“Let’s Deal”: A Conversation with a Diamond Smuggler

It wasn’t even level. In fact, just about the only redeeming thing about the tilted plastic card table was the cartoonish beer logo plastered atop it. Even that was scuffed to the point of unreadability, warped in equal parts by a merciless sub-Saharan sun and the constant shuffling of a big-number Casio calculator. The cracked legs weren’t going to hold out for much longer either. More roadside trash than practical furniture, this table could barely hold a garage sale cashbox.

Welcome to the multimillion-dollar deal-making desk of Douglas Tunga, Congo diamond bootlegger.

I came to Tunga as a last resort, one final attempt to find someone, anyone, who could give me a lead on the cowboy hat-wearing kingpin reputed to be the Kinshasa Scarface of the blood diamond trade. I had visions that the badly Photoshopped self-portraits all over his mansion would be protected by armed guards with bulletproof vests, that the cigar smoke issuing from the depths of his 350-pound torso would billow over his menacing fifteen-foot concrete walls, and that this larger-than-life criminal, famous for cheating gullible rich Westerners to strike a blow for Congolese national pride, would be willing to spill all his smuggling secrets at the drop of a ten-gallon hat.

What a woefully naïve plan. After filling a muggy June 2013 week in Kinshasa with politely subtle inquiries, direct interrogations, and eventually shameless pleading, I was at the end of my rope.  Our cowboy appeared to have the bad manners not to exist at all. But as a two-hour conversation with Tunga slowly unwound in the backseat of my rental van as it idled next to that rickety table, I slowly realized that this guy blew Scarface away.

***

In 2012, I went to the megacity of Surat, India, to research the underground diamond trade. Over ninety percent of the world’s mined diamonds are sent to Surat, where they are polished by some five hundred thousand workers before hitting the world’s jewelry stores. While speaking with various dealers, polishing houses, authorities, and international suppliers, I discovered that smugglers had found a new way to game the Kimberley Process (KP), the international certification scheme hatched to prevent the kinds of stones-for-weapons exchanges made infamous by movies like Blood Diamond.

The KP certificate was originally intended as a diamond passport, a unique identifying document that could effectively trace every single shipment of rough diamonds around the world. Under this joint initiative of the diamond industry, governments, and civil society organizations, prospective diamond exporters are expected to participate in the process in order to ensure that conflict diamonds never come available for sale. There is a rotating chair (the DRC was the head in 2011, the USA in 2012), and each diamond-exporting country is tasked with issuing KP certificates to miners and dealers for each and every package of stones that they intend to ship overseas.

But in reality, the KP certificate little more than a basic receipt, listing only the boxed weight, country (or countries) of origin, and importer/exporter names. Polished stones are effectively untraceable, and the certificates themselves are laughably simple and easily forged, so all that smugglers need to do is get their stones into India’s massive diamond exchange warehouses, mix them with legitimate stuff, borrow KP certificates from legitimately imported goods, and courier the laundered products out to the West as “conflict-free” merchandise.

My research exposed Surat as ground zero of today’s diamond smuggling trade, but how much was actually coming through in this way? From interviews with Indian experts and my own calculations based upon Indian import/export discrepancies with the domestic market, cross-referenced with figures provided by the global diamond industry, I concluded, and stated in interviews with Gawker and other news organizations, that up to 25% of the fifty billion dollars in diamonds sold across the world today might be laundered in this way—and nobody can tell which are clean or dirty. The diamond industry howled at my findings. Many disputed the 25% figure, arguing that it was too high (as if a lower figure was somehow acceptable), and that the DRC wasn’t the smuggling paradise that it appeared to be on first glance. I needed to know if the small-time polishers grinding away in Surat’s dingy alleyways had told me the truth, or if the industry experts were right all along.

The search eventually led me to Douglas Tunga. His base of operations was shared with a dozen or so competitors at a busy intersection in the Zeka neighborhood of downtown Kinshasa. It looked like any street corner that attracted idlers by virtue of its big shade tree, but my translator and research assistant, Augustine, had heard rumors that it was actually a clandestine smuggling hangout. Cautiously, we rolled up. I felt like we were trying to score a dime bag. Tunga was the first to approach.

After some cautious hellos, the Aqua Velva-fresh Tunga hopped into my dated van wearing a brown Kangol and collared burgundy shirt, indifferent to the sputtering air conditioning that I greedily inhaled from the backseat vents. We exchanged a few niceties, and he gave the obligatory “never heard of him” when I asked about the cowboy. Another bust. I was ready to thank him and move on; he already had, pecking away on his Blackberry while Augustine was transforming his French into something more comprehensible to my typically American monolinguistic skillset.

Before I let him go, forgoing the required nuance and tact, I asked if he knew any illegal smugglers, because at this point there was nothing to lose. Augustine gave me a look that said “there is no way that I am asking that.” I insisted. She gave in.

“Oh, I am one,” he said without batting an eye. “I deal in not only DRC (stones), I deal in diamonds from all over Central Africa.”

Wary of tall tales, I nonetheless encouraged him to continue.

“My best [stones] are DRC, but we get all kinds of diamonds, a lot of yellow [lower quality] from Angola, other countries, everywhere.” Although Tunga called himself a “small-time” dealer, in truth he was one of the very few businessmen in the DRC’s braggadocio-friendly capital that preferred to play down his importance. “All of the stones we deal in are rough,” and every last one is illegally sent, he explained. “My typical deal varies [in value], up to a million dollars at a time.” According to official KP figures, the DRC’s total imports for 2007–11 combined amounted to just over seventy thousand dollars.

Like those of nearly all the men (they’re almost exclusively men) in the global diamond smuggling scene, Tunga’s fingers, ears, and neck were conspicuously stonefree. “We don’t care about diamonds. They are to sell! Not for me to wear.” After thirty years in a business where dozens of associates have been imprisoned or killed, Tunga knows that sometimes less is more when it comes to public displays of wealth.

Tunga said that small half-carat stones worth about a thousand dollars apiece, packed in bulk and sold by the hundreds, are the norm here, but museum-quality pieces can come through, too. “I once had a 350-carat stone [valued well north of ten million dollars, depending on grade], and have seen many 200-, 250-carat stones passing through.”

Backdoor transactions at the massive diamond mines in-country make up about half of Tunga’s merchandise. Tunga takes care of domestic transit personally, taking monthly trips a thousand miles east to the DRC’s south-central provinces of Kasai-Oriental and Katanga—together bigger than Germany and the UK combined. There, Tunga mingles with the million artisan miners who dig up stones for about a dollar a day, and more importantly the politicians and various rebel groups that control mine access and production.

The mines have a dirty reputation for helping to fund some of the worst wars that Africa has ever known, including the 1998–2003 civil war in DRC that killed over five million people. The international community took notice. After $870 million dollars of diamond exports in 2005, the DRC officially exported less than $200 million in 2012, according to Kimberley Process figures. But one senior mining official in Kinshasa estimates that over the same period, a market where 90% of merchandise used to go through official channels has completely flipped, and is now 80% underground. In short, the volume’s the same, it’s just the avenues that have changed.

Smugglers like Tunga might be essential cogs in this new system, but what about the local police? After occasional shakedowns over the last decade, most of the authorities in Kinshasa seem to have lost the will to aggressively enforce the illegal trade.  “There’s no problems now, they let us do our business.” With little experience in Congo culture, I would almost say that he was flirting with Augustine by now.

Add additional billions from Angola, Zimbabwe, and other conflict hotspots, and Kinshasa’s awash in illegal stones. It has increased Tunga’s volume but eroded his profits. “The market’s a bit tough right now. It’s supply and demand, and DRC diamonds are flooding the market.” So, international connections are needed to make the real money. For Tunga, that means hiring diamond mules to work the routes even more treacherous than those that go through the DRC’s jungles.

Tunga outsources the work because “it’s dangerous to go out to Angola to buy—they kill traders all the time there. I have a guy who I send out of the country when I want to buy and bring back merchandise.” It’s not just Tunga: “all the Angola traders smuggle them through here. It’s very easy to get [illegal diamonds], lots of Angola stones.”

And the jewelry laundromat doesn’t end in Kinshasa. Mules have been caught on their way to India as well, attempting to smuggle stones from the DRC to Surat. A celebrated case in 2011 pinned one DRC citizen with ten thousand carats; Indian smugglers were caught trying to bring in forty thousand DRC carats valued at over $10 million the year before. But the vast majority of stones still sail through without suspicion, owing as much to lax security at borders as the secretive system of diamond transportation around the world.

***

As in many conflict-ridden but mineral-rich countries, in both Angola and the DRC a dual system operates: a portion of mined stones are shuttled out legally through the KP regime, while the rest sneak out through other means. These parallel channels of distribution allow a government to appear to be fully compliant with international regulations, while at the same time securing funding for guns or other contraband and allowing corrupt officials to directly steal from mine sites.

Moving stones across countries isn’t exactly the stuff of James Bond. “It’s very easy to cross [international borders in Africa] without a Kimberley Process certificate. You can wear them, hide them in a bag, put them in your boots,” Tunga explained. “And it’s easy to get a fake certificate if you are moving a lot of stones. The price varies depending on which country you want to say that they are from: from $100 for an Angola certificate to $500 maximum for a South Africa one.” Unlike most African exports, diamond deals don’t lend themselves to massive volume discounts. “If a buyer spends a million or more, I give him the KP certificate for free.”

While the translation unwound, I took in the scene through the van’s tinted windshield. A young mother bought soap in a small shop across the street. A couple of Kinshasa elites, wearing retina-searing bespoke fabrics, ambled by. My driver listened to Congolese rap music with headphones that were plugged into his Chinese smartphone. The sound was tinny.

For Tunga and his colleagues, direct access to the international market has meant a chance to cut out the middlemen who made massive profits at their expense. “Thirty years ago, things were very different. We used to sell mixed quality, and get bad prices. The buyers controlled the market. Now we get much more for the price.” As the Kinshasa diamond market has vaulted from waystation to international epicenter, today’s new global buyers find the 30% discounts over their legit counterparts worth the risk.

Decades ago, most of Tunga’s customers were Belgian, South African, Russian, and Israeli. But today, “our big buyers and bosses are Indian. Almost all the buyers take them there, and the Indians have a lot of buying offices here.” For those without local offices, Tunga makes use of hotel rooms across the city to deliver merchandise and ink deals, away from the prying eyes of corrupt local police.

When Tunga does choose to go through official channels, the KP scheme doesn’t quite work according to the carefully planned system conceived in UN boardrooms and INGO conference calls: “For me, the Kimberley Process is just a way for the government to take their cut from my transactions. They weigh my shipment, and take a percentage of the stones in exchange for the certificate. They don’t care if they arrived [to the export office] with a KP or not, because everyone knows how to hide diamonds.”

Even aware that the system is utterly broken, still, doesn’t Tunga fear that he’s funding wars? After all, international organizations have spent the better part of two decades and billions of dollars to try to protect the DRC’s mineral riches from being siphoned into down payments for London mansions bought by Congolese politicians—or worse, funding guns for rebel groups like M23, which is fighting some 10,000 UN peacekeepers in the country’s east. “I’m a businessman, I’m interested only in making good business.” In a country that the World Bank calls one of the most corrupt in the world, Tunga’s drive for simple security is understandable.

Are 25% of the world’s diamonds indeed conflict stones? One smuggler’s experiences can’t answer that question, no matter how much merchandise he moves. And while Kinshasa is ground zero for the trade today, diamond smuggling bases cycle rapidly through African cities as wars flare and ebb, and black-market figures are notoriously murky for a reason. All the same, Tunga’s workmanlike descriptions confirm how easily the system can be subverted for those with something to gain, as he and his colleagues provide an essential link from warzones to showrooms via Indian middlemen.

Retail customers rarely consider provenance an issue worthy of scrutiny before buying. Few diamond dealers in the USA or Europe go beyond calling themselves KP-compliant, knowing that their customers see Kimberley as a certificate of faith in conflict-free merchandise—even if the reality is anything but. Neither of the fast-growing China and India markets—already the two biggest audiences after the United States—seem that interested either. Generally less concerned about origin than price, most Asian buyers don’t yet value ethical sourcing, and most international awareness campaigns don’t bother to target them either. With buyers ultimately the only people who can pressure the industry to change, reform remains a distant dream.  

***

Our conversation gradually reached the inevitable point of diminishing returns. Still secretly hoping that we were merely careful buyers, Tunga offered to show us a full selection of goods at his warehouse, repeating his “spend a million, get a KP cert for free” offer. Several polite ”no, thank-you”s later, Tunga opened the sliding van door in high spirits, due less, no doubt, to our transaction-free chat than to the presence of Augustine’s mobile number now resting comfortably in his Blackberry’s address book. He headed back to his table, pulling out a wobbly chair beside it that boasted his name in big black Sharpie.

Unlike our maybe-mythical cowboy, the real Tunga knows that keeping his profile low, his office humble, and his transactions equal-opportunity are the real secrets to success: “It’s an exciting business, there’s a lot of money to be made!” Tunga proclaimed with a wink. “If you got money, white or black is no problem. Let’s deal.”

© 2013 by Jason Miklian. All rights reserved.