Brazil police crack down on gold smuggling on Venezuela border

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazilian police launched an operation on Friday to break up a smuggling ring that it said had exported 1.2 tonnes of illegal gold bought since 2017 from wildcat miners in the frontier region between Brazil and Venezuela.

Federal police carried out 85 search warrants in five states as part of an investigation centered on the northern state of Roraima. They also searched the offices of a company called RBM in Sao Paulo suspected of laundering the gold prior to export, a police spokesman said.

The company, which specializes in buying precious metals, based in Caieras in the interior of Sao Paulo, did not reply to a request for comment. According to the company’s website, its motto is: “We work to transform your product into value.”

The gold originated in the indigenous Yanomami reservation in Roraima, which straddles the border with Venezuela and where the number of illegal miners has soared into the thousands since last year, the spokesman said.

By some accounts, 10,000 wildcat miners have invaded the Yanomami reservation since the election of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, who said he plans to end a constitutional ban on mining on tribal lands.

Gold mined in southern Venezuela was also coming over the border, and three Venezuelan businessmen were being sought by Brazil as members of the criminal organization, the police said in a statement.

The police estimated the gold smuggled by the gang was worth more than $55 million. Several federal and state revenue officials are under investigation for helping to launder the illegal gold with documents that said it was scrap metal.

Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Cynthia Osterman