Alfonso. Their sister, Maria, was the office receptionist. A family friend worked as Sam’s assistant. Sam hired one of his old mates from Stowe to go around the Caribbean looking for scrap-gold sellers.
And now Renato was there—bilingual and with South American roots. A real asset. His job was to find suppliers. At first he felt “kind of lost,” Renato recalled. “I really never got any training, so I faked it till I made it.” He typed “gold buyer” and “we buy gold” into Google along with the name of a country. At first he scoured for suppliers on Caribbean islands such as Trinidad and the Dominican Republic. He called the phone numbers that Google spat out—Santo Domingo pawnshops and Port of Spain secondhand-jewelry dealers. But NTR’s true goal was conquering the South American landmass. According to one former employee, the directive from on high was always clear: “Steve [Loftus] said, ‘OK, here’s a map. Get every damn ounce out of Latin America you can. I don’t care if it’s mined or scrap—anything.’”
Ground metal is industry lingo for mined gold, which is purer and worth more than gold that’s already been fashioned into a necklace or the gilding on the rim of a porcelain dinner plate. Ground metal is handled first by people called collectors—middlemen who indiscriminately buy up gold from any source willing to sell, then melt it down, cast it into bars, and sell it for a profit. Collectors are really traders, way stations levying tolls on the mineral’s economic journey. Collectors sell to other collectors, bigger ones, which export directly to the likes of NTR.
Renato and Sam hit on a strategy: U.S. imports are a matter of public record. Why not pore over the data and look for names of foreign exporters that had recently shipped large amounts of gold to America? Then they’d attempt to persuade those exporters to work with them, ditching whatever company they’d traded with before for better terms with NTR.
They called it “sales,” and their suppliers “customers,” even though they were the ones doing the buying. Competition was stiff. Companies from Switzerland, Italy, China, and India buy gold in South America. Miami had long been a major gold-importing hub, especially from points south, with several companies duking it out for dominance. Republic Metals was the biggest and oldest player in the business. Kaloti Metals and Logistics was an offshoot of a Dubai-based company owned by a Palestinian family. There was also Universal Precious Metals, just around the corner from NTR in Doral. Speed fueled the rivalry—the importer that could pay a supplier fastest got its business—and volume was the prize. The gold business has such wafer-thin margins (less than 1 percent) that buyers need a constant, massive inflow of gold to thrive.
Using the import database, Renato began landing customers in Guatemala City, Panama City, Quito, and La Paz. He befriended his clients, deploying the people skills that had helped him in the loan industry. “This is my best trait,” he said. “This was the part of the job I loved.” He was invited into family homes, to meals cooked by abuelas, to the weddings of customers’ children.
Peru was the holy grail, the most gold-rich nation in South America. Renato heard about a distant “mining region” across the mountains from Lima. “There was a ton of gold there,” he said. But he didn’t go to this region, whatever it was called. He met potential clients in the capital, where he stayed in the upscale Miraflores district, at international chain hotels with perfumed lobbies and rooms that overlooked the Pacific.
One day in 2007, Don Alfredo was deep in the jungle working on his timber concession, selecting trees for possible harvest, when he heard the rumble of machinery in the distance. Some days later, he assembled a small group of local officials to go see what they could already smell—the acrid aroma of controlled burns. They followed the Guacamayo and soon saw proof: a gelatinous substance as gray as ash under their feet, sucking at their boots. “This is shit,” said one of the officials. Everyone knew what the sludge meant. It was created by high-pressure hoses liquefying the forest floor. The gold miners had arrived.
La Pampa’s thickly forested peatlands contain huge quantities of alluvial gold. Millions of years ago, now vanished rivers spalled the mountain faces, dissolved veins of exposed mineral, and carried the treasure down into the plains. This left deposits of gold in the beds of rivers and streams and beneath the thin rainforest topsoil. Rarely did the gold take the form of nuggets. Most often it accumulated as auriferous sands—gold dust.
Once upon a time, a miner might have dipped a pan into a river and swirled it around. With any luck the bottom would sparkle and flash. But that kind of low-impact, storybook mining ended long ago. By the time they arrived on Don Alfredo’s land, miners were taking a much more invasive approach. First they would clear a hectare or so in the jungle by slashing and burning. Then, using the nearest creek, lagoon, or river as a water source, they would blast the ground with hoses and pump the resulting mud to the top of a sluice—a structure resembling a playground slide—made from the wood of felled trees. The mud went down the ramp, which was lined with fibers that captured small particles, including gold flakes. Then the miners poured the mud caught in the carpet into barrels and added a dash of liquid mercury, which adheres to gold, weighing it down so it’s easier to extract. After they removed the gold, the miners dumped everything else.
Madre de Dios’s mining bonanza was fueled by the rising price of gold. It was an old story: mining, men, gold, cash, cantinas, brothels, women. Miners lived close to where they worked, in camps that expanded into shantytowns with names like Lamal, Zorro Valencia, and Boca Colorado. Some became bush favelas of 1,000 people or more. Along the Interoceanic Highway in La Pampa, not far from Don Alfredo’s home, a city in all but name developed. It had street grids, electricity from gasoline generators, day care centers and schools, markets and cafés. Makeshift businesses drew workers from the destitute villages of the Andean plateau, where more than half the population lived in poverty. A street known as the Pharaoh’s Gate led to an arcade of “prostibars.” (It’s well documented that underage girls are trafficked into the brothels of Madre de Dios.)
Mine laborers went into debt to their bosses, then indentured servitude. Mysterious figures arrived in the region, bands of conspicuously armed men, “criminal elements who put the lives of those of us who oppose the destruction of our forests at risk,” in the words of Don Alfredo, “characters who have even gone so far as to threaten the lives of neighbors.”
I stood next to Don Alfredo’s sawmill late one afternoon in January 2020, with his son Freddy Vracko. Freddy was 41 and an aspiring politician. On the previous Sunday, Peru had held its national congressional elections, in which Freddy ran on a resource sustainability platform. But in Peru, and especially in Madre de Dios, mining interests are powerful. Freddy had lost.
We toured the sawmill and house, and Freddy told me the story of his father’s activism. As the leader of a small foresters’ association, Don Alfredo had brokered peace in numerous conflicts between farmers and loggers, and between large- and small-scale timber operations. He saw himself as a guardian of the forest, a practitioner of silviculture, a manager of a sacred resource. The day he discovered the miners, he became something more. They were invading his land and his neighbors’, and not just timber concessions but also the nearby Tambopata National Reserve, a protected area of more than 1,000 square miles. The stakes, Don Alfredo believed, were existential.
He made himself a nuisance among local officials in Puerto Maldonado, the capital of Madre de Dios. He haunted the hallways of ministries and sub-ministries. He traveled to Lima, where he tracked down a series of mandarins to badger. In meetings people nodded in sympathy, and then, in the weeks and months that followed, they did nothing. Don Alfredo filed lawsuits and made denunciations. He penned letters to government councils. “There has been a systemic usurpation of these forests,” he wrote in 2008. “Our Federation has … banged on the doors of every relevant institution in the region, without any result to date, which only encourages more and more people to engage in this predatory activity.”
What he wanted was a declaration of a state of emergency. What he wanted was a military intervention. What he wanted were stronger laws. At worst, miners faced fines for exploiting protected areas. Don Alfredo wanted them prosecuted. “It is of urgent importance that the Regional Council take action … and order the removal of the informal miners who are pillaging and contaminating the forests of our region,” he wrote. It didn’t help his cause that parts of Madre de Dios’s government were in league with his foes. Elected officials became miners; miners got themselves voted into office.
Meanwhile, they came in waves into Don Alfredo’s concession. Sometimes he succeeded in driving them out. On one such occasion, in February 2011, he learned that around 30 miners had entered his land. The macheteros, the men tasked with clearing the forest, had just started their hacking and burning. Don Alfredo went around to his neighbors and mustered some 200 people to join him in expelling the miners. They marched through the jungle, following the smell of smoke to the mining site.
When they arrived, most of the miners scattered into the jungle. The ones who remained protested the group’s arrival on legal grounds. In a small clearing, the two sides engaged in a heated debate on the finer points of Peruvian mining law. Don Alfredo had brought along his lawyer—Freddy. Some years earlier, he had sent his elder son to law school in Lima.
The back-and-forth soon ended. Don Alfredo shouted to his militia of neighbors to raze the shanties the miners had erected for their camp. At that moment, according to Freddy, one of the miners charged at Don Alfredo. The man had a machete in his hand. Freddy saw him and let out a shout, then ran at the attacker.
Hearing the commotion, Don Alfredo looked up. He recognized the man closing in fast, blade raised, eyes wild with fury. The miner was his brother.
Business in Peru was slow at first. Renato wasn’t landing the kind of clients he wanted, game-changing ones that would raise NTR’s profile in the gold industry and earn him big bonuses. Then, one day in the late summer of 2012, three men came to the office in Doral for a meeting. Renato wasn’t there, but Sam was, and Renato said his friend recounted it to him after the fact. One of the men introduced himself as Alexander Calvo, a Lima attorney who represented a gold-exporting firm. His client, Calvo said, which went by the comically generic name Business Investments, had a lot of gold to sell—up to 155 kilograms per week. To put it in perspective, that volume would add up to roughly a third of the annual yield of the Goldstrike mineral complex in Nevada, one of the world’s most productive gold mines. All ears, Sam told Calvo that he was interested in doing business.
Before they were allowed to make any kind of deal with a supplier, though, Sam and Renato needed the blessing of Steve Crogan, NTR’s compliance director. Crogan was an old hand in the gold import-export trade. According to Renato, getting his approval could be an exasperating process. A hardheaded New Englander with the accent to prove it, Crogan had spent more than 30 years at U.S. customs, most of it as a special agent in the law enforcement division. He’d left in 2007 and moved into the private sector, working remotely out of an office in Rhode Island, which, not incidentally, was once the country’s largest jewelry manufacturing center; the area remains an important gold-refining hub. Recruited to NTR by John Loftus, Crogan had previously worked as head of the anti-money-laundering division of Metalor, which had its U.S. refinery just down the road from his house. For Metalor before and NTR now, Crogan used his contacts and skills to vet gold suppliers around the world. His job was to serve as a gatekeeper, preventing NTR from buying gold of dubious origin or from suppliers with criminal records. Once he approved a supplier, Crogan would conduct periodic reviews of their business, on the hunt for red flags.
Crogan cut a constabulary figure. He was never not seen in khakis and an Oxford button-down shirt. Always wary, he sounded like a cop. “There are no coincidences” he liked to say. Renato and Sam joked that Crogan reminded them of the humorless ex-CIA father played by Robert De Niro in Meet the Parents.
Crogan rejected the Business Investments account. In an email dated August 6, 2012, he explained why. A perusal of the documents Sam had submitted—corporate filings with various Peruvian ministries—revealed that Business Investments had three owners: Alexander Edison Calvo Quiroz, Alberto David Miranda Pando, and one Pedro David Pérez Miranda. That third name had resonated with Crogan. If this was the guy he thought it was, NTR couldn’t buy gold from him. The Pérez Miranda whom Crogan knew had been convicted of tax fraud and accused of laundering money for narco-traffickers. He was a scam artist without rival in Peru, and possibly the hemisphere.
That’s how Sam and Renato first learned about Peter Ferrari.
In 1973, Peru’s tax authority created an ad campaign centered on a cartoon character named Pepe el Vivo, which loosely translates as “Sneaky Joe.” He was supposed to represent a devious tax evader. Today, Peruvians use the name to describe “a person who tries to get ahead in any way possible,” as one Lima resident put it, “but not in a good way.” Peter Pérez Miranda, aka Peter Ferrari, was the ultimate Pepe el Vivo.
Born in Lima in 1960, he came from a family of cambistas (money changers), whose houses formed an essential market for hard currency in a nation with a sprawling informal economy—today that economy still generates almost 20 percent of Peru’s GDP. Money changers have a history of performing another service: laundering the profits of illicit trades. Over the years, Ferrari’s family went from being street vendors to running an exchange house with an office on Avenue La Paz, the heart of Lima’s gold and money-changing district. By the late 1970s, narco-dollars were flowing out of Peru’s north. Ferrari and his family began chartering small planes to fly to high-altitude jungle towns: Tingo María, Pucallpa, Tocache, Uchiza. The towns were situated in some of Peru’s most prolific coca-growing regions—verdant, mountainous lands veiled in mists and ribboned with waterfalls. Hidden there were labs that produced cocaine paste, a raw material sold primarily to Colombians, who refined it into powder and smuggled it into the United States.
Because the narcotics business ran on U.S. dollars, the villages were awash in greenbacks; the need to launder the dirty money, and the fact that supply outstripped demand, drove the local exchange rate down to as little as half of what it was in Lima. From cambistas in the mountains, Ferrari’s family purchased so-called dólares negros (black dollars), bricks of American cash they flew back to the capital and sold at a higher price. Everybody won: The jungle deals made for a good currency-arbitrage trade, and all the dirty cocaine cash was effectively laundered. Ferrari’s family got rich.
In the 1990s, Peru’s version of the Drug Enforcement Administration, which goes by the acronym Dirandro, began tracing the family’s connections to the narco-economy. In investigative documents, Dirandro alleged that Ferrari had drifted from laundering drug profits to investing directly in the business of selling cocaine paste. Among the people linked to him were leaders of the Cartel del Norte del Valle (the Cartel of the North Valley), which wasn’t one organization but a fractious assortment of them; its chiefs were Diego Montoya, aka Don Diego, now serving a 45-year sentence in U.S. federal prison, and Arcángel Montoya—no relation to Don Diego—who before he was arrested for his crimes lived in a lavish hacienda where he liked to receive visitors while undergoing exotic beauty-care treatments. And there was Victor Mejía, aka Chespirito, shot to death by the Colombian National Police in 2008. Dirandro agents alleged that Ferrari also laundered money for Peruvian compatriots. There was Fernando Zevallos, owner of the commercial airline AeroContinente, which carried cocaine paste in the holds of its 737s. There was the Cachique Rivera clan, one of whose leaders was sentenced to life in prison for selling guns to the terrorist group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). And there was Demetrio Chavez Peñaherrera, aka El Vaticano, who allegedly sold paste to none other than Pablo Escobar.
Gold was always part of the picture. According to government documents, Ferrari set up a series of empresas fachada (front companies), including at least one focused on metal trading, and used them “for laundering money derived from narcotrafficking.” Gold is a venerable, fungible medium for cleansing illicit financial gains. Buy it with dirty money, sell it for clean—once it’s melted down, gold seeps into the economy, every atom untraceably the same. Sometimes the gold doesn’t even need to be real. Escobar’s cartel famously used fake gold transactions in Los Angeles to launder more than a billion dollars.
In 1999, Peruvian law enforcement went after Ferrari for a scam that was tax fraud and money laundering rolled into one. A recent decree by Alberto Fujimori, then the country’s dictator, gave mineral exporters tax rebates on ore sold overseas. Ferrari exploited this by selling hunks of nickel and lead “bathed” in gold to complicit partners in Europe and the United States. Exporting his fool’s gold, Ferrari pocketed Fujimori’s rebates. Meanwhile, through his front companies, Ferrari was selling actual gold, almost all of it informally mined, to refiners overseas. If that wasn’t enough, Ferrari was allegedly buying gold from Metalor—the refinery the Loftus brothers would use before they acquired their own—with narco-dollars. The courier who traveled to the United States and transported gold on his person back to Lima was José “Pepe” Morales, one of Ferrari’s most loyal henchmen.
Gold in, gold out—the snake was eating its tale.
Peruvian law enforcement accused Ferrari of cleaning $21.6 million in cocaine profits over an eight-month period, and Fujimori was said to be furious. “The pressure was strong every day,” an officer who worked the case told me. The government “wanted results—arrestos, arrestos, arrestos.” The police made their move, but Ferrari wasn’t home when they arrived to haul him in. They traced his cell phone and began a three-day chase from Lima south to Tacna on the Chilean border, then north to Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca, and finally to a hamlet on the border with Bolivia. Anxious that Ferrari would slip out of the country before they could reach him, officers at one point gained ground by enlisting a local cop to drive them in his souped-up Toyota—the man happened to be a part-time race-car driver. With the officers white-knuckling the doorframes, the driver raced along guardrail-deficient Andean two-lane roads, through switchbacks that hugged 3,000-foot precipices. A four-hour journey took three. The officers went to the fanciest hotel in town. They barged through the door of a guest room and arrested Ferrari, who was reclining in bed dressed only in his Calvin Kleins. “I guess I have lost,” he said. It was June 1999.
Ferrari went to prison maintaining that he was innocent, or mostly innocent anyway. He copped to the tax fraud and the informal gold sales but insisted he didn’t launder money for cartels. He claimed Fujimori had set him up. There might have been a kernel of truth to what he said. Jorge Dominguez, a police investigator familiar with Ferrari’s career, once heard a story centered on Fujimori’s spy chief, Vladimiro Lenin Ilich Montesinos. In spite of his name, Montesinos was right-wing, cast in the Latin American despot mold. He kept blackmail files on friends and enemies alike. He oversaw death squads and torture chambers. He had cozy relations with both drug cartels and the CIA. According to the story Dominguez heard, Montesinos demanded money from Ferrari in exchange for protection. When Ferrari said no, the spy chief ginned up the narco-trafficking charges and had him put away.
After leaked tape recordings revealed the extent of his bribery, bringing down Montesinos and Fujimori with him, a judge tossed out the narcotics charges against Ferrari, citing lack of evidence. A high-ranking government minister I spoke to asserted that Ferrari paid off the judge. The authorities were forced to return the money it had seized from him: $2.5 million. According to Dominguez, Ferrari told investigators that he used the cash to get back into the gold business.
Meanwhile, for its dealings with Ferrari, Metalor was prosecuted in U.S. federal court. The company as a whole—but none of its executives or employees—pleaded guilty to a money-laundering charge. Nowhere in the short, vague indictment, or in Metalor’s proffer of guilt, does the name Peter Ferrari or Pedro Pérez Miranda or José “Pepe” Morales appear. Just a mention of “some South American companies.” Metalor had to forfeit more than $3 million, including profits earned during the period in which the court said it had knowingly engaged in illegal transactions.
The investigation that led to that court case was conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE. And it was supervised by a special agent in the Boston bureau named Steven F. Crogan.
More than a decade later, after Crogan deep-sixed the Business Investments account at NTR, Renato realized that, in the Peruvian gold business, Peter Ferrari was both everywhere and nowhere.
In October 2012, he submitted approval materials to Crogan for a supplier called LERN United Metals Corp. As part of the compliance review, a cursory Google search of the owner’s name revealed that he was Ferrari’s former head of security. Crogan informed Renato, and when Renato confronted the man, he protested—it was a case of mistaken identity, he insisted. He even produced a sworn statement avowing that he had no connection whatsoever to this Peter Ferrari person. Crogan hired a Lima investigator named Max Saavedra, who confirmed the link between LERN’s owner and Ferrari. Crogan scotched the account. (Crogan declined to comment for this story.)
In an email sent to his bosses, Crogan wrote, “It is a small world because Ferrari recently pitched our Latin American team and was quickly turned away.” Renato told me that “Crogan had some real disdain” for Ferrari—it seemed almost personal.
Crogan rejected other Peruvian accounts, including one from a company called Universal Metal Trading. The problem in that instance wasn’t Ferrari; it was the company’s reported dealings in Madre de Dios. Peru had finally criminalized informal mining in early 2012. If miners got caught they could face jail time, and there were penalties for buyers, too, for laundering blood gold. In an email to Sam and Renato that September, Crogan described Madre de Dios as “high threat,” because “Peruvian authorities are collaterally focusing on environmental (pollution) and social (child labor) violations.” He continued, “Let’s conference this week on the best course forward in Peru.”
Crogan sometimes declared entire countries (Venezuela, Brazil) and continents (Africa) as “no fly zones,” meaning NTR couldn’t do business there. He never did that with Peru, or with Madre de Dios.
One day, according to Renato, Sam came to his desk with news he wanted to keep quiet. Another Peruvian company was ready to play ball. It was called Minerales la Mano de Dios. Alexander Calvo from Business Investments was again the main contact, and yes, Ferrari was involved, which is to say that Mano de Dios was his company. But this time, conveniently, his name did not appear on any of the corporate documents filed with the Peruvian government. In effect, if NTR signed a contract with the Hand of God, it would not be doing business with Pedro Pérez Miranda.
Right? Get it?
Renato got it.
He helped Sam generate the compliance paperwork and get Crogan’s approval. The two friends agreed to deal only with Calvo and his son, Gian Piere—never with Ferrari. They accepted Mano de Dios’s first shipment the Monday after Iska’s baby shower. Two more came soon after, worth $1.5 million and $3.5 million, respectively. In late November, the friends took a business trip to Lima. Crogan joined them, and he came away enthusiastic. “We have the potential to become a major player in the Peruvian market as long as we build a solid foundation,” Crogan wrote in an email to John Loftus. “Peru is a HIGH RISK venue for obvious reasons,” he added, but “with proper planning, we have infinite opportunities.” NTR began discussing the possibility of opening a permanent office in Lima.
The plan was to never meet or know or lay eyes on Peter Ferrari. The plan was to forget that he even existed. Or so the friends told themselves, according to Renato. But each time he and Sam went to Lima on business—which was at least once a month—the message would get to them: Peter wants to meet you! Peter wants to hang out! Peter wants to show you a good time in his beautiful country!
Ferrari’s parties were legendary. He rented out venues on the beach. He stocked them with Lima’s beautiful people—actors, scions, club kids, fashion models. Every year for his birthday, on February 21, Ferrari would fête himself in a particularly grand way. Sam and Renato learned that it would be Ferrari’s pleasure if they attended the 2013 extravaganza.
They flew down from Miami, taking their newest hire with them. His name was Juan Granda, and he’d been their junior colleague at HSBC. Eight years younger than Renato and five years younger than Sam, Juan brought the raucous, reckless energy of a fraternity brother to the Miami team. They’d decided to let him in on their Ferrari secret. (Granda declined to comment for this story.)
On their way to Ferrari’s party, clad uniformly in untucked collared shirts and dark jeans, the trio stopped at a Lima liquor store and bought a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, a birthday present. Ferrari had rented out a capacious, semi-outdoor hall at a restaurant called Costa Verde. An aging staple of Lima’s culinary scene, almost a tourist trap, it was situated on a pier stretching out from a beach in Miraflores. Security guards roamed the perimeter, holstered weaponry bulging against their black suit coats. An expert salsa band played before a packed dance floor. The dancers’ hips moved in a blur.
The NTR trio took a seat at a table with one of their other Lima-based gold suppliers, Rodolfo Soria. Thick necked and arrogant, Soria was flashy with his wealth. He liked to drive around in his Ford Mustang Shelby GT 500, the engine roaring. That night he was wearing a golden Presidential Rolex, worth probably $40,000, Renato estimated. No subterfuge had been required on Sam and Renato’s part to get Soria approved as a supplier, because his records looked clean. The Peruvian National Police would later describe him as an employee of Ferrari’s, but that wasn’t quite right. He was a peer, rival, and sometime partner.
Renato spotted Gian Piere and Carlos Vidal, who lived in Miami and worked for Ferrari as a “local operations manager.” Through Vidal, the friends met Jorge Uceda, an up-and-coming figure in the Peruvian gold trade. Short and slight and awkward, he could have passed for a teenager. He reminded Renato of a “nervous Chihuahua.” But Uceda was powerful—he was Ferrari’s customs broker, the guy who made sure Mano de Dios’s gold was exported without a problem. Renato thought: This is a man who owns a shipping business?
The first thing Renato noticed about Ferrari was the tight, brightly colored suit he was wearing. It may have been sharkskin. He was small, almost petite, but it was clear he liked to spend time at the gym. No matter where he was, Ferrari drew attention. “He was very opulent,” someone who knew him told me. “Like Liberace almost.” He wore his curly, jet-black hair in a near mullet. His collar was open wide, maximizing the visibility of his gold necklace, though not the rosary made of solid gold he was known to sometimes wear.
Everyone stood up when he came to the table. With a flourish, Sam handed Ferrari the Blue Label and wished him a happy birthday in Spanish. Ferrari thanked them and said a few more things besides, but it was difficult to understand him, and not just because of the loud music. Was it his accent? No, something else. It was, Renato thought, like a speech impediment. Ferrari mumbled to the point of incomprehensibility. Renato nodded along, understanding next to nothing. Then Ferrari smiled, shook hands all around, and left to work the rest of the room.
The three Americans sat back down and drank. They toasted. They drank. They hit the dance floor. There were women everywhere. They toasted and drank. Where was Juan? Juan was gone. For 40 minutes they couldn’t find Juan. But then finally there he was, in the bathroom, in a stall, puking. He’d gone at it way too hard. Unsteadily, he came out of the bathroom. It didn’t seem like he could see. They kept asking if he was OK, and he kept saying the same thing: “I’m straight!”
Someone told them about an after-party. It was at a nearby apartment. You OK to go to this after-party, Juan? “I’m straight.” No one seemed to live in the apartment, where smoke filled the rooms and the booze kept flowing, but it belonged to Gian Piere, who, it turned out, had an identical twin brother, like you couldn’t tell them apart; they were even dressed sort of the same, and everyone was calling the other twin Peter Jr.
Juan! “Yo!” He was straight.
Around the time of the birthday party, Gian Piere told the Miami team that Mano de Dios would need to wind down. A new company would take its place, one called Minerales Gold MPP SAC. As Uceda, the customs broker, would later say under questioning by U.S. law enforcement officials, “When the Peruvian authorities began to question a front company because of the sudden high volume of unexplained gold shipments, a new front company was created.” At the time, though, the Ferrari entourage gave a convoluted reason for the change, according to Renato. Something about limits on how much cash they could withdraw at a time from their Peruvian accounts and a falling-out with Alex Calvo—who, Gian Piere said casually, wasn’t actually his father. Ferrari was. That’s why his brother was named Peter Jr.
Sam and Renato submitted the paperwork to Crogan as if MPP were a fresh account. Gian Piere was listed as MPP’s owner under his real name, Gian Piere Pérez Gutierrez. Crogan immediately homed in on it. “The last name is Perez, like Pedro Perez (AKA: Peter Ferrari),” Crogan wrote in an email to Renato. “Obviously Perez is a common last name like Smith. However, as they say in Boston, the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask. Please reach out to the applicants and ensure they are not relatives or any relation to Mr. Third Rail.”
The next day, Renato reported back to Crogan: He’d asked the applicants, and nope, they didn’t know Ferrari. Renato hadn’t really asked the question, of course. Two days later, Crogan approved the account. A little spooked by the close call, Renato and Sam agreed that they needed to be more meticulous, to “keep things tight.” (No one, it seems, thought to ask what MPP might have stood for. Intentionally or not, it was Ferrari’s initials—Pedro Pérez Miranda—backwards.)
NTR relied on institutions like the Bank of Nova Scotia to pay for the gold it bought from Mano de Dios and now MPP. More commonly known as Scotiabank or just Scotia, it was for many years one of the world’s few “bullion banks,” institutions that lend money to companies for gold purchases. The intricacies of gold banking are abstruse, but essentially NTR borrowed Scotia’s money and used it to purchase gold, including Ferrari’s. When NTR needed to pay Scotia back, it sometimes did so not in dollars but in gold bars. To a bank, gold is an asset as liquid as cash. The more there is on a balance sheet, the more—and bigger—loans the bank can make. Bullion banks also serve as clearing houses for gold, middlemen between sellers like NTR and a stable of buyers, including financial institutions and any investor who keeps a position in physical gold as part of a diversified portfolio. The banks are like syringes, injecting gold into the bloodstream of global finance.
NTR’s revenues came from a range of customers: Gold processed at the company’s Ohio refinery was purchased by Tiffany & Co. and Apple—the metal is used in smartphone transistors. On the topic of money, Sam and Renato had to wonder: Where did Ferrari get his? He needed a lot—at least half a million on hand at any given time, Renato once estimated—to maintain the flow of gold that he sold to them.
At dinner in a Lima restaurant on a cliff overlooking the Pacific, Sam and Renato once put the question to Alexander Calvo, before the reported falling-out between Calvo and Ferrari. A well-dressed man in his early fifties, Calvo was a practiced operator in Lima’s legal and political circles. He’d counseled Ferrari for many years, and he would have understood the implication of the question: Did his client’s funding come from cartels? Was Ferrari using the gold trade to clean drug money?
Calvo’s answer was simple: Don’t worry, my American friends—the funding comes from Ferrari’s family. For Renato and Sam, the question was asked and answered, and that was good enough.
Also good enough: what little they knew about where Ferrari sourced his gold. As long as the metal made it past customs, they were happy. Renato claimed that he never asked anyone directly about the gold’s provenance, but Gian Piere and his twin brother told him anyway. An associate of Pepe Morales, the pockmarked Ferrari henchman who’d worked with him as far back as the 1990s, also once let the truth slip. So did Rodolfo Soria, Ferrari’s sometime business partner, who described to Renato where he and Ferrari obtained their gold: It came from a distant jungle province, “the hottest place to get gold from.”
That place was Madre de Dios.
But the NTR team almost never referred to it by name. Renato had no mental concept of the region. He knew that the mines there were “informal” or “artisanal”—code words to most people in the gold business for “illegal.” But not to Renato, at least according to Renato. In his mind it was “like in the movies—miners with a pickax panning for gold.”
“I guess out of sight out of mind type thing,” he wrote to me from prison. “I thought this was normal, their way of life in that part of the world.”
Freddy Vracko tackled his uncle before he could plunge the machete into Don Alfredo’s back. The two men rolled around on the ground. The uncle got to his feet first and stomped Freddy’s hand, breaking a finger. Afterward, breathing heavily, the uncle suddenly turned penitent. He ran over to Don Alfredo and, almost weeping, grabbed his shoulders and kissed him on both cheeks.
“Forgive me, little brother!” he howled.
His name was Godfrid, but everyone knew him by his nickname, Puby (pronounced poobie). He and Don Alfredo hadn’t been on good terms for many years. Puby had drifted around, lived in Lima for a long time. He was the prodigal son. When he did return to La Pampa, he wasn’t interested in joining the timber business. The allure of the gold boom was too strong. Puby got into the mining business.
The conflict between foresters and gold hunters had wormed its way into Don Alfredo’s own family. But at least his agitations were gaining notice. Not long after Puby came at Don Alfredo with a machete, an American television-news crew arrived in La Pampa. They were doing a story about the problem of gold mining in the rainforest. Don Alfredo agreed to be interviewed. “Bread for today and hunger tomorrow. That is how we describe what will happen in La Pampa if they don’t stop this,” he told the cameras, standing under the canopy of his sawmill.
The piece aired on PBS and helped boost international scrutiny of what was happening in Peru. The government in Lima felt the pressure, according to Leonardo Capparós, a former deputy minister responsible for environmental crime affairs—La Pampa had become an embarrassment. In April 2012, the national legislature issued a decree that criminalized informal mining. It could now be prosecuted as a matter of organized crime, and people who engaged in it could be punished with up to 12 years in prison. Proceeds would also be considered illicit: Any person or company who bought or sold illegal gold could be prosecuted for money laundering.
Don Alfredo was skeptical about the decree. The country’s law enforcement and judicial systems were too corrupt for any single law to make a difference, he told Freddy. But it was a start.
By then, according to Freddy and other sources, Puby was the chief of a gold-mining crew. The money was good, very good. It was why thousands of migrants kept coming to Madre de Dios to try their luck sifting through mercury-laced mud.
It also explained what happened to one of Don Alfredo’s foresting comrades. Rather than fight the miners, the man had tried to compromise: He would allow them into a designated corner of his timber concession for a tidy fee. When they violated the agreement, chewing into other parts of his land, he complained to the police. One night, according to Freddy, someone came to the man’s house and blew a hole in his chest with a shotgun.
When the miners entered his land in 2007, Don Alfredo’s reforesting association had 240 members. In less than a decade, that number had shrunk to 60. Some people were afraid for their lives. Others stopped logging to look for gold—they wanted to get rich, too. “They gave up,” Freddy told me. “They succumbed.”
Violence had escalated to such a degree that the next time Don Alfredo needed to get miners off his land, he wouldn’t respond by organizing his neighbors into a militia. He would contact the authorities to schedule a police-led interdiction, attended by a designated official from the Madre de Dios Ministry of Energy and Mines. That official was José Carlos Bustamante. Don Alfredo couldn’t have known that within a few years, Bustamante would disappear from the region and possibly leave Peru altogether, fleeing corruption charges.
His alleged crime: taking bribes from miners.
At the Smik Spa, a male-only bathhouse in Lima, they stripped down and put on kimonos. Sam, Renato, and Juan had become regulars at Smik—they talked shop while they sweated in saunas and steam rooms. The spa also had pools, barber and mani-pedi stations, and a restaurant where clients could order ceviche and beer. Sometimes the friends took advantage of the private massage rooms staffed by “Colombian women,” whom they talked about in an ongoing WhatsApp group chat:
“The selection is amazing.”
“We will bang them all b4 you get here.”
They paid for everything with credit cards. It came up on their monthly statements as “health and beauty.”
They never ran into Peter Ferrari at Smik. Nightclubs were his pastime. He demanded that they join him for parties that lasted into the wee hours. A fancy car would roll up to the curb next to the velvet ropes, and a driver would get out to open Ferrari’s door. Ferrari would emerge as if onto a red carpet, Renato said, “like he was a Hollywood stud.”
The car itself was never a Ferrari. He preferred German makes: Mercedes, Porsche, Audi. In fact, no one could recall ever seeing him inside one of his namesake cars. Renato once asked a member of Ferrari’s entourage what the deal was—why did he call himself that if he didn’t even own a Ferrari? The guy just shrugged.
It was 2013, and business was booming. NTR Miami received several shipments of Ferrari’s gold each week, worth $4 million, $5 million, $6 million a pop. All told, the company spent $980 million buying gold from Peru that year.
At some point another new Ferrari company, Comercializadora de Minerales Rivero, came online, replacing MPP. Renato wrote up the submission for Crogan. He said that he’d met with the people listed as CMR’s owners, a young man named Miguel Ángel Rivero Pérez and a young woman named Alicia Ines—“artisanal miners” who “source their own minerals as well as buy from other miners,” and who “seem like extremely humble people.” All fiction. Renato had never and would never meet either of them. They were testaferros. In the spot on the paperwork where he had to list the source of the customer’s gold, he put down, “collectors and general public.”
“We wrote what we needed to write to get the account approved and the gold coming in,” Renato said.
The company’s address, listed prominently on the registration documents Renato gave to Crogan, was 513 Avenue La Paz, a jewelry store in Lima’s gold district. This was Ferrari’s headquarters, to which he commuted every day from his mansion in the city’s hills with a half-dozen bodyguards, some carrying shotguns. A few perfunctory trinkets hung in the windows. The store had a sign that read “Ariadna,” as in the princess of Greek mythology who helped Theseus out of the labyrinth with her string, but misspelled. Everyone in the gold district knew that it was a front.
People with gold came to Ariadna to sell it. They came from all over Peru, as did the metal they carried. They came because Ferrari had a reputation for paying higher prices than anyone else. He was also known to deal only in large quantities of doré bars and nuggets, not pieces of jewelry.
One day at 513 Avenue La Paz, Sam and Renato faced a pissed-off Ferrari. They were worried he was going to dump NTR and go with a Miami rival—maybe Kaloti or Republic. By then, Renato estimated, Ferrari accounted for 40 percent of their business in Latin America. “I remember thinking we must not lose him,” Renato said.
The three men repaired to Ferrari’s personal office, which was located in a building near the storefront, and sat around a conference table—an aged expanse of dark wood, with vintage claw-foot legs. Against one wall stood a hulking china cabinet filled with bottles of whiskey. Ferrari spoke in his usual mumble, but the gist was clear: Why are you screwing me on the assays?
His complaint had to do with the purity levels NTR was paying him for. In the gold business, buyers pay only for the percentage of gold identified in an assay. Amounts can vary widely, depending on where the ore was mined. In northern Peru, the purity is typically around 85 percent. In other areas—such as Madre de Dios—it can reach 98 percent or more. Jungle gold is some of the purest there is.
Ferrari’s shipments normally yielded high assays, between 95 and 98 percent, but according to Renato, that wasn’t what the NTR guys told him. It was an ancient fraud, a form of tipping the scales in their favor. The friends dutifully reported the actual purity level of a shipment to their bosses in Dallas, who gave them the money to cover it, but they told Ferrari that the level was lower. The skim usually came to a quarter of a percent—if an assay showed 98 percent purity, they would tell Ferrari it was 97.75 percent. To complete the scam, Renato said, they would send Ferrari an assay report with the fraudulent figures and corresponding payment. They pocketed the difference.
So yes, they were stealing from Ferrari. Skimming is so commonplace in the gold trade that it’s practically baked into the cost of doing business. Renato said that Sam in particular did it so often—“chopping” the purity levels of suppliers’ gold—that he and Juan started calling him “the Sam-urai.” With Ferrari, however, they weren’t stealing from some gringo schmo, some Boca Raton pawnbroker. They knew the rumors about his connections to drug lords. They saw the men with guns who escorted him to work. But Renato, at least, shrugged it all off as hyperbole, the posture of someone who’d watched too many narco dramas on TV. It was hard to take Ferrari seriously: “I felt like he was a caricature of himself.”
After listening to Ferrari mutter his displeasure across his ornate conference table, Sam took control of the conversation. With his silver tongue, Sam could “talk his way out of the zombie apocalypse,” as one friend put it. Somehow he cooled Ferrari down. By the end of the meeting, which had moved to a restaurant near Ferrari’s office, the men were all laughing together over their expensive meals.
They did lose Ferrari once that summer, but only for a month. Kaloti poached his business. To win him back, there was only one thing to do: They asked Ferrari to dinner and offered to pay him more. Instead of 99.35 percent of the global spot price for gold, they would pay him 99.5 percent—the best terms NTR gave its suppliers. Ferrari smiled. “We had some drinks to toast the deal,” Renato recalled.
Soon after, in September 2013, Juan Granda was dispatched to live full-time in-country. He became NTR’s man in Lima. His office was located at the Peru headquarters of a company called Prosegur. Founded in Madrid in the 1970s as a private security firm, Prosegur had since become the Brinks of the Spanish-speaking world, transporting and vaulting money and gold. In Prosegur’s Lima facility, NTR set up an evaluation center where it could assay the contents of gold shipments before sending them to the United States, facilitating payment to suppliers. The plan was to cut a check for 90 percent of the total fee owed to a seller, based on the initial assay. The company would send the other 10 percent after the gold passed through Miami, reached the refinery in Ohio, and was put through a more thorough analysis.
Ferrari had his gold delivered to the Prosegur office in an armored SUV. The deliveryman was usually Pepe Morales. The setup at Prosegur wasn’t unlike a pawnshop. New customers would place the doré bars on the counter and push them through an opening in a bulletproof window. Morales, though, would often come inside to deliver the gold and the paperwork required by Peruvian customs officials to approve the shipment: receipts, invoices, assay reports, and—most crucial of all—bills of lading.
Collectively, bills of lading were the official record of a shipment’s chain of custody, from its terminus at Prosegur’s window all the way back to where the gold came out of the ground. The first bill in any stack should have been a receipt created by the truck driver—or, in some cases, motorcycle driver—who picked up the freshly extracted gold at a mining site. The name of the mine should have appeared on the document. Sometimes, though, there was no bill of lading. How could there be if the mine was informal, unlicensed, or situated in the middle of a protected rainforest? In those cases, someone needed to attach a document to the anonymous jungle doré, and it needed to come from a duly registered mine so that, should they examine its origins, Peruvian authorities would wave the shipment through customs.
In the black market for gold, there’s a name for this: document swapping. In Ferrari’s operation, the man in charge of making sure government officials approved gold shipments, no matter what, was Jorge Uceda, the nervous customs broker Sam, Renato, and Juan first met at Ferrari’s birthday party. Over time, Uceda and Juan became friends. They bonded over gold and soccer, attending games together.
Uceda’s brokerage was called CLU Operadores Logísticos SAC, or Clusac for short, and his prices were lower than his competitors. “He thought he was one of the smartest guys in the room, and he was,” said a person who worked in Peru’s gold business and used Uceda as a broker. “He had the reputation of, in the export area, his packages sometimes didn’t get checked, if you get what I’m saying.” Another participant in the gold trade described Uceda as having a “direct contact in customs.” A third put it more bluntly: “He ships tons and tons of illegal gold.”
On his trips to Lima, Renato sometimes saw Uceda come to Ferrari’s office “to pick up money.” At the time, he didn’t think much of it. “I found out later that this was cash to pay off the officials in customs in Peru, to allow the exports to go through without being scrutinized,” he told me.
In emails sent from prison, Renato repeatedly insisted that he was not aware of any bribery while it was happening—he was lying about Ferrari to Crogan and helping chop assays, yes, but he wasn’t complicit in paying off Peruvian customs officials. He said he only found out about the bribes and fraud much later, in Miami, when government agents were interrogating him. “All this,” Renato told me, “I learned from the Feds.”
The money was rolling in. According to Renato, the skimmed proceeds went into NTR Miami’s expenses, including employees’ salaries and the bonus pool, which Sam was in charge of distributing. Bonuses were paid out every month: Renato got $20,000 in March 2013, $15,000 in April, $25,000 in May, $15,000 in June. He cleared nearly $250,000 that year—the boom year. Renato didn’t know that Sam, who had a profit-sharing agreement with the Loftuses, was making considerably more: $250,000 in March, $170,000 in May, $120,000 in June, $100,000 in August. In 2013, Sam would pull in more than $800,000. (As a new hire, Juan’s cut was lower.)
At Lima’s nightclubs, they sat at bottle-service VIP tables, with Ferrari in the center and his entourage—including his twin sons—situated around him. Johnnie Walker and Red Bull and cocaine were always within reach, salsa and reggaeton thundered on the sound systems, and young women flanked Ferrari, laughing and drinking and soaking up the dazzle. It was like he wanted to “steal youth,” Renato said, “like in some movie type shit.” Ever present during the festivities was Ferrari’s head of security, José Luis Madueño, a mountain of a man but affectionate—“a big dumb galoot,” Renato said, “like from Of Mice and Men,” who would wrap the NTR guys in bear hugs every time he saw them.
Violence crept into the periphery of the work. First it was a gold supplier in Ecuador, Jonathan López. In May 2013, López’s wife called Renato at home in Miami. Through her sobs, he slowly made out what she was saying: Her husband had owed someone money, and at a restaurant the night before, a man had walked up to their table and shot López to death as she and her children watched. Three months later, in Panama, a supplier named Salvatore “Toto” Cipponeri was gunned down along with his 22-year-old son in their Honda Odyssey. Then, in December, on a residential street in Lima at 11:30 a.m., Rodolfo Soria stepped out of his SUV into the chaos of gunfire. Men wearing ski masks were trying to kill him. Soria ducked for cover as his bodyguards returned shots. The gunmen fled and Soria was uninjured, but the pattern made it clear: The gold business in Latin America was murderous.
Renato was feeling it. He was tired—he’d spent nearly half of 2013 away from home, traveling in South America. Now customers were getting shot and killed. But he carried on. “I am a high school dropout that made my bones by proving myself in every job,” he said. “What else was I going to do?”
The first sign of a problem was the canal rojo, the red channel. That’s what Peruvian authorities called it when they routed a shipment of gold for review before it left the country—they gave it the red light. Officials would assay the gold to see if its mineral content matched what was reported on the export documents.
In late November 2013, Pepe Morales dropped off several loads of gold supplied by CMR—the latest Ferrari-backed company—at NTR’s evaluation office in Lima. The assays went smoothly, and NTR wired 90 percent of the price of the gold, a sum of $10,589,100, into various bank accounts controlled by Ferrari. A Prosegur armored truck then drove the gold the short distance to a warehouse close to Lima’s airport and controlled by the Peruvian customs authority, which is known by its acronym, SUNAT.
In their office in Doral, on the Monday after Thanksgiving, Sam and Renato waited for word that the gold—304 kilograms of it—had been loaded into a jetliner’s cargo hold. Instead, they learned about the canal rojo. They told themselves they had no reason to worry—red-lights happened at random. They didn’t chop percentages until the final assay in Ohio, and they didn’t do it on every shipment anyway. As soon as SUNAT’s assay results came back, with numbers matching what was on the export documents, everything would proceed as usual.
They relaxed and waited. They waited and stopped relaxing. They called Juan, who called Uceda, who told them that SUNAT had decided to hold the shipment “pending further inspection.” What did that mean? More phone calls. Eventually they learned that SUNAT had detained the gold “pending proof of legal origins.”
Sam and Renato bought tickets for the next flight to Lima. They arrived at night and took a cab directly to the apartment NTR had rented for Juan; it was within walking distance of the restaurant where Ferrari had thrown his birthday party. From the balcony, the three friends could watch the Pacific’s swells roll toward the coastline.
According to Renato, Sam called Ferrari, put a finger to his lips, and retreated to one of the bedrooms. Five minutes passed. Renato told himself that this was just a misunderstanding. Ten minutes. Ferrari would say it was no big deal. For 15 minutes Sam had been in the bedroom, and Renato was praying that his friend’s persuasive powers would resolve the whole situation.
At last, Sam opened the door and summarized the conversation. Ferrari was working on it, he said. NTR would get its gold eventually. But Ferrari had said that he needed a little help with one thing: There was “a fee” required to gain the release of the shipment. Ferrari had claimed it might be, oh, $300,000, and if Sam or NTR or someone could pay, say, half, that would be a great.
Sam said that he’d flat-out refused. As far as Renato could remember, that was the last time any of them ever spoke to Peter Ferrari.
The interdiction was initially scheduled for early 2015—there were miners on his land again, and Don Alfredo wanted them gone. But José Carlos Bustamante, at the Ministry of Energy and Mines, pushed the date back. There was a lot going on, what with all the illegal mining in Madre de Dios. When the new date came, Don Alfredo was told there weren’t enough police officers available to do the job. Another delay. Don Alfredo marked the new date on his calendar: November 19, 2015.
The police never came. Neither did Bustamante. The only people who showed up were four strangers on motorcycles. They came at dusk, and they carried guns.
Randy Yabar Morey was an assistant at the sawmill who lived with Don Alfredo. He had gone down to the Guacamayo for his nightly bath in the stream, and afterward remembered that he needed to put the cap on the exhaust chimney of a tractor parked next to the mill. He was on his way back to the house when he saw the scene unfold—the masked men climbing the wooden stairs; Don Alfredo facing them on the balcony.
“I told you I was going to kill you,” one of the men said to Don Alfredo, according to Randy’s subsequent testimony. “Pide perdón”—ask forgiveness.
Don Alfredo was defiant. “I’m not saying sorry to you!” he yelled. “What are you doing in my house, you fucking delinquent?”
Then he turned to look across the yard to the stream where he thought Randy was still bathing. He shouted for his assistant to run.
As he ran, Randy heard the shots. Nine-millimeter bullet casings were later found on the balcony. The first shot entered Don Alfredo’s back, grazing his spine. Somehow, he spun around and faced his attackers; a second shot ripped through his upper left chest, puncturing his lung. Don Alfredo likely crumpled to the floor at this moment. He lay on his left side, on boards he’d hewn and milled himself from trees he’d taken from the rainforest. The killers finished the job with a bullet through his temple.
Randy kept running, all the way to a neighbor’s house on another timber concession. From there he called Freddy Vracko, who had gone to Lima for a vacation. There was confusion, panic, Randy speaking breathlessly into the phone: “We were in a shooting.… I ran away.…” Freddy scrambled to return home.
With a group of Don Alfredo’s neighbors, Randy went back to the house. By then more than three hours had elapsed since the shooting. Puby, Don Alfredo’s estranged brother, showed up soon after. No one had contacted the police yet, though from Lima, Freddy had called an ambulance. Investigators finally arrived the next morning. A murder inquest was opened. Statements were taken. Because Randy was the only witness, he was simultaneously a suspect and presumed to be in grave danger. The killers might come back for him. Don Alfredo’s neighbors said they’d protect him.
Freddy mourned, he ruminated, he raged. His thoughts turned to Puby. “I saw my brother dead. It seems like they put three bullets in the head and death was instantaneous,” Puby had told a local reporter.
Puby was a gold miner. He’d tried to attack Don Alfredo with a machete. Was it possible, Freddy wondered, that his uncle was behind his father’s murder?
The news was an early Christmas gift. A December 19, 2013 press release trumpeted the fact that OPM, the refinery owned by NTR’s parent company, Elemetal LLC, had “satisfied the LBMA as to its ownership, history, production capability and financial standing,” and “passed the LBMA’s exhaustive testing procedures.” The LBMA, or London Bullion Market Association, founded in 1987, is a collection of banks, gold dealers, and refiners with roots in a decision by the Bank of England in 1750 to standardize the gold bars that then formed the basis of the nation’s mounting imperial wealth. LBMA’s founding members, in turn, can trace their origins to the trade in gold taken by Europeans from civilizations they were in the process of eradicating.
“We set the international standard,” the LBMA touts, because of “stringent checks” of its members. By achieving “good delivery status,” OPM and, by extension, Elemetal joined an elite list of some 70 LBMA-approved gold refiners worldwide. Among other things, this meant that London’s auric magi had devoted time and energy to acquiring all the knowledge they could about the conglomerate before declaring its gold free of sin. (The company had received a similar designation that September from COMEX, the major American commodities futures exchange.)
In Dallas, everyone celebrated. “That was a big deal,” a former Elemetal employee said. The company’s new status “improved the price we could get for every ounce we refined.” Elemetal had been called up into the big leagues.
Three weeks later, on January 3, 2014, more good news arrived: Sam and Renato learned that SUNAT had released the CMR gold shipment into Peter Ferrari’s custody. Somehow, some way, Ferrari had succeeded in getting it back. It seemed as though the exportation would proceed without a problem, but just to be sure, Sam and Renato flew to Lima.
When they arrived, they couldn’t reach anyone in Ferrari’s entourage. Not Ferrari himself. Not the twins, not Pepe Morales, not the big galoot Madueño. They went to 513 Avenue La Paz, but the shop was closed, the lights off. They pressed the buzzer, waited, pressed again. No one came. They made more calls. A day passed, then two. Finally, Morales answered his phone. As Sam would later recount in an email to his bosses, Morales said he “didn’t have any information.” Everyone was “out of Lima in the mining regions,” where the “phones don’t work.”
Over the next few days, Sam and Renato kept trying to reach people in Ferrari’s crew. Soon their calls didn’t even go to voice mail. Instead they got error messages: The numbers they were calling had been disconnected. The situation was now a crisis. The Loftuses had to be alerted, as did Crogan.
Eventually, Renato and Sam were able to review CCTV footage of the moment when SUNAT released the gold from custody. The video showed a Honda CRV roaring in reverse into a warehouse, and then a flurry of movement: men loading what appeared to be very heavy duffle bags into the back of the Honda, and police with riot shields who seemed to be escorting them. Wait—was that Pepe goddamn Morales helping carry the bags? Yes, yes it was! And now Sam and Renato recognized that Honda. It was Pepe’s Honda! And then Pepe got into the driver’s seat and then he was gone, and so was the gold.
One afternoon that week, over lunch at yet another restaurant in Lima with views of the Pacific, Renato took a photo of Sam. It shows him in profile, staring wide-eyed and despondent toward the horizon. What could he have been contemplating except the fact that a man he’d been expressly forbidden to do business with was now in possession of more than $10 million of his company’s money and the gold it was meant to pay for? Renato put down his phone and asked Sam if he thought it was all worth it, buying gold from Ferrari. Would he do it again, knowing the outcome? Sam’s answer surprised him.
Ferrari’s gold was the reason for their—and the company’s—wild success in South America. The volume had whet the Loftus brothers’ appetite and persuaded them to open an NTR office in Colombia, which Sam controlled. Not only that, but the huge quantities of jungle gold had helped the business achieve the LBMA designation.
Yes, Sam said. He would do it all over again.
A point came when, in internal communications, NTR stopped using the word “loss” to refer to the situation in Peru and started using “theft.” Gold companies have complex insurance policies to protect themselves from, among other dangers, the machinations of master thieves. On January 14, almost two weeks after Morales took the gold from SUNAT’s custody, NTR filed an insurance claim with its underwriter, a member of the Lloyd’s of London exchange. An investigation would begin soon, but it would take time.
Crogan was in crisis mode. He shot off emails to law enforcement, including a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration stationed in Lima named Pete Fazio, and a special agent at Homeland Security Investigations named Cole Almeida. Crogan was looking for information about Peru cracking down on illegal gold, and about whether other countries where NTR did business might follow suit. The bosses in Dallas were persuaded to put a freeze on all business in Peru while Crogan once again vetted each of the company’s suppliers there. To help him, Crogan rehired Max Saavedra, the private investigator who’d uncovered Ferrari’s connection to LERN in 2012.
No one turned up information as quickly as journalists in Lima did, especially those at El Comercio, the country’s most esteemed newspaper. “Don’t know what fact and fiction is anymore,” Crogan wrote in response to one article. By the end of January, reporters had dug up the secret that Renato, Sam, and Juan had been trying to keep for more than a year. “We need to know if [CMR] has any ties to Pedro Perez, Peter Ferrari, et. al., as alluded to in Peruvian tabloids,” Crogan wrote in an email to John Loftus and Carl Gum, Elemetal LLC’s general counsel. One of CMR’s testaferros—whom Renato had lied about meeting in person—was 34-year-old Miguel Ángel Rivero Pérez. In an email to Saavedra in early February, Crogan asked, “Were you able to confirm that Miguel Rivero is in fact the nephew of Peter Ferrari?”
Eight days later, Saavedra sent a report to both Crogan and Sam. It summarized the 1999 case against Ferrari and mapped out his family tree, showing that Miguel Ángel was indeed his nephew and that Gian Piere and Peter Jr. were his sons. The report didn’t mention MPP or CMR by name, but as Saavedra later wrote in a memo to Crogan, his report “warned about the risks involving the operations with … or through [Peter Ferrari’s] front companies.”
To the best of Renato’s recollection, his superiors never approached him to ask what he knew about Ferrari, and when. “I don’t remember being confronted by anyone on that, at all. At any point whatsoever,” he told me. As far as he knew, the fact that he, Sam, and Juan had lied to the company remained a secret.
In Lima, Juan learned that another Ferrari-backed company, called Sumaj Orkro—named for the famous mountain of silver in Bolivia, but misspelled with an extra r—was still selling gold to Kaloti. He called his friends to discuss what to do. Juan later told U.S. special agents that he felt “betrayed” by Ferrari. “We were trying to really hurt Peter bad,” Renato confirmed. “We were running on piss and vinegar—we were out for blood.”
The three friends hatched a plan.
That night, according to Renato, Juan left his apartment and walked to the nearest pay phone. He called a SUNAT official and said the customs department ought to look into a gold shipment that was about to be exported by Sumaj Orkro. The company belonged to Peter Ferrari, Juan said—he’s still doing his illegal business, right under your noses. Then he hung up.
Soon after, SUNAT seized a shipment of Sumaj Orkro gold, sending Juan, Sam, and Renato into a fit of celebration. Emboldened, Juan made several more anonymous calls, always at night, after learning about other Ferrari entities that had gold exports headed to customs. SUNAT seized more of Ferrari’s shipments. The NTR guys started referring to Juan as the Dark Knight, because he was dealing blows to a nemesis. It was revenge, sure, but they told themselves they were also helping fight crime. To some extent they weren’t wrong. Behind the scenes, Peruvian authorities opened an investigation into Ferrari, the scope of which extended well beyond a few suspect gold shipments.
One of the SUNAT seizures made the national news in Peru. When the NTR trio saw the photos of the gold bars, they were taken aback. Juan always scrawled inventory numbers on the doré he assayed at the evaluation center in Lima. They recognized his handwriting.
Ferrari had balls, they’d give him that—he hadn’t even bothered to remelt the stolen bars to disguise them. He was trying to sell the same gold twice.
“Just landed in Puerto 93 degrees,” Juan wrote in a WhatsApp message to Renato on October 1, 2014. “I’m like Pablo coming to Ecuador to get the coke.”
This was apparently a reference to an event in the career of Pablo Escobar, who, in 1976, made a drug run to Ecuador that resulted in his arrest and that famous smiling mugshot. Juan was an avid watcher of narco-crime serials and a student of Escobar’s life; he once sent Renato and Sam a photo showing a table holding bars of gold, a stack of cash, and a black nine-millimeter handgun. Sometimes he boasted to friends back in Florida that he could buy cheap cocaine wholesale—$700 a kilo!—and he joked with Sam about using “mules” to smuggle illegal gold into America. According to Renato, Juan was bluffing, “being a smart-ass.” Juan himself would have to answer for his posturing as a wannabe trafficker: Years later, sitting in a windowless interrogation room and facing U.S. agents as they recited his WhatsApp messages back to him, Juan said, desperately, “But those were just jokes!”
In the October 1 text, “Puerto” was Puerto Maldonado in Madre de Dios. Juan had come to the regional capital because the pressure was high to replace what Ferrari had cost NTR. It wasn’t just the stolen shipment—NTR had lost the river of gold Ferrari had routed to Miami. Sam, Renato, and Juan hit on an idea: Ferrari wasn’t a miner. He was a collector who bought from people with smaller operations—micro-collectors, they called them. That’s who interacted with miners. Why not sign more of them up as suppliers?
So Juan began traveling to Puerto Maldonado, a sultry, rickety, tin-roofed sprawl of a town with a population of at least 75,000. It had become a jumping-off point for ecotourists bound for remote forest lodges and treasure seekers heading to illegal mines. Juan was a good salesman, and it didn’t take long for him to sign up about a dozen micro-collectors, many of which had offices in the city’s teeming gold district. “To think that Feb last year we didn’t move a single gram out of peru and this month we did 495 kilos,” Juan texted to Renato and Sam in early 2015.
As far as Renato knew, Juan never went far beyond the city limits or laid eyes on any mining activity. Another NTR coworker told me, “I guarantee you he didn’t get a drop of dirt on his fancy shoes.” In fact, company policy forbade it. Crogan once wrote in an email to staff, “We all agree that dispatching our personnel to remote mining sites presents extreme security risks and therefore these visits will not be made by Sales personnel.”
Micro-collectors often bought their gold directly from mine bosses, and transactions were in cash. “It’s all under the table no docs,” Juan once texted Renato. He solicited help from Jorge Uceda, who by then had stopped doing business with Ferrari. Uceda provided his customary services: document swapping and payoffs. In the plea deal that Juan eventually signed with the U.S. government, he admitted that “illegal gold providers would bring gold” that “would be matched with false mining and other paperwork.… These transactions also involved bribery of SUNAT officials.”
To get it out of the country, Juan and his colleagues routed the gold through registered export companies that NTR had on its Crogan-approved roster in Peru. One of them was Trade Minerals SAC, which had set up a shop in Miami, with a corresponding bank account, so that it could export gold to itself and then sell it to NTR domestically. Juan, Sam, and Renato called the two men behind Trade Minerals los curas (the priests), but they weren’t former monks or lapsed seminarians—they were one-time members of a strict all-male Catholic community in Peru known as Sodalitium Christianae Vitae. Recruited as boys, they’d lived in a boot camp by the sea, where they were drilled in Latin and punished for insubordination by being deprived of food. Sodalitium’s founder was eventually ousted amid accusations of systematic rape—he now lives in a mansion near the Vatican—and los curas got out of the cult and into gold.
NTR also routed gold through entities controlled by the brothers Miguel and Freddy Chamy, who had set up multiple shell companies with the help of the law firm Mossack Fonseca, of Panama Papers infamy. According to Renato, the Chamys once told him that they bought a lot of their gold from an illegal mine boss known as Tia Goya. In an internal NTR email sent in 2014, Sam said Ferrari was also rumored to have bought gold from her.
Tia Goya remains powerful today. Her real name is Gregoria Casas Huamanhuillca, and she’s among the migrants who came down into the jungle from the Altiplano in the mid-20th century. She’s often seen wearing the traditional dress of the Andean highlands: full skirt, four petticoats, a fedora over two braids. She could be one of the wizened grandmothers selling alpaca crafts to tourists on the streets of Lima, but she is said to be ruthless. According to government statements and press reports, she has ranks of officials in Madre de Dios in her pockets. She has been under legal investigation and is reputed to be responsible for the eradication of more rainforest than any of the region’s other mining barons. Some people who’ve laid eyes on her whisper of seeing a tail and horns.
Among the things that have made her legendary is her ability to find gold in places where others have failed. One miner I spoke to, who used to date one of Tia Goya’s nieces, told me about a special ritual performed at her mining sites before ground is broken. Miners are known to binge-drink, so the bosses get their workers drunk. Whoever passes out first loses. Everyone else digs a hole and buries the man alive. He is el pago, the payment—a human sacrificed for gold.
If the story seems far-fetched, so does much of what happens in Madre de Dios. A loose organization of mercenaries formed years ago in La Pampa to protect mines from intruders, but their services aren’t the kind you can refuse: Miners pay the men, who almost always are seen wearing balaclavas, or they get killed. The press has dubbed the group Los Guardianes de la Trocha (the Guardians of the Path). One guardian, however, doesn’t hide his face. Skinny and handsome, with a sparse beard, long hair, and tattoos down his arms, he has been observed striding around mining sites in combat fatigues. “He has killed for nothing, without motive, without reason,” said journalist Manuel Calloquispe, who has researched the Guardians deeply. People call him El Venado (the Deer).
At least six mass graves have been unearthed in Madre de Dios. There have been countless disappearances. In 2017, a makeshift crematorium was discovered near an illegal mining camp known as Tierra Colorado. The ash piles were littered with teeth and bones.
While Juan bought gold from Madre de Dios, Renato focused on Bolivia. He’d cultivated a customer base there, including SRH Oriental, run by a father-daughter team: Adrian and Sthefani Ribera Herrera. Crogan approved SRH in May 2014, and a month later he noticed that the company’s export volumes had doubled. Sudden spikes always sent up red flags, and now Crogan wanted to know more about where the family got its money and its gold. Along with Sam and Renato, an NTR higher-up traveled to La Paz to re-vet the company, easing Crogan’s concerns.
A few months later, an article appeared in a Peruvian investigative outlet called Ojo Público (Public Eye). In great detail, it revealed how illegally mined gold from Madre de Dios was being smuggled into Bolivia and exported to a host of overseas refiners. Both SRH and NTR were named in the article. So were Kaloti and Republic. As U.S. federal prosecutors would later phrase it, NTR “made no effort to investigate the reporting and went on to purchase $140 million in gold” from SRH and another customer in Bolivia. Renato certainly wasn’t concerned. “I never really probed them about it,” he said of his interactions with SRH. “I would ask: Is this gold from Bolivia? And they would say yes. And I would confirm, ‘No es contrabando?’ They would affirm that it was not. What was I to do? Say I don’t want your gold unless you prove to me 110 percent that it was not contraband? All that would happen is that it would go to Kaloti.”
In late 2014, Renato and several coworkers attended a mining conference at a hotel in Lima. They sat in on a panel about illegal mining, but no one paid much attention. “It was kind of like the ASPCA commercial on late-night television where they show dogs with one leg,” said an NTR employee.
For his part, Renato found the panel “ungodly boring.” As the presenters droned on about environmental destruction, he fell asleep.
There was a flash of light, a shock wave you felt in the chest, and a fiery ball that mushroomed into the sky. A few hours earlier, a team of Peruvian soldiers had attacked a small mining camp less than two miles from Don Alfredo’s old timber concession, part of an ongoing interdiction called Operation Mercury. It began in February 2019 with the goal of clearing La Pampa of illegal mining and maintaining a military presence in the area indefinitely—what Don Alfredo had agitated for all those years ago. Now a team of specialists were attaching explosives to mining equipment and blowing them up one by one: the pumps, rafts, and sluice slides that formed the ramshackle skyline of a desecrated landscape.
With their machetes and torches and high-powered hoses, the miners had left the earth looking napalmed. Charred tree trunks rose here and there like roods. Craters the size of lakes—craters that had become lakes—had replaced swaths of jungle. Trash was strewn everywhere: takeout containers, empty tuna cans, water and Coca-Cola bottles, blue tarps, fuel canisters, oil drums, tiny empty containers that said “Mercurio” on the side, next to a stylish logo depicting a bull and its fighter. It looked like the wreckage of a civilization that had exterminated itself.
“Muy contaminado,” one of the soldiers said.
The red sun blazed. All the miners had fled the interdiction except one, a small young man who would only give his nickname. “Dengue,” he said. There was a local outbreak of hemorrhagic dengue fever. Clinics were full of the sick and dying.
Short and wiry and dark from the sun, Dengue sported the faux-hawk of a La Liga striker. He wore a floral-patterned tank top, shorts, and the white knee-high rubber boots, similar to Wellingtons, that every miner in Madre de Dios seemed to wear. I told him about the story I was researching, that it had to do with gold mining, and La Pampa, and a man named Peter Ferrari.
“All of Peter Ferrari’s gold is from here!” Dengue said, almost with pride. He knew this, he told me, from the TV news.
He was 25 years old and from Cuzco. He’d come to La Pampa two years prior. There was no other work as lucrative as this. For the mining crew that the soldiers had chased away, Dengue was a machetero. He made 100 Peruvian soles a day—about $28—to cut down trees and brush. The men who operated the pumps and hoses, excavating and then working down inside the muddy craters, could make up to 300 soles a day. That was the job Dengue wanted. I asked him how much money he’d earned so far in his gold-mining career.
“Everything is invested,” he replied.
“Mujeres y cerveza.” Women and beer. The soldiers erupted in laughter.
Then Dengue turned serious. In truth, he said, he’d sent almost all of his money to his mother.
We stood next to an intact sluice. Before the specialists blew it up, we ascended the ramp and studied the carpet. There were several flecks of gold caught in its green fibers. One of the soldiers found a bucket nearby filled with watery gruel—mud that had recently come off the sluice. Had there been no interdiction, the miners would have taken the bucket, dumped its contents into a larger vat, and added mercury to it.
The soldiers instructed Dengue to see if there was gold in the gruel. He dipped a metal dish into the bucket and swirled it around, occasionally bumping it with the heel of his palm. It was clear he’d done the motions before. The soldiers crowded eagerly around him, peering down. “Somebody is going to see me,” Dengue said at one point, looking up, “and then kill me on the highway.”
Golden specks collected at the bottom of the pan. How much gold was it? What would the soldiers do with it? Seize it as evidence? “No,” an officer said.
I watched one of the soldiers walk away with the pail in his hand. I was told it was time to go.
In early February 2015, Renato, Sam, and Juan were summoned to a fancy Dallas hotel for questioning, part of the investigation into NTR’s insurance claim for the gold stolen in Lima. The underwriter was trying to find any reason not to pay out—such is the way of the insurance business—and the lawyers had zeroed in on NTR’s dealings with Ferrari. If they could find evidence that Renato, Sam, and Juan knew they were buying gold from Ferrari, with his reputation as an illegal-gold tycoon, the underwriter could nullify the claim.
For their part, the three friends hoped that the depositions would be the last time they ever had to talk about Ferrari. They prepped together without a lawyer—just the three of them. They made a pact to lie under oath.
According to Renato, they all agreed: “We would not admit to knowing Peter Ferrari.” They repeated it over and over, a mantra. They “rehearsed scenarios” and “discussed what we would say to try to keep our stories straight.” They talked about how they had to “save the company.” Sam in particular was adamant. “I clearly remember him saying that it was … our job to get this claim approved,” Renato said. He, too, felt duty-bound, citing his hardscrabble upbringing in Brooklyn, where loyalty was a valuable currency and anything that smacked of snitching was absolutely taboo. Sam and Juan were like family; NTR had given him a chance and paid him well. None of them seemed to realize the gravity of lying in a deposition. “The worst outcome we thought, or I thought, was the claim would be denied,” Renato said.
The bombshell came a few hours into his second day under oath. Renato had spent much of his time with the lawyers, repeating “I don’t recall” and trying to get across that he was just a sales guy. He knew that Ferrari was “a bad person,” he said, because Crogan had said so, but he didn’t know why exactly, and he certainly wasn’t aware that NTR was doing business with the man.
Then a lawyer slid a manila folder across the table. It contained a stack of Peruvian business registration forms for MPP. These were the papers Renato had given Crogan in February 2013 to get the supplier approved. The lawyer directed Renato to a certain page, and he looked down and read. Right there, typed in black, was the name Pedro David Pérez Miranda. He was listed as one of the company’s principals.
Renato’s chest turned to ice. What the fuck…? How had he and Sam missed this page? How had Crogan missed it?
Sam also underwent a two-day grilling. “I don’t remember,” he said in response to question after question. Juan had the easiest time—half a day, on a Friday. At the outset, he insisted that the lawyers call him Mr. Granda. When they asked him what he knew about Ferrari back in 2013, before the gold shipment was stolen, he replied, “At that point in time, Peter Volkswagen would have sounded the same to me.” Everyone laughed.
Afterward the friends felt like they’d done pretty well. They’d been tripped up here and there, but the lawyers hadn’t extracted any catastrophic confessions. According to Renato, their company’s general counsel, Carl Gum, later told them they “did great.” (In an email, Gum, who still represents Elemetal LLC, said there were “inaccuracies and even urban legends” in the fact-checking questions sent prior to publication of this story, but he didn’t specify what those might be.)
Renato also recalled Sam calling Crogan to fill him in on what had happened. Topping the highlight reel was Ferrari’s name on the MPP paperwork. Renato told me that Crogan was surprised and concerned.
Crogan had his own deposition coming up, but it never happened. On March 20, sparked by a round of searches and seizures in Lima, the news broke in the Peruvian press: Ferrari was under investigation for money laundering and trading in illegal gold. NTR’s name was all over the coverage. So was Kaloti’s. Soon Ferrari’s lawyer took to the airwaves, vehemently proclaiming his client’s innocence in an interview on a Peruvian news channel.
Crogan sent an email to one of the bosses in Dallas. The case against Ferrari in Peru, he wrote, would almost certainly lead to an investigation into NTR by U.S. authorities, if one hadn’t been opened already. He suggested that he and the company seek an audience with the feds as soon as possible, get out ahead of the situation. Soon after, according to Renato, Sam and Carl Gum flew to Lima to meet with NTR’s local lawyers there. Crogan wasn’t informed about the trip and felt as if he’d been purposefully excluded.
Then, just like that, Crogan quit. He sent a resignation memo to Dallas, summing up his reasons for leaving and highlighting the Peru situation, according to two people who saw the email and described its contents to me.
Renato remembered Crogan coming down to Miami before his last day on the job and being cordial enough. But he “never really asked” Crogan why he resigned. “I had seen many people in my career quit high roles in companies,” Renato told me.
He got back to doing what he did best: buying gold and not asking questions.
The year 2016 was full of warning signs. There was the grand jury subpoena from the U.S. Attorney’s Office that Elemetal received in April. Sam told Renato not to worry—it was part of some industrywide probe. In May, the Peruvian government declared a state of emergency in Madre de Dios because of large-scale mercury poisoning wrought by illegal mining. June saw the arrests of several gold suppliers in Ecuador for smuggling illicit Peruvian gold into their country and selling it to overseas refiners, but none of them were NTR customers. At least not directly—an NTR supplier had purchased gold from one of the Ecuadorian companies, but NTR had stopped working with that supplier some time earlier. In August, suppliers in Chile were arrested on similar charges, and this time one of them had been an NTR client until just a month prior—a flashy young exporter named Harold Vilches, whom Rodolfo Soria had introduced to Renato. But Vilches was relatively small-time, and Renato said he didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes with Vilches’s business
The decision by NTR’s bosses in October to halt purchases from most of Latin America, because U.S. authorities’ investigation of the gold business “was getting too hot for the industry”—that was a big deal. Still, according to Renato, Sam insisted that “we were only pausing.” Renato told his customers he “would be back soon.” If he was worried about anything, it was about losing his job, not his freedom.
Even Ferrari’s spectacular downfall seemed like a good thing at first. Peruvian investigators discovered that Ferrari had stolen NTR’s gold with the assistance of Rodolfo Orellana, a lawyer and property racketeer who told Ferrari he might be able to pry the gold from SUNAT’s hands for a $1 million fee through a network of public officials he’d paid off. Ferrari had negotiated Orellana down to $600,000, a portion of which he’d apparently tried to get Sam to pay during their final phone call. Orellana ultimately bribed two judges, who concocted court orders demanding that SUNAT release the gold.
When Pepe Morales arrived in his Honda to take the shipment from the SUNAT warehouse, Orellana’s closest adviser, Benedicto Jiménez, was there. Jiménez was famous, a national hero. The silver-haired former general was responsible for the 1992 capture of Manuel Rubén Abimael Guzmán, the founder of the Shining Path. Two decades later, Jiménez was working for Orellana, assisting in bribes and scams. Orellana was eventually locked up for a billion-dollar scheme to commit real estate fraud, and Jiménez for his role as his consigliere. In a phone call from his Lima home, where he was at the time under house arrest, Jiménez denied having anything to do with the Ferrari gold. It was all a case of mistaken identity. Yes, he was at SUNAT the day of the theft, but on other business.
At 3 a.m. on January 3, 2017, three years to the day after Ferrari had absconded with NTR’s gold, some 900 police officers and other officials fanned out across Lima. They planned to arrest Ferrari, his twin sons, Pepe Morales, Miguel Ángel Rivero Pérez, Alexander Calvo, Rodolfo Soria, and others for their involvement in the illegal gold trade. SWAT team members leaned ladders against the walls of Ferrari’s 30,000-square-foot compound and crept over. Two security guards stood in a garden. One of them noticed that a red spot had appeared on the other’s forehead. Then there was yelling as police poured into the compound and rushed inside the house. On a living room wall hung a large piece of art: a cartoonishly stylized American dollar bill with Ferrari’s smiling visage in the center, a gold chain around his neck. “WHO DO I TRUST?” read the text on the bill, and underneath that, “I TRUST ME”—quotes from Al Pacino’s Tony Montana character in the movie Scarface.
Officers found Ferrari in his pajamas. The first thing he said was “OK, OK, I lose.” The police searched the house for gold and cash. Ferrari refused to help, so they turned the place upside down. It took six hours to find the vault. On a wall in Ferrari’s large home office hung another piece of art, this one extending from floor to ceiling and featuring a landscape scene. Someone thought to take it down, and when they did they found a brushed-metal door 12 feet across and six inches thick. The officers yanked Ferrari over and ordered him to enter the passcode. For several minutes, he fumbled with the keypad.
“What’s happening?” asked Jorge Dominguez, the lead investigator on the case.
“I’m nervous,” Ferrari replied. “I can’t remember it.”
Dominguez rolled his eyes and called in the welding crew. For four hours they blowtorched and drilled. When they finally opened the vault, it contained some jewelry and 15 kilograms of gold bars, worth about $555,000 at the time. It wasn’t nothing, but it was nowhere near the cache the authorities had expected to find.
“Te pelaste,” Ferrari said to Dominguez and his team as they stared into the vault. It was idiomatic Spanish: You’ve been cleaned out, fleeced, screwed. “Mi dinero está afuera,” he added. My money is on the outside.
The arrest was all over Peruvian media. Renato, Sam, and Juan celebrated. That fucker deserved it, they agreed.
They didn’t wonder if the arrest might be related to something bigger, let alone to them. They knew that Elemetal LLC had lawyered up, using the services of the formidable Jones Day legal firm. And they’d given their cell phones to the company’s attorneys, who in turn provided them to federal agents. They had no choice: The subpoena from April, the one Sam told Renato was no big deal, ultimately required it.
The doorbell rang at Renato’s house in the Miami suburb of Kendall one evening in late January. A man and a woman flashed their badges: Cole Almeida, special agent with Homeland Security Investigations, and Refina Willis, FBI. Almeida was one of the law enforcement contacts Crogan had called after Ferrari stole the gold shipment. Renato invited them to sit down on the living room couch. His hands trembled as he brought them water, but the agents turned out to be “polite” and “unthreatening,” Renato said.
Their questions revolved almost entirely around Harold Vilches, the Chilean supplier. Renato told them that NTR had stopped doing business with Vilches because he was being investigated for dealing in “conflict gold.” Later in the discussion, Renato asked the agents whether he was “a subject” of investigation. That’s what they were there to figure out, Almeida replied.
The questioning took less than an hour. Afterward, Renato was unnerved but relieved. Based on the questioning, he thought Vilches was their target.
A month later, Sam received an email from a Bloomberg reporter, asking him to respond to a list of allegations made by Vilches, including that he and Renato had helped smuggle illegally mined Peruvian gold through Chile to Miami. The reporter had already stopped by the Doral office some months earlier asking about Vilches. Now as then, Sam and Renato denied everything. But the looming article, to be published amid increasing heat from the feds, scared Renato. With his company’s blessing, according to Renato, he called the number on the card Refina Willis had given him and told her about the Bloomberg email. Let’s meet, she said.
The next day, Renato drove downtown to the U.S. attorney’s office, which is in a tower adjacent to Miami’s hulking concrete federal lockup. In a windowless room, Willis and Almeida told Renato that they believed his role in exporting illegal gold from South America went far beyond Vilches. He should take a deal.
What deal? Renato was confused. He’d already explained that he didn’t know Vilches’s business. He didn’t have a lawyer present.
The agents asked him to tell them about “the conspiracy” to move illegally mined gold “from South America.” Renato said he didn’t know anything about that. “I am not a criminal,” he said. “My whole life is dedicated to my family! I’m a good guy!”
According to Renato, Willis slid a printout across the table. It was a photo Renato had once sent to Sam, of a female masseuse at the Smik Spa. To Renato the implication was clear: The feds were accusing him of whoring around. Willis asked Renato what his wife would say about the photo. “What do you want me to say?” Renato replied, near tears. At some point another man entered the room—the lead prosecutor on the case, Frank Maderal. “Tell me about your customer SRH,” Maderal said.
The FBI report about the meeting doesn’t mention the Smik photo. It suggests that Renato dissembled, denying that SRH was among his suppliers. But according to Renato, “I plainly said they were a Bolivian collector that supplied us with gold.”
The meeting ended with Maderal saying it was a waste of his time. Afterward, on the sidewalk outside the office, Almeida said he wished Renato had taken a deal.
The following week, Sam, Juan, and Renato met at a bar in Kendall called the Blue Martini. By then an article headlined “How to Become an International Gold Smuggler” had appeared on Bloomberg’s website. It claimed that Sam and Renato knowingly bought and sold illegal gold from Vilches. Though the men had denied the allegations, a company executive named Bill LeRoy had just arrived in town from Dallas. Sam had already spoken to him, and he told his two friends what was coming: NTR was letting them all go. Renato felt sick.
The next morning, LeRoy summoned the three men to his hotel and made it official. They wouldn’t be part of the company’s future.
Juan was the first to be arrested. After the meeting at the hotel, he went to his mother’s condo south of Miami. Federal agents were soon swarming around him. By 4:20 that afternoon, he was sitting in an interrogation room across from Willis and Almeida, his head in his hands.
That night a gathering took place at Iska Barrage’s sister’s house. Renato was there, along with Miriam. All of Iska’s family were in attendance, too. In light of what had happened to Juan, Sam told everyone, he and Renato would possibly—probably—be arrested. Sam spoke about the need to stick together, “to not fall to the feds,” because they’d done “nothing wrong.” Miriam was shaking. Iska took her to the backyard and looked her in the eye. “It’s going to be OK,” Miriam recalled her saying. “I need you to remember: We are family. Please don’t ever forget. We are family.”
Renato and Miriam’s twin daughters had a school trip to Disney World that weekend. Someone suggested that Sam, Iska, and their daughter join the Rodriguezes in Orlando and use the excursion to regroup. They drove up on Friday. One night in their shared hotel suite, Sam mused to Renato about “moving to Nicaragua”—where Iska’s family was from—and “getting away from all this shit.” Renato nodded. They drove back to Miami on Sunday.
The Rodriguezes’ dog, Stella, a Yorkshire terrier, barked like mad in the living room the next morning, March 20, when federal agents arrived. They wore black vests and held guns as they searched the house. They put Renato in handcuffs and walked him to an unmarked car. “Oh my God, oh my God,” Miriam kept saying. Almeida was there. “I’m not a criminal,” Renato told him. Almeida replied, “That’s not what we think.”
Left alone in a silent house—the girls were at school—Miriam dialed Sam’s cell number. Before the agents hauled him away, Renato had instructed her: Call Sam and “tell him what happened and [ask] what do we need to do.” Call after call went to voice mail before Sam finally picked up.
“Miriam,” he said. “I’m in Colombia.”
She felt dizzy. Had Sam fled the country?
The investigation of Don Alfredo’s murder was assigned to the prosecutor’s office in the small town of Mazuko, in western Madre de Dios. Why it wasn’t sent to the larger office in Puerto Maldonado wasn’t clear to Freddy Vracko. Randy Morey, the only witness to the crime, was ruled out as a suspect. A succession of detectives and prosecutors came and went, which made progress slow. It wasn’t surprising: 58 environmental activists were murdered in Peru between 2002 and 2014, according to the organization Global Witness. To this day almost none of the cases have been solved.
A year after his father’s death, Freddy learned of a possible break in the case. Police had located a man, Edwin, and a woman, Nancy, who apparently possessed critical information. The pair had gone to a cantina one night in a remote gold-mining camp near the northern border of Don Alfredo’s timber concession. While drinking beer, they overheard a man bragging at the bar. He was the one who had shot and killed the famous Don Alfredo. And here he was now, all this time after the crime, still working, still mining gold, still drinking—a free man! But the police couldn’t protect him forever, he’d added. He needed to leave the area.
The witnesses knew the miner only by his nickname, which they said he announced at the bar. He was Chaval, the Kid.
Edwin and Nancy shared still more information with police, according to Freddy and partial documents obtained from the case file. Edwin, who was a miner, said he recognized Chaval from a previous encounter. He’d seen him with Don Alfredo’s brother, Puby Vracko. And he’d seen Puby visiting illegal mining sites in the company of two police officers, who, based on their descriptions, seemed to be men named Dante Gallardo and Edgar Barrientos. Edwin’s claims indicated that they were involved in a protection racket, shielding mine bosses and their equipment from interdictions, for a price.
Freddy said he pressed the authorities to make arrests, to do something. Then came reports that Edwin had been killed, his body left on the side of the Interoceanic Highway. As for Nancy, she was said to have disappeared from Madre de Dios.
Soon, Chaval himself reportedly vanished. The police never discovered his real name—not that they ever really tried, Freddy told me. They never even ascertained his physical description.
Freddy said he and his mother more or less took up the investigation on their own. They learned that Chaval’s wife used to run a small mining-supply shop but that she’d liquidated her inventory and moved to Lima. Freddy pestered prosecutors with legal filings, trying to prod them into action. The documents he sent them showed evidence, all of it circumstantial, against his uncle. They told a Cain and Abel parable of the rainforest, where instead of farmers against herders it was miners against loggers. Freddy had come to believe that Puby had hired Chaval to go to Don Alfredo’s house and scare him into giving up his anti-mining crusade. “I hope the order was not to kill him,” Freddy said, “but just to scare him, and the whole thing got out of hand.”
Puby ran a small beer hall on the main square in Puerto Maldonado, called Club Social. In April 2017, his frustrations boiling over, Freddy confronted his uncle on the sidewalk outside. Their faces were an inch apart, and their words were full of venom.
“Your time as a bully is over!” Freddy said.
“I’ve already found your father’s killer!” Puby yelled. “What are you doing, huevón, for your father!”
“It was you!” Freddy said with fury. “I’m going to catch you, you’ll see! I’m going to catch you!”
But he didn’t. Later in 2017, according to Freddy, the police told him that money had run short. “Without money, they don’t do anything,” he told me. The case went cold. Someone had got away with murder.
Who did Puby mean when he said that he knew who killed his brother?
Outside Club Social one sweltering morning in February 2020, I briefly met Puby Vracko. He had a small mustache, a gut as round as a soccer ball, and thick hands. He wore a blue chambray work shirt that said “CAT” on the breast pocket. He could have been an aging Texas ranch hand. He couldn’t talk right then, he said—he had to take care of some business. But later on, around noon, no problem. We could meet, we could talk. “In what part of me will you shoot me?” he said in Spanish, with a laugh, which he apparently meant as a kind of jovial—and cynical—critique of journalism.
The meeting didn’t happen. He never answered his phone, never responded to messages, and every time I returned to Club Social, he wasn’t there.
Months later, Manuel Calloquispe, a journalist based in Puerto Maldonado, sat down with Puby at Club Social on my behalf and got his side of the story. It turned out to be the mirror image of his nephew’s: It was Freddy who wanted to let gold miners onto the timber concession and collect rent from them; Freddy was the one who’d been corrupted by gold. A few weeks before Don Alfredo’s murder, Puby claimed, Freddy and his father had a fierce argument over mining—Freddy wanted it on their land, Don Alfredo did not—and “my brother kicked him out” and “disowned him basically.” Freddy went to Lima, and from there he orchestrated the killing, Puby suggested, in league with the miners on his brother’s land. “For me,” Puby said, “he had something to do with his father’s death.”
“I adored my brother. Our family was so united,” he went on. “And today my nephew goes to war against me, talking all kinds of nonsense.”
Was there evidence? Puby didn’t give any.
“He’s a liar,” Freddy growled when I relayed to him what Puby had said. There had been no argument with his father, let alone one about mining: “How dare he say this after all that’s happened—after the threats, the invasions!”
It was the first time Freddy was hearing his uncle’s accusations. “You’re giving me much more reason,” he said, “to believe that he is the son of a bitch who gave the order to kill my father.”
Sam’s lawyer would later insist that, while Renato was being arrested, his client flew to Colombia so he could “transition away from the day-to-day operations of the business”—Sam had been running an NTR office there in which he had an ownership share. But several people I spoke to, including former NTR colleagues, wondered if there was another reason. The U.S. Justice Department has a robust property-seizure arm. When a person is accused of a felony, the government often pursues their assets vigorously. “Maybe he had a secret stash of money there,” Miriam Rodriguez said, “and he just needed to make sure that he could get to it.” To hide it, that is, or transfer it to someone for safekeeping.
Colombian police arrested Sam at the airport after he’d checked in for his flight back to Miami. He spent several days in a local jail before being sent back to Florida after all. There he joined his friends in being charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering.
According to the first criminal complaint, filed against Juan, the three men sent “billions of dollars from the United States to Latin America with the intent to promote the carrying on of organized criminal activity, including illegal gold mining, gold smuggling and the entry of goods into the U.S. by false means and statements, and narcotics trafficking.” Ferrari was identified as “Peter P.F. … a well-known individual in Peru, previously accused but acquitted of narcotics money laundering.” The complaint alleged that the NTR trio knew that the gold they bought from Ferrari—some $340 million worth in 2013—was illicit, and that their “conspiracy evolved over time from using obvious Peruvian front companies, to smuggling through Bolivia and Ecuador, to using more sophisticated Peruvian front companies, to smuggling through farther out countries, including islands in the Caribbean.”
At their respective arraignments, the men pleaded not guilty. Because of his trip to Colombia, Sam was deemed a flight risk and denied bail. So was Juan—he had emigrated from Ecuador with his parents when he was young, and his family still had property there. Renato bonded out. He was fitted with an ankle bracelet and went to work making pizzas. Miriam found him an experienced criminal defense attorney named Sabrina Puglisi, and Renato prepared to go to trial. He was convinced of his innocence: He may have lied to NTR about working with Ferrari, but he hadn’t been part of any conspiracy to launder drug profits, and he hadn’t supported organized crime—at least, he hadn’t meant to. What little indirect contact Renato had with Sam and Juan led him to believe that they were taking the same approach to the case.
The prosecution made much of the alleged narco-trafficking connections. Renato contended that they were trumped up, that the evidence of laundering drug money was murky at best. In one of Juan’s court hearings, a judge seemed to agree. “I think the government’s case is not the strongest case that I have ever seen,” the judge said. “I would say I give very little weight to his involvement in narcotics money laundering.”
At the end of the day, however, what mattered was Ferrari’s reputation. According to one expert in such cases, sometimes that’s all prosecutors have to go by in money-laundering investigations—rumor and repute. It’s nearly impossible, after all, to prove that any particular piece of gold was purchased with drug money. What U.S. authorities could say for sure was that Ferrari had already been the target of a drug-centered investigation before NTR began working with him. The stories in the media about his ties to traffickers were relevant not necessarily because they were proven, but because they were public. Sam, Renato, and Juan knew about Ferrari’s reputation, and they chose to lie and do business with him anyway.
In Lima, not one law enforcement or government official I spoke to had found any evidence that Ferrari was laundering narco-dollars. Investigator Jorge Dominguez told me he had looked for it—hard. He did discover that one of the many micro-collectors Ferrari purchased gold from was busted in 2006 at the Lima airport carrying two kilograms of cocaine. But that was it.
Dominguez felt the drug-trafficking narrative was almost a distraction. Wasn’t illegal gold mining bad enough? In some ways, wasn’t it worse? Dominguez pointed out that mining is a “normalized situation that is happening in the open,” with sprawling camps and deforestation so rampant that it’s visible from space. And gold undergirds the global financial system. In the last phase of Ferrari’s career, he exported jungle doré from illegal mines by the metric ton. To Dominguez, that was more than enough reason to take him and his accomplices down once and for all.
Stateside, Juan was the first to change his plea to guilty, in late August 2017. Sam did the same a few days later. For a time Renato held out, unable to admit to crimes he felt he hadn’t committed. But then, in October, prosecutor Frank Maderal took out the big guns. A fresh indictment brought an additional 44 criminal counts against Renato, almost all of them pertaining to a different gold transaction made by NTR Miami.
Renato now faced a trial he couldn’t afford—the government had seized his life savings—and the prospect of Juan and Sam testifying against him. If he was convicted, he could spend up to 55 years in prison. So he capitulated. He received more prison time than his friends: 90 months to their 80 each. This despite the fact that both Maderal and the judge agreed that Renato had become involved in criminal activities “less deliberately” and “less proactively than his co-conspirators.”
Renato left home to surrender to authorities on June 7, 2018. He doesn’t remember how he said goodbye to his 16-year-old daughters. “Maybe I just wanted to not save that in my memory bank,” he said. He hugged Miriam in their garage. His car had been repossessed, so he was using a vehicle from work. “I got in the pizza truck and drove away,” he recalled.
Renato turned around to take one last glance at the house. He wept at the wheel.
In his correspondence from prison, Renato often said that he felt like a scapegoat, a proxy punished for the gold industry’s endemic sins. Banks, tech companies, jewelry manufacturers—they all want, need, crave gold, and the system that satiates that demand is rife with corruption, most of which goes unpunished. Employees at other companies bought gold from illegal mines in Madre de Dios, and from Peter Ferrari specifically. None of them went to prison. Then again, none of them got caught or were necessarily put in the government’s sights. In the United States, the only other person who did get nabbed was Jorge Uceda, the crooked customs broker. He was detained by authorities at the Fort Lauderdale airport in 2018, indicted for money laundering, and sentenced to 30 months behind bars.
As for Ferrari, the U.S. government indicted him in January 2018 for his role in the money-laundering scheme, but he remained in custody in Peru. During 41 months of detention, and despite the years-long investigation that preceded his arrest, Peruvian prosecutors were never able to charge him with any crimes. A judge finally ruled that he had to be released in June 2020.
Around that time, I made contact with one of Ferrari’s twin sons, Peter Jr., in an effort to arrange an interview with his father. “The press has created a monster where there is none,” Peter Jr. texted me. “We’re victims of an abuse of power committed here by the prosecutors and judges and Peruvian police.” He claimed that his father’s gold exports were made “through regular and legal pathways,” and that Ferrari “didn’t know anyone at NTR.” Then Peter Jr.’s phone stopped working. Ferrari was living freely in an apartment in Lima, waiting to learn whether or not U.S. authorities would extradite him. When I was able to make contact with his family again, in July, I learned that he had become gravely ill and had been rushed to the hospital. The next month, the news broke: Peter Ferrari was dead at 60 of complications from COVID-19. When I spoke to people in Peru’s gold trade, they were abuzz with speculation. Ferrari, they said, had surely faked his demise in order to evade justice: As is customary in such situations, when the U.S. government learned of his death, it dropped all charges against him.
After Sam, Renato, and Juan were arrested, Elemetal LLC lost its coveted certifications: COMEX and the LBMA removed the business from their “good delivery” lists. The company shuttered the Ohio refinery, laying off its workforce, and the cycle that Elemetal and its primary bank, Scotia, had been engaged in—dollars for gold for dollars for gold—came to an abrupt end. “I’m not interested in talking about that,” Tim Dinneny, the banker who managed the relationship with Elemetal, said when I contacted him.
The entity inside Scotia that had funded NTR’s gold purchases was called ScotiaMocatta. Mocatta was once a venerable London precious metals trading house, established in the 17th century on the back of Brazilian slaver gold. Scotia bought the firm in 1997. Sometime after the NTR debacle, the bank tried to find a buyer for it but failed. Scotia ultimately decided to shut the division down.
In February 2020, Scotia disclosed that its “activities and trading practices in the metals markets and related conduct” were under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department. Five months later, Steve Loftus died of a heart attack. He won’t be around to see what happens when his company finishes paying its penance for the Ferrari affair. As a corporate entity, Elemetal pleaded guilty in 2018 to a failure to maintain an adequate anti-money-laundering program; in a press statement, the conglomerate said it “wholeheartedly condemns the shocking behavior of these former NTR Miami employees in South America. Elemetal, however, also accepts full responsibility for its employees, the employees of its subsidiaries, and the failure of its international anti-money laundering program to prevent the misdeeds of the employees.”
Elemetal agreed to pay a $15 million fine, and the government forbade it from buying gold overseas—but only for five years. In 2022, it will be free to start up again.
Juan Granda served 28 months in federal prison before his release in August 2019. He now lives with his mother and works for a friend who runs a web-design business. Sam Barrage left prison in November 2019 after serving 30 months. He’s now back at home with Iska and their daughter. Renato, like Sam, also spent 30 months inside. He was released into home confinement a week before Christmas 2020, the beneficiary of a policy to ease outbreaks of COVID-19 in federal prisons.
One evening in early 2021, I visited Renato. Fit as an athlete from all the prison workouts, he had a high-and-tight military haircut. We sat on his back patio, near the pool. Swimming was out of the question; a Bureau of Prisons official had warned him not to submerge the device strapped to his ankle. Except for doctors’ appointments, meetings with BOP officials, and work shifts—he’d landed another job making pizzas—he wouldn’t be allowed to leave the house for another two years. The ankle monitor would come off in 2023.
The view from the patio extended west across a small lake and neighbors’ yards clumped with coconut palms. This was the western edge of Miami’s sprawl; not a mile away the Everglades began. Insects chirred as the sun set and the sky grew pink, and Renato reflected on gold.
“It’s disgusting to me,” he said.
He could no longer physically bear to be near gold—or any precious metal, for that matter. He’d given away the platinum watch and gold bracelet he once wore. “I don’t wear my wedding band,” he said. He stared down at his bare right hand. He’d put the ring in a drawer upstairs and planned to buy a stainless-steel replacement.
Renato wrestled with guilt—how much of it he should feel, and for what. Yes, he reiterated, he’d known that the gold he and NTR were buying was illegal, but he hadn’t grasped, or even tried to grasp, the full scope of the horror caused by how it was mined. “I didn’t pay any attention to it,” Renato said. Back then, the topic had bored him.
I thought about an illegal mining site I’d visited. It was relatively new at the time, in early 2020, but already there’d been reports that the dreaded Guardians of the Path had arrived, the men who supposedly protect miners but seem only to cause violence. “Anybody can get killed around here,” said one of my guides, a farmer.
A miner was submerged in the site’s crater, up to his neck in water and working a suction hose. Another had a leg inside a vat of what looked like gray plasma, an amalgam of dirt and water and mercury. The miners—I counted about a dozen—took turns mixing the toxic slurry with their arms and legs, the better to get the mercury to adhere to any gold extracted from the crater. As the search for gold continued, the crater would widen. The palms at its perimeter would be felled, the underbrush cut and burned. The site’s slag pile, already 20 feet high, would grow ever taller.
The operation’s boss, a woman in a red sun hat and white flip-flops who said her name was Ruth, demanded that we not take photos. I asked if I could speak to her. “I have nothing to say to you. I have the authority of the San Jacinto community to be here,” she said, referring to an indigenous group. Some impoverished native communities allow illegal mining on their land for a price. “Ask them why they’ve allowed us to be here,” Ruth said.
A young shirtless man in shorts and white rubber boots who’d been standing atop the slag pile began to descend toward us, a machete in his hand. He waved the blade in the air and shouted. What he said I couldn’t make out. Other miners were closing in.
“Tranquilo, tranquilo,” my guides said, backing away.
As dusk turned to night in Miami, I heard Renato repeat a different phrase: “I was an idiot. I was a fucking idiot.”
Months earlier, Renato had told me from prison about one of NTR’s Madre de Dios micro-collectors, a woman named Neli Ortiz. On his patio I mentioned her. Renato said he’d met her “on a few occasions.” Once, probably in 2015, she traveled to Miami, and he and Sam took her to lunch at Versailles, a famous Cuban restaurant in Little Havana.
I asked Renato if he knew that Neli belonged to the Ortiz clan, which ran several companies that allegedly bought illegal gold from all over Madre de Dios, including from Tia Goya. No, he said, he did not know that. Nor did he know that the Ortizes operated many gold-buying storefronts and booths in La Pampa, including one just eight miles from the forest concession belonging to Don Alfredo. I summarized Don Alfredo’s story for Renato, pointing out that the logger and anti-mining activist had been murdered in November 2015, at the peak of NTR’s dealings with the micro-collectors of Madre de Dios. The Ortiz clan easily could have bought and sold metal mined from Don Alfredo’s land.
“Shit,” Renato said. “Holy shit.”
I told him that Neli Ortiz and members of her family had been accused of paying bribes, over the course of several years, to José Carlos Bustamante, the local minister of mining who had delayed the interdiction that was supposed to take place on the day of Don Alfredo’s murder.
“God. I had no idea that this thing ran this deep.”
According to the corruption case against him, Bustamante was compensated to look the other way many times, planning interdictions against some illegal mines but not others. Bustamante worked closely with two Peruvian National Police officers in Madre de Dios. According to witnesses, they were Dante Gallardo and Edgar Barrientos—the cops once seen with Puby Vracko, the ones who allegedly protected the miners on Don Alfredo’s concession.
“If you really follow it, NTR was somehow connected to that!” Renato said, his eyes wide. “I wish I’d never fucking dealt with this fucking business.”
The dollars flow like rivers down the mountains and onto the plain, connecting everything. Scotia’s money, NTR’s money, the Ortizes’ money, Bustamante’s money, the illegal miners’ money—somewhere, somehow, some of it might well have financed the killing of Don Alfredo.
Renato stared into the night. “The demand for gold…,” he said, not completing the thought. “We should just indict the whole planet.”
When Freddy Vracko was a child—about eight years old—he wrote a story for school. He told me this toward the end of my first visit with him, at his mother’s house in Puerto Maldonado. He’d shown me old family photos of the home his father had built in the jungle—like something out of Robinson Crusoe—and of Don Alfredo in his thirties, standing in his sawmill amid stacks of boards planed smooth and ready for the carpenter. Young Freddy’s story was meant to be like a fairy tale. “El Asseradero de Oro” is the title he gave it. The golden sawmill.
“It is about a man like my father who knows the jungle,” Freddy explained. The man is leaving on a trip, and before he goes he tells his brother: You must protect this enormous ancient tree, “because it is the spirit of the forest.” But the brother forgets what he has been told. He cuts down the tree so he can sell the wood. And when he cuts down the tree, the whole forest—“everything, absolutely everything”—turns to gold. The man eventually returns from his trip and sees what his brother has done. He takes his son on a long journey “all over Madre de Dios.” They seek out other spirits of the forest in order to ask for forgiveness. At last they find a “brother spirit” of the lost tree, which grants them their request. Bit by bit, the forest regenerates from solid dead gold “back to how it was.”
But that’s the child’s ending. In this other ending—the real ending—the father is murdered, the guilty walk free, and as long as the rivers of money keep flowing, the forest can only be made of gold.