Travels With 'Barbie' to the Emerald City

With its pistol-packing middlemen and wads of cash, Colombia's emerald trade is not for the faint of heart.

Ripping around a mountain curve in the dark at 60 miles per hour, Jose Pieros turns on his high beams.

He's got a Browning 9-mm pistol tucked in his pants and about $30,000 dollars in cash in a bag next to the seat. He hits a bump, and everyone bangs their heads on the roof.

"And they say the emerald business is easy money," he says, turning to his battered back-seat passengers.

In the passenger seat is his wife, Claudia, known in Bogot as "Barbie" for her bleached hair, fancy clothes, and four-inch heels. Even out here in the badlands, Claudia is expertly made up and touches up frequently.

Claudia and Jos are comisionistas, the middlemen of the Colombian emerald industry. Colombia is the world's emerald capital - providing about 60 percent of the stones for the international market. Last week, Colombia held the First Emerald Congress, part of an attempt to make the green gems the country's third-largest export, after coffee and oil. It's people like the Pieroses who bring the stones from the miners to the big buyers in Bogot.

Hundreds of women work in the emerald trade - from selling the finished and set stones in the city right down to the guaqueras - the people who shovel through the waste from the mine hoping for an overlooked gem.

But few are like Claudia. Her background as a onetime beauty queen and a member of a family steeped in the emerald business makes her something of an exception.

In Bogot, Claudia's days are spent passing from office to office showing stones to big buyers. Her blue plastic purse is a grab-bag of cosmetics, chewing-gum, packets of emeralds, and half a dozen rolls of bills - about $1,000 dollars in each rubber-band.

Waiting rooms are usually full in the offices of the largest buyers, but Claudia's hard-earned connections let her walk straight to the front of the line.

"I'm much better at the selling than my husband," says Claudia. While the couple keep their accounts separate, Claudia often does Jos the favor of bringing his emeralds to buyers. She says women are better suited for the sale.

"They ask one price and then if the buyer says 'too much' they storm off. That's the way men are," she says.

Jos pulls off to the side of the dirt road to remove the passenger side rearview mirror, which has been hanging from one screw for the last 20 miles. He shoves the mirror in the trunk and continues, one more bone-rattling hour of steep curves to Coscuez.

The emerald war

Occasionally, Jos points out curves that were the sites of famous ambushes in what everyone refers to as the "emerald war," a battle for control of the industry that claimed more than 3,000 lives in the late 1980s.

The winner of that war, "emerald czar" Victor Carranza, was detained by the attorney general's office last week on charges of funding right-wing paramilitary groups. Mr. Carranza has been arrested several times on similar charges, and has always been released.

Although everyone says the war is over, the danger isn't - Claudia only travels at night for fear that someone will recognize her car and attack her for the cash or gems she is always carrying.

Claudia has been robbed once, and Jos took several bullets a few years back when thieves stole his jeep.

The next morning, it's up with the sun and off to breakfast. Coscuez looks like a western movie set - only one road through town, horses ride beside jeeps, and everyone is packing a pistol.

"What would seem strange is to see someone around here unarmed," says Pepe Barros, an uncle of Claudia's who has worked his whole life in the trade.

Mr. Barros explains that for the morning, the emerald market will be held just outside town and then in the town center during the afternoon. Some people will attend both markets, but others cannot.

"There are still a few personal problems - so some people have to stay on their own turf," says Barros in a low voice.

At the emerald market

Claudia can hardly get out of the car at the market before she's mobbed with men and women shoving handfuls of gems in her face for consideration.

She and Jos set up shop on the front of their jeep and begin doling out cash to miners, guaqueros, and other comisionistas, holding the stones up to the burning sun to determine quality.

By midmorning they have run out of cash - the market was much better than Claudia had expected. Not wanting to miss some of the stones on sale, Claudia writes one young guaquero a check for $2,000 that he can cash at the bank in Chiquinquira, a town a few hours away.

"It's usually a cash business, but if you're well known, people will take a check," she says.

The young guaquero seems happy with the sale, but still looks a little confused.

He walks a few yards away from the jeep and then stops, adjusts his cowboy hat, and stands looking at the tiny piece paper for which he exchanged his emeralds.

He turns and walks slowly back.

"Excuse me Doa Claudia," he says, puzzled, "but what do I do with this again?"

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