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Project January 17, 2024

How Ecuador Became a Hub for Narco Mines



Like all nine Amazon countries, Ecuador and Bolivia have seen an exponential boom in destructive gold mining in their rainforests since the COVID-19 pandemic. In Ecuador, locals describe a gold rush with dozens of heavy diggers and armed men guarding mines and buying gold at source in cash. Locals and experts speak of narcomineria. In the country’s ports, illegal gold is collected and reportedly used to launder the profits of drug trafficking, then exported to countries like India, China, and the United Arab Emirates. The investigation uses first-hand reportage, sources close to the illicit trade, and those affected by it, namely Indigenous people. It includes analysis of documents and datasets of gold production and exportation, customs and tax office data, and satellite imagery

The investigation examines how Bolivia exports far more gold than it officially produces. In 2021, gold was Bolivia's top export, generating $2.5 billion, double its value in 2020. Gold mining by so-called mining ‘cooperatives’ is largely unregulated and these organizations have close political ties to the governing MAS party. This reckless mining leaves toxic mercury in the ecosystem, impacting the local Indigenous communities while foreign nationals, including Chinese and Colombians, benefit from the illegal mining operations in Amazon national parks.


yellow halftone illustration of a logging truck holding logs


Rainforest Reporting

Rainforest Reporting


a yellow halftone illustration of a truck holding logs