(RAPAPORT) New York Times: The most recent time Mike Phiri was on his hands and knees, clawing through the rough rock of the diamond fields just across the border in Zimbabwe, he dared a soldier to shoot him.
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.
â€œIf you want to shoot, shoot,â€� Phiri recalled barking at the soldier. â€œBut Iâ€™m not paying.â€�
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 worldâ€™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 dollarsâ€™ 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 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 Mugabeâ€™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.
â€œIt has become a ghost city since last year,â€� 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 Espun gabera.
Local authorities have increased the number of border guards and are training new ones, Mutadiua said. They also are relying more heavily on informants and doing intelligence work. Although he could not give an exact figure, Mutadiua said that the police had intercepted more shipments of minerals and stones in 2011, 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 Mozambiqueâ€™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 countryâ€™s mineral wealth â€” gold, copper and iron â€” 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, Mutadiua said.
â€œThe smuggling of precious stones is illegal,â€� he said. â€œWe are just doing our job.â€�
There is little doubt that smuggling contributed to development in the town of Manica, where sturdy, multiple-story concrete houses decked with satellite dishes went up, a contrast to the numerous makeshift mud and tin shacks in the area. The houses were rented and enhanced to their glorified states by wealthy diamond buyers and dealers from Lebanon, the Great Lakes region of Africa and elsewhere.
Diamond dealers gave so much business to the Manica Lodge, a hotel in the town, that the proprietors used to chase some away because they were making a scene.
Until late 2011, dealers could be found examining stones with magnifying lenses and haggling ove r sales at the restaurant, Maria Cook, the manager, said.
â€œIt was a good thing for us, because we made money,â€� she said, â€œbut in another way it was a risk, because people used to fight. We had a very bad reputation.â€�
Espungabera, 26 miles from the main area for artisanal digging in Marange, was never a hotbed for diamond buyers and dealers because getting there from inside Mozambique is challenging â€” a bumpy two-and-a-half-hour drive on a dirt road. But it was a haven for smugglers who spent money at the taverns, however fickle the smuggling business could be.
At the height of his smuggling days in 2008 and 2009, Mereia said that he used to make $2,000 to $3,000 during a two- or three-week excursion at Marange, a hefty sum here.
But smugglersâ€™ luck can vary. Nelson Chuquera, a 20-year-old resident, said that he earned $1,500 in two days of digging the first time he went to Marange. The second time, he spent a week there, he said, but earned just $150. Working in teams of about five, smugglers said, they would camp near the fields and dig at night to avoid detection. To get into the fields, they said, they had to pass barbed-wire fences, plus soldiers, police officers and private security guards. The smugglers would find unmonitored parts of the fence and cut through it. Other times, they would bribe the security forces, paying $10 to $100 per person, they said.
When they left, the security officials would search them. If the smugglers had the most valuable stones, the security forces would confiscate them to keep. The smugglers would sell what they had mined to buyers stationed in Zimbabwe or Mozambique.
Experts say that smuggling was indirectly beneficial to Mugabe because the security forces working there benefited personally. It was a way to keep them happy and loyal. But the private companies now mining in Marange just want to protect their profits, and they have introduced stricter security, the smugglers said.
â€œIf the situation improves, I will go back,â€� said Mereia, sitting outside of his one-room mud-brick home while his daughter and wife smashed cornmeal to make porridge.
â€œIâ€™m so used to making easy money,â€� he said. â€œI have no hope of getting a job.â€�
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