Nicaragua has become the largest exporter of gold in Central America, although its sales abroad do not match the amount extracted from its mines. The discrepancy suggests, according to some experts, that the Daniel Ortega-Rosario Murillo regime is triangulating the sale of the mineral from other countries.
“There is a lot of concern here about how the Ortega-Murillo regime is using or getting rich from the commercialization of gold,” Amaru Ruiz, a biologist and president of the Fundación del Río, a Nicaraguan environmental organization based in Costa Rica, told Diálogo on November 18. “It is allowing and endorsing illegal mining, so that [the gold] reaches formal markets through industrial and export companies that are the ones that, in the end, serve as a funnel for the commercialization of the metal in the country.”
In 2022, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned the Nicaraguan state mining company Eniminas, as well as its director Ruy Delgado López, for manipulating the 2021 presidential elections, providing funds to the regime for the arbitrary imprisonment of the opposition, blocking political parties, closing independent media, and harassing civil society.
“There are strong indications that Nicaragua also exports gold mined in Venezuela. Nicaragua exports considerably more gold than it produces, and the sums do not add up,” Brazilian Attorney Daniel Cerqueira, director of the Human Rights and Natural Resources Program of the Due Process of Law Foundation, told the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States on November 8. “That means that either there is an underreporting of what is being produced […], or there is trafficking between pariah governments to keep their finances up to date; not for the benefit of the population, but to finance the repressive machinery of those governments.”
In August 2022 and as a response to the sanctions imposed by the United States, the Ortega-Murillo regime reformed the Special Law of Exploration and Exploitation of Mines, to exercise absolute dominion over all mining activity, including illegal mining.
“The problem with gold is that, since it’s very easy to commercialize and too homogeneous, it’s very difficult to build a trail that eventually leads to the real origin of this precious metal. But there is enough evidence that it’s being triangulated,” Juan Sebastián Chamorro, Nicaraguan economist, former presidential candidate, and ex-politician, told Diálogo. “For years there were suspicions that Venezuelan gold was being triangulated through Nicaragua, and that this gold, once ‘laundered,’ can somehow be exported to other international markets.”
Since Ortega returned as the head of his regime in 2007, Nicaragua has sustained an increase in gold exports. According to data from the Central Reserve Bank of Nicaragua, the regime went from exporting $61.4 million in 2007 to $867.6 million in 2022, Central American investigative magazine Expediente Público reported on November 8.
“That could be explained two ways: One, gold is coming in from other places and from there it’s being commercialized; and two, gold that is coming in is not being reported and it doesn’t come from industrial mining, but from illegal mining,” Ruiz said. “Maybe it’s both.”
Nicaragua exported more than 4.9 tons of the precious metal in 2022 that were not reported in official data as extracted from Nicaraguan mines, Colombian daily El Tiempo reported in an October 15 investigation. That would represent more than $288 million in profits.
“Gold is not only a mineral used in general industry; it is also a financial asset in itself,” Cerqueira said. “It is the preferred activity of pariah governments, monetarily asphyxiated by their macroeconomic blunders and also by sanctions from countries with a democratic vocation.”
The Nicaraguan environmental organization Fundación del Río estimates that 30 percent of the gold exported by Nicaragua comes from illegal activities, transported through processing and export channels owned by foreign companies based in the country. In addition to this business, 36 tons of mercury are traded illegally every year. The activity involves “money laundering, human trafficking, and drug commercialization within the illegal mining areas,” the organization said.
According to Fundación del Río, 41 percent of the territory of the Mayangna indigenous people, in the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve, “are under mining concessions, which has increased conflict and murders in the area. This affects a total of 21 indigenous territories.”