Mr. Phiri and his fellow diamond smugglers had gotten into an argument with the soldier because, for the second consecutive night, he had directed them to a patch of the rich fields where there were no diamonds to be mined. And so they refused to pay him a bribe for allowing them onto the fields, in an area known as Marange. The soldier threatened force.
“If you want to shoot, shoot,” Mr. Phiri recalled barking at the soldier. “But I’m not paying.”
Mr. Phiri and his comrades walked away unharmed, but in more than three months he has not dared return to the fields, an acknowledgment of the increasing dangers for the black-market miners who once dominated an area that may be one of the world’s most lucrative diamond troves.
Ever since President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe began to tighten his grip about three years ago on the mines in Marange, where security forces and companies with ties to him are mining at least hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of stones, the illicit diamond business here has all but dried up. Border towns like this one have become echoes of what they once were.
In November, an international coalition created to prevent the trade of rough diamonds that fuel conflict approved the unlimited export of stones from Marange, giving Mr. Mugabe even more incentive to consolidate the diamond wealth, primarily for himself and his allies, according to human rights groups and Western officials.
Now the people in these diamond towns, who have made their living smuggling stones from Marange since the fields were first tapped more than five years ago, say that the dangers presented by Mr. Mugabe’s forces and private security teams make it far too risky for them to sneak through the barbed-wire fences patrolled by soldiers, police officers and private security guards with attack dogs.
The result for places like this sleepy village of dirt roads, as well as for Manica, a more developed border town several hours north, has been a stripping of what little vibrancy and economic activity they had, legal or otherwise. Here in Espungabera, tucked in rolling green mountains, former smugglers have been left with little to do. The one nightclub in town has closed, and people pass their days playing snooker at one of several taverns.
“It has become a ghost city since last year,” said Ibraimo Mereia, 27, who made his last trip to Marange in April.
In the town of Manica, the days of foreign buyers and traders openly haggling over stones and inspecting them at local restaurants and businesses have given way to empty dining rooms. Former diamond smugglers can now be found plunging into deep holes, smeared with red clay, as they pan for gold on the edges of town.
The reduction in smuggling is the product of more than a security crackdown at Marange itself, Mozambican authorities said. After a meeting over the summer with Zimbabwean security officials, local authorities introduced measures to rein in the practice from the Mozambican side, said Belmiro Mutadiua, a spokesman for the provincial police of Manica, which is about the size of West Virginia and includes Espungabera.
Local authorities have increased the number of border guards and are training new ones, Mr. Mutadiua said. They also are relying more heavily on informants and doing intelligence work. Although he could not give an exact figure, Mr. Mutadiua said that the police had intercepted more shipments of minerals and stones than last year, including diamonds, emeralds and quartz.
Naturally, many here may not see the evaporation of their underground industry as a good thing.
More than half of Mozambique’s adults are below the poverty line, and the country is one of the 20 poorest in the world, according to Unicef. Many people survive on subsistence farming. The country’s mineral wealth — gold, copper and iron — is largely untapped. The narrow shoulders of busy highways are full of people walking miles for water from wells or food from fields. People nonchalantly balance bundles of branches, stuffed bags or other items on their heads as they walk.
But the police cannot worry about whether smuggling helped the economy, Mr. Mutadiua said.
“The smuggling of precious stones is illegal,” he said. “We are just doing our job.”