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Victor Carranza

  Illness of Colombian emerald tsar sparks concern over renewal of violence

July 6, 2012

The serious illness of one the colored gemstone trade's most influential and controversial figures is giving rise to speculation in his home country of Colombia that his death could bring the end of the peace agreement that ended the infamous Green Wars of the 1970s and 1980s.

Speaking to the Al Jazeera news network in English, Victor Carranza, Colombia's so-called "emerald tsar," said that violence over the control of the country's emerald sector could break out after his death. Carranza is suffering from prostate and lung cancer.

Carranza, who is today 77 years old, started his career in the emerald industry as a child, eventually rising to become one of the world's top most powerful colored gemstone traders. He was born into a poor family in Guateque, Boyaca. Popular legend tells of how his brother found a large emerald rock and promised to go to Bogota to sell it. He never returned, and Carranza is said to have vowed then that he would find emeralds of even greater value.

His actual rise to prominence dates back to as decision of the Colombian government in 1973 to privatize the mines in Boyaca. The withdrawal of a state presence in the area led to a vacuum of power, and the leading mining families jostled for control.

Drawn into the situation was Colombia's powerful Medellin drug cartel, which saw an opportunity to establish a new supply corridor from the cocaine growing regions in the interior to the coast, and at the same time get a slice of the emerald business.

But the mine owners fought back, forming private militias to protect their mines and their businesses. Ultimately more than 6,000 people died during a period that came to be known as the Green Wars

Backed by his own private army, Carranza rose to become Colombia's most powerful emerald producer. In 1990, with the assistance of the Catholic Bishop of Chiquinquira, he signed a truce that ended the war.

But he remained a controversial figure. In 1998 he was arrested in Bogota on charges of financing paramilitary groups. It was said that he was a key backer of the People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar (PEPES), an armed group that later formed the basis for Colombia's coalition of paramilitaries, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). He was released from jail in 2001.

Speaking about his illness to Al Jazeera, Carranza said that death does not concern him, but rather the fate of the peace he brokered more than two decades ago. "The peace we signed 23 years ago is cracking," he stated. "It's damaged. People don't treat it with the respect we gave it when we reached those compromises and that is a very grave and delicate thing. And I don't like it."

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