Photography by Tomas Munita for Bloomberg Businessweek

Tomas Munita for Bloomberg Businessweek

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How to Become an International Gold Smuggler

Harold Vilches, a 23-year-old Chilean, exported $80 million in contraband gold. It all started with a Google search.

by Michael Smith and Jonathan Franklin
March 9, 2017

As the minutes ticked by on the afternoon of April 28, 2015, Harold Vilches watched stoically while customs officers at Santiago’s international airport scrutinized his carry-on. Inside the roller bag was 44 pounds of solid gold, worth almost $800,000, and all the baby-faced, 21-year-old college student wanted was clearance to get on a red-eye to Miami. Vilches had arrived at the airport six hours early because he thought there might be some trouble—he’d heard that customs had recently seized shipments from competing smugglers. But Vilches had done this run, or sent people to do it, more than a dozen times, and he’d prepared his falsified export paperwork with extra care. He was pretty sure he wouldn’t have any trouble. While he waited, he texted his contacts in Florida, telling them he’d already cleared customs.

The plan was to hand off the gold at the Miami airport to a pair of guards, who would load it into an armored truck for the short trip to NTR Metals Miami LLC, a company that buys gold in quantities large and small and sells it into the global supply chain. The modesty of its shabby office, where a receptionist sits behind an inch-thick acrylic barrier, belies the amount of business that goes on inside. U.S. Department of Justice investigators believe NTR Metals Miami has bought at least $3 billion in South American gold in the past four years, much of it from illegal mining operations, people familiar with the investigation say.

Vilches didn’t need this headache. In just two years he had rapidly risen in the ranks of Latin American gold smugglers. Although he was barely old enough to order a beer in Miami, he’d won a $101 million contract to supply a gold dealer in Dubai. That hadn’t exactly worked out—the Dubai company was after him for $5.2 million it says he misappropriated—but still, in a brief career he’d acquired and then resold more than 4,000 lb. of gold, according to Chilean prosecutors. U.S. investigators and Chilean prosecutors suspect almost all of it was contraband.

That evening at the airport, Vilches employed his standard cover story, saying that the gold came from coins acquired from customers and recast as ingots. The customs officers weren’t buying it. The laboratory Vilches had used to vouch for the gold wasn’t government-certified, they said, and they doubted his claims that the gold had come from coins. Vilches was irate. He couldn’t believe it when the man behind the desk called his boss and then relayed orders from above: If it’s Vilches’s gold, seize it.

Investigators with the Policía de Investigaciones, Chile’s equivalent of the FBI, had been monitoring Vilches for months, intercepting his phone calls and scouring the export papers he’d submitted. The kid was clever, they agreed, but who was he working for? “I thought there was someone behind him, always,” says José Luis Pérez, a Chilean prosecutor on the case.

After the airport officials confiscated Vilches’s gold, they let him go. For the next 15 months, Chilean authorities allowed Vilches to bring illegal gold in and ship it out as they built a case, searching for associates and those above him. They listened in on various telephones, read Vilches’s text messages, and followed couriers. They watched as smugglers brought gold south from Peru, across remote stretches of desert and through valleys in the Andes Mountains, or west from Argentina, driving over the snowy mountain pass in the shadow of 22,800-foot-high Aconcagua, then down to Santiago and Vilches’s headquarters, a place police nicknamed “The Bunker.” Inside, Vilches assayed, weighed, and paid for the gold. He melted it down and recast it as ingots, then flew it, or used a family member to fly it, to Miami.

To their growing amazement, the police never found the larger organization they presumed was supporting and protecting Vilches. There was, as far as they could determine, no bigger fish. Finally, in August 2016, they arrested him. Investigators say they have documented $80 million in gold shipments that moved through his hands via eight shell companies he established in Chile and Miami—and they think there was much more. They charged Vilches and four associates, including his wife and her father, with racketeering, smuggling, customs fraud, and money laundering. None of them have been tried, and the case remains open. Vilches’s wife and father-in-law declined through their lawyer to comment. Today, Vilches lives with his wife in an apartment in a rundown part of Santiago; he’s under house arrest from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

In exchange for his release from jail, Vilches provided extensive testimony that has allowed Chilean prosecutors and the U.S. Department of Justice to try to build a huge, multinational gold smuggling case. Interviews with police and prosecutors in Chile and the U.S. and hundreds of pages of police files describe Vilches’s part in a black market that adds literally tons of illegally mined and contraband gold to the international economy every year.

In the past decade and a half, global gold consumption has risen by almost 1,000 tons a year, to about 4,300 tons, according to the World Gold Council, a London-based industry group. Legal mining operations haven’t kept up with demand, so illegal mines controlled by criminal gangs, from the Amazon to central Africa, help cover the deficit, according to Verité, a nonprofit group in Amherst, Mass., that’s researched the illegal gold trade. A 2016 Verité study found that five countries in Latin America shipped 40 tons of gold from illegal mines to the U.S. in one year, almost twice the legal exports from those countries. South America’s illegal gold mines, most of them in the Amazon basin, are toxic pits in which mobs of laborers use fire hoses and mercury to extract nearly pure gold nuggets from the red earth. According to a finding by the United Nations, the industry thrives on child labor, devastates the environment, and enables prostitution at ramshackle camps around the mines. The gold moves from smuggler to smuggler, then into a network of refiners and traders, all feeding the world’s voracious demand.

Vilches, a city kid, never saw any of this, but he did grow up around gold. His father, Mario, owns a jewelry shop; his uncle Enrique, an evangelical preacher, built Joyas Barón, a chain of 18 jewelry stores. Enrique has more than once attracted the attention of the authorities. In 1998, Chilean prosecutors caught Ecuadorean smugglers with 18 ingots of gold at the airport, and they claimed to be delivering it to Enrique. (He was cleared of all criminal charges after arguing that police set him up.) In March 2015, Enrique was sentenced to five years’ probation for tax fraud by an appeals court in Santiago. Last year tax authorities filed further charges alleging that Enrique had organized an enormous accounting scam and owed an estimated $18 million in back taxes. Speaking on Chilean TV, Enrique Vilches denied all connections to his nephew’s gold smuggling. “I don’t have any commercial relationship with what’s being investigated,” he said. “[There’s] no situation that involves me, therefore I want to remain absolutely separated from this situation.”

By 15, Harold was working for his father’s business. Within a year, his dad was stuffing his backpack with up to 50 million pesos ($78,000) in cash and sending him to the bank to make deposits. In 2013, Vilches entered college at the Universidad Mayor in Santiago to study business administration. He hadn’t been there long when his father had a stroke, and he cut back his classwork to focus on the family business. If he was going to be doing that, he decided, he wanted to do more than buy and sell trinkets. He intended to make some real money, and that meant getting into the bulk gold business.

His first move was to persuade Gonzalo Farias, a metals exporter in Santiago, to take him on as a supplier. In September 2013, Vilches made his first delivery to Farias—6.6 lb. of gold legally acquired in Chile. He made several more such deliveries. But he wanted to be bigger. He went around Farias and cut a deal directly with Fujairah Gold, a Dubai-based company that Farias supplied. In June 2014, Vilches signed a contract to deliver 6,000 lb. of gold over the next 12 months to Fujairah’s head office. The contract began with 90 lb. the first month, then ratcheted up. He didn’t have the money to buy that much gold, so the company gave him access to an account holding $5.2 million. This was his big break—the contract was potentially worth more than $100 million. He stood to make $2 million to $6 million in profit.

This was beyond ambitious for Vilches—there weren’t enough available gold coins and jewelry in Chile to fill Fujairah’s orders. So Vilches decided to become a smuggler. It was easy: He Googled gold dealers in Peru. He found Rodolfo Soria Cipriano, one of the country’s most prolific exporters, according to Peruvian newspaper El Comercial. An answer came quickly. Vilches told investigators Soria promised to set him up with all the gold he wanted if he showed up with the cash. Vilches said he didn’t ask where the gold came from. Whatever its source, he evaded export controls and moved the gold into Chile without paying taxes or duties, prosecutors say.

Soria made introductions to a network of suppliers, with whom Vilches later arranged buys via WhatsApp messages. Once the gold was ready for pickup, he would fly to Arica, in northern Chile, where he kept a Mazda sedan expressly for trips into Peru. On at least 10 trips, beginning in the middle of 2014, Vilches says, he and his father-in-law drove across the border to the city of Tacna, a few miles inside Peru, with the door panels of their car stuffed with cash, as much as $2 million at a time.

Vilches bragged to prosecutors that he moved with ease in the criminal world. With relish, he described making a buy at a safe house in Tacna. While his father-in-law waited outside in the car, Vilches was escorted by armed men through multiple metal detectors and locked gates before arriving at a secure room that held a huge stash of gold. He suspected the house doubled as a cocaine dealing operation, he told prosecutors, but he kept his cool. He tested the gold for purity, then went back outside, packed the contraband into the door panels of the Mazda, and drove back to Chile.

Vilches began making as many as five gold runs a month to Peru and also hired couriers, who delivered to him directly in Santiago. It added up to enough to allow him to make several successful deliveries to Fujairah using air cargo companies. Then, in August 2014, customs agents at the airport in Arica stopped a pair of his couriers with 105 lb. of gold. The paperwork and the duo’s explanations about how they’d obtained the gold didn’t add up. The gold was seized, and Vilches was looking at his first legal trouble: a tax-evasion case, which has yet to be resolved.

Vilches decided to abandon Fujairah. Fulfilling the contract would require dozens of buying trips or courier runs, and getting the gold to Dubai would involve massive logistical challenges. When the company asked about its overdue deliveries, Vilches invented excuses. But lawyers for Fujairah were convinced he was lying. They suspected he was selling to other companies on the side. Fujairah also came to the conclusion that the gold was illegal.

Almost two years later, Vilches faced his first criminal charges, for fraud and appropriating $5.2 million from Fujairah Gold. Through his lawyer, Marko Magdic, Vilches denied the charges and said the only issue was a breach of contract. Fujairah continues to press claims in court to recover the money.

As his relationship with Fujairah deteriorated, Vilches sought new buyers. He knew some of his Chilean clients were selling the gold he brought from Peru to NTR Metals in Miami. Soria, he told prosecutors, made an introduction. “I was cleared by the company’s compliance committee in more or less three weeks,” he told the FBI. Trey Gum, general counsel for Elemetal LLC, NTR’s parent company, says the company established a relationship with Vilches only after its representatives visited his companies in Chile. “The information NTR Miami received was that Mr. Vilches came from a family of established jewelers with close ties to the evangelical community in Chile,” Gum said in an emailed statement. Soria couldn’t be reached for comment. The offices of his company in Lima appear to have shut down, and its phone numbers are out of service.

Vilches told prosecutors he then went to Florida and met with two NTR executives: Renato Rodriguez, executive sales director for Latin America, and Samer Barrage, who oversees the Miami operation. They sat down together at a restaurant in Coral Gables. “They knew something was up with my gold because it was so pure. … A few months later I expressly told them it was contraband gold,” Vilches said. He also told prosecutors that Rodriguez and Barrage coached him on falsifying customs paperwork.

None of this is true, according to Rodriguez and Barrage. Standing in the lobby of NTR’s Miami office, Rodriguez says the company trusted the documentation Vilches provided—as did, he points out, customs officials in Chile and the U.S. “All that stuff is made up,” he said. Barrage said in an email: “I want to be emphatically clear at no point did I have any knowledge whatsoever regarding his metal being sourced from illegal mining operations. There was absolutely no coaching or involvement regarding his export process or import process for that matter.”

To maximize the appearance of legitimacy, Vilches wanted to cast his gold into brick-size ingots, with a seal identifying the weight and purity. It was a challenge—he’d watched his father do it, but he had almost no idea how to manage it himself. When he plugged in an imported machine to melt the gold, it shorted out and filled his office with black smoke; he’d neglected to buy a transformer so the equipment would work with Chile’s higher-voltage electrical system. Eventually, Vilches says, he and his father-in-law taught themselves how to make the ingots by watching YouTube videos.

In December 2014, Vilches made his first delivery to NTR Metals Miami, with a suitcase full of gold bars. That was how he capped his first full year in business, during which he shipped 3,119 lb. of gold valued at $57.4 million, export records cited in the criminal investigation show. Chilean investigators later cited 10 shipments from Vilches to NTR as clearly illegal because of falsifications in customs declarations and failure to pay taxes and duties on the initial importation of the gold.

Chilean prosecutors say they have evidence NTR was aware the gold was illegal or contraband based on Vilches’s statements and his telephone, email, and text communications, all of which they’ve shared with U.S. investigators. “NTR knows the gold is illegal. It’s cheaper than legitimate gold. That’s the business,” says Tufit Bufadel, a Chilean prosecutor involved in the case.

In early 2015, Vilches told the FBI, Rodriguez and Barrage summoned him to Miami to make a bold proposal. “They asked me to find a gold supplier in Africa,” he said. According to Vilches, the NTR executives proposed that he try to arrange a 1,000-kilo-per-month smuggling operation.

Vilches was game. If he could pull it off, he’d be moving an estimated $20 million a month in dirty gold. But it was going to be complicated. “What they told me is that, because of compliance policies, they could not receive African gold,” Vilches told the FBI. “So they proposed that I export from Africa to Chile and then send it to Miami to NTR Metals.”

Vilches flew to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, where he spent almost a month viewing stashes of gold and negotiating with South African and Cameroon-based traders. He told the FBI he “maintained constant communications with Renato and Samer” about possible shipping routes. But he got scammed out of $300,000 by someone he thought was a supplier. The entire Tanzania affair unnerved him. At one point, he told the FBI, he was accosted by two carloads of armed men—probably government security forces, he thought—and held for hours in a grimy room while being interrogated about his business in Tanzania. He was relieved to escape with his life.

Rodriguez and Barrage denied suggesting Vilches go to Africa. “In fact, in 2015 he asked if we purchased from Africa,” Rodriguez wrote in an email. “I unequivocally told him no and that it was a policy of NTR not to do so.” Barrage wrote: “There was … no encouragement to source gold from Africa.”

Despite the setbacks in Tanzania, Vilches had a good 2015. He spent his money on a $1 million home adjacent to a lake with lilies and swans. He also invested $150,000 in a fortified building in Recoleta, a Santiago neighborhood where stray dogs roam streets strewn with trash. Graffiti-covered 12-foot walls topped with barbed wire surrounded a two-story building outfitted with Level 5 bulletproof glass and armored metal doors. Steel-reinforced walls and an array of 32 security cameras protected an inner sanctum. The final touch was a pepper spray system. “Even in a bank you don’t see such high-quality protection and security measures,” says Pérez, the Chilean prosecutor.

It was here that Vilches toiled, usually alone, transforming his gold into the standard-size ingots needed to avoid raising suspicions at customs. He marked each with the precise weight and purity and added the seal of Aurum Metals LLC, a company he’d set up in Miami. It was also in the bunker that Vilches stashed cash and falsified documentation for the gold.

Vilches told prosecutors that the NTR executives advised him to make videos of the refining process to better support his claims that the gold came from legal sources. He did that, and his marketing brochures carried photos of himself grinning while pouring liquid from a flask like a high school chemistry student, except that the flask was filled with liquid gold.

NTR Metals Miami is one of the 49 offices of NTR Metals, also known as Elemetal Direct, one of eight divisions of Dallas-based Elemetal LLC. Elemetal Direct sells its gold as 99.99 percent pure bullion—and certified as coming from legal mines by industry groups. Those groups include the London Bullion Market Association, or LBMA, the industry’s self-regulating body, which counts officials from major banks and gold traders on its board. Elemetal dedicates a section of its website to certifications of quality and origin, including a copy of the LBMA’s “responsible gold certificate” from a “third-party audit of the company’s supply chain due diligence.” LBMA spokesman Aelred Connelly declined to comment about Elemetal’s certification.

Another certificate comes from the Conflict-Free Sourcing Initiative of the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition, or EICC. It’s for Elemetal’s gold smelter in Jackson, Ohio. To renew the certification each year, Elemetal hires auditors to review purchase and import records, tour the smelter, and interview employees about the source of purchased gold. The mission is to assure that no gold comes from illegal mines that give rise to prostitution, labor abuses, and environmental damage or fund illegal activities or war, especially in Latin America, says Leah Butler, director of the conflict-free smelter program at the EICC. “We know that gold from Latin America is high-risk,” says Butler. She declined to comment on Elemetal, citing EICC rules. The organization “takes allegations of wrongdoing by any smelter or refiner in its program very seriously,” she says.

Amjad Rihan, a former Ernst & Young auditor who specializes in researching commodity supply chains, says it’s easy to fool auditors. Rihan now works for Martello Risk, a London consulting firm that helps companies scour supply lines for illegal minerals. “The problem is these audits really don’t go beyond the paperwork,” he says.

These seals of approval are critical across the industry. Under U.S. and European law, corporations must ensure their suppliers aren’t buying from mines that fund conflict. So they source gold from companies that are certified as having clean supply chains. Elemetal’s certified smelter is a valuable asset that allowed the company to supply 68 Fortune 500 companies in 2015 according to a Verité analysis of corporate conflict minerals reports, which are required under the U.S. Dodd-Frank Act. Those include Alphabet, Apple, GE, GM, and HP, the latest corporate filings show.

According to Gum, Elemetal’s lawyer, NTR Metals Miami stopped doing business with Vilches on June 1, 2016, the day the fraud charge against him was filed, and “reported the matter to appropriate governmental authorities.” Elemetal also, “as a precautionary measure,” ordered NTR Metals Miami to “suspend all operations in Chile pending a review of current risks and procedures in that country,” Gum says.

On the night everything began to fall apart, when agents at the Santiago airport seized the five ingots in his carry-on, Vilches immediately called NTR, he told FBI investigators. Rodriguez and Barrage suggested, he said, that he forget about ever seeing that gold again and concentrate on getting the paperwork right the next time. NTR executives “gave me instructions to keep U.S. Customs from realizing my certificates of origin were false,” Vilches said.

It seemed to work, for quite a while. Chilean police were itching to bust him, but prosecutors ordered detectives to stand down to gather more evidence. They were reluctant to give up on the idea of snagging someone higher than Vilches. And so he both imported and exported dirty gold without interruption.

The net began to close in early 2016, when banks in Chile and Miami began filing suspicious-activity reports on Vilches’s huge cash transactions and shutting down his accounts. Then came the criminal complaint involving the Fujairah Gold contract. Finally, police arrested Vilches and seized $300,000 in cash and a small amount of gold from the bunker. Facing a multiyear jail sentence for money laundering and tax evasion, Vilches agreed to cooperate with law enforcement in both the U.S. and Chile. He also dropped out of college. Today, Vilches and NTR Metals are at the center of a sweeping criminal investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, Chile’s National Economic Prosecutor’s office, and law enforcement in Peru and Ecuador, according to Pérez, the Chilean prosecutor. Sarah Schall, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami, declined to comment, citing policy against confirming or denying the existence of an investigation.

In October 2016, FBI agents and prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami traveled to Chile to interview Vilches. After becoming convinced his information was legitimate, they told him he might get immunity in the U.S. from prosecution in exchange for his sworn testimony, people with knowledge of the probe say. As Vilches spent hour after hour in interrogation, FBI agents and Chilean detectives were both fascinated and entertained. Upwards of 15 law enforcement professionals crowded into a meeting room at Santiago 1, a sprawling prison complex, and Vilches fed off the attention. He laughed and seemed to shrug off the seriousness of his situation. His confessions took on the air of a performance, according to one of the investigators present. “All you lacked was the popcorn,” he says with a laugh. FBI agent Lourdes McLoughlin, the assistant legal attaché at the U.S. embassy in Santiago, declined to comment, citing a policy of not commenting on active investigations.

In December the U.S. Attorney’s Office and FBI brought Vilches to Miami, where he told a federal grand jury that he was coached by NTR Metals Miami on how to set up his corporate structure in the U.S. to handle smuggled gold and then launder the proceeds, people familiar with the U.S. probe say. Elemetal and NTR Metals Miami didn’t respond to questions about an investigation.

Vilches lived large only briefly. He’s traded down to an apartment along Gran Avenida, a thoroughfare in a tough Santiago neighborhood. Because of his cooperation, he’s unlikely to face additional jail time for smuggling. He still faces multiple criminal charges, including tax evasion.

Chilean export regulations have been beefed up in the wake of the Vilches case. One gold dealer describes the new export process as similar to “being told to stand up against the wall and put your hands up.” Customs officials from Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru have visited Chile to exchange information and compare notes. Pérez approves, but he has no illusions. If Vilches, without any particular advantages except his boldness, could get this far in the illegal gold trade, who else could? “I think there are 100 Vilcheses across Latin America,” he says. “It’s easier than it looks.”

—With assistance from Ben Bartenstein