How Tainted Gold May Have Ended Up in Your Phone

Producer/Director Brent McDonald

If you’re reading this on your phone, you may be holding illegally mined gold from Colombia, where the precious metal has replaced cocaine as the main source of income for organized crime. The growing demand for gold as a conductive metal used in phones and other electronic products has helped spawn a deadly illegal trade that’s harder to track than other black-market commodities like blood diamonds or drugs.

“The Weekly” travels to Colombia, where violent paramilitary groups have infiltrated every level of the supply chain, extorting prospectors, gold traders and some of the country’s top mining officials. Our correspondent Nicholas Casey traces gold tainted by criminal enterprises to see who profits, and who looks the other way. He discovers a route from illegal Colombian mines to the source that Apple and other major companies use to buy metals to make phones and other products many of us carry in our pockets every day.

[Join the conversation about @theweekly on Twitter and Instagram. #TheWeeklyNYT]

Pedro Ramirez, known as Chilapo, remains at large from authorities who say he should be under house arrest for trafficking firearms. He moved the site of his illegal gold mine since we visited him near Puerto Lopez, Colombia, last December. The amount of money being made from illegal mining in the town appears as high as ever.

Luis Alvarez closed his gold shop, known as a compraventa, in El Bagre, Colombia, northeast of Medellín. He’s looking for another, safer line of work — ideally a job that won’t require paying a regular extortion fee.

Mauricio Sanchez and his family continue to receive death threats since they fled El Bagre after the murder of his friend, William Castillo. Sanchez and his family receive special protection through a government program for community leaders targeted by armed groups. He says the two bodyguards and armored vehicle he has are not enough.

Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, met this year with President Iván Duque of Colombia to discuss, among other things, illegal mining. Apple continues to rely on a supply chain that includes gold from Colombia to make its products, but the company has said that it opened an internal investigation of the information presented by The Times.

[Watch the full episode of “The Weekly” on FX and streaming on Hulu.]

Senior Story Editors Dan Barry, Liz O. Baylen, and Liz Day
Colombia Producer Yerlin Pineda
Producer Lizzie Blenk
Directors of Photography Victor Tadashi Suarez and Vanessa Carr
Video Editor David Herr
Associate Producer Lora Moftah