They don't hide in the abyss of the Dark Web. From Bangui, Beirut, Bordeaux or elsewhere, they use social media to promote their products and services. They are blood diamond community managers from the Central African Republic, traffickers of gems that cannot be legally exported and that are for sale on Facebook and Whatsapp.
One of them, Sader, says he lives in Beirut. He drives a large 4x4 and loves dollars, cigars and Hezbollah propaganda videos. On his Facebook page, he posts pictures of gold bars on a scale showing 10 kilograms, and a multitude of diamonds spread out on trays.
In a WhatsApp conversation with an investigator from the NGO Global Witness pretending to be a buyer, Sader talks about his trafficking:
"I have three stones in Kinshasa. If you come with me to Cameroon and you take the plane tickets I reserved for you, they will come here tomorrow to my place in Lebanon and then they go back to Cameroon from where I'm bringing the pink 11 carat pink diamond for 450,000 euros. If you want, I can send you pictures. Do you agree in principle?"
— Who are those guys?
— They're my teams, they come and go. You know, we, in Africa, create a kind of a work family, a collective. There are people in the mines, people in Europe, people in offices (...). They are part of a chain, we work with them. Most of them are in France. Their parents live in Cameroon. And that's how it is. We have a whole chain. You understand?
— Yeah, I understand. All the diamonds come from the Central African Republic then?
— Yes, all of them. If you want, I can send you the picture right away. (...) You pay 3,500 euros (...). They come here, to Lebanon, and then go to Cameroon and then bring the pink to your place, in Belgium, wherever you are.
— I have to talk to my partner about it…
— You have to be quick. (...) You have to say yes or no now, you can't make me wait (...). Apart from the pink, I have a gorgeous batch of white and yellow five-carat gems and more coming right out of the Central Africa Republic. If you want to enter the game, it has to be now.
— And there's no risk of getting caught at the airport?
— Never. They were in Brussels yesterday; now they're home in Bordeaux. They're French, Belgians, of African descent.
— And what about the Kimberley Process?
— There's no problem with Kimberley. With or without it, we bring them where we want.
An array of illicit items being sold on Facebook– Photo: via Facebook
Sader sounds at ease and relaxed, if somewhat in a hurry to complete the transaction. This is despite the fact that he is offering to traffic diamonds that are forbidden for export; gems that bypass the Kimberley Process, the international regulation for certifying rough diamonds that made it possible, in June 2015, to lift part of the embargo on the Central African Republic. This easing of the rules applies only to certain zones. But Sader does not care and posts his gems on Facebook.
Financing armed militias
Like many other diamond traffickers in the Central African Republic, embargo or not, "with our without Kimberley," Sader buys and exports stones found in the soil of the country, which has been at war for the past four years. Before the fall of President François Bozizé, overthrown in March 2013 by a coalition of Séléka rebels, the diamond economy, with a production over a million carats a year, fed almost a quarter of the country's population, directly or indirectly.
The illegal exploitation of this resource has helped finance armed groups. According to UN experts, 140,000 carats have illegally left the Central African Republic between May 2013 and the end of 2014. And the Séléka have rushed to control diamond regions, leaving some of its generals, like Omar Younous, in charge of working mines and exporting stones to Dubai, Qatar, Sudan and China.
Sader has offices in Antwerp, Belgium, and in Sierra Leone, but Facebook has become his new vitrine for attracting buyers and traders, and sometimes for meeting future partners who could be interested in "putting down 500,000 euros' to work with him in international diamond trafficking.
Of the seven dealers Global Witness contacted, including five Central Africans, only two said they abided fully by the Kimberley Process, according to a recently published report, "A Game of Stones." Others brag about sending packages, the largest of which exceeded 900 carats, to Brazil, France, China, Israel, Lebanon, Sierra Leone or South Africa.
"These online tools give them the ability to quickly create a network of partners to bring Central African diamonds to the international market," Aliaume Leroy, a campaign leader for Global Witness, says. "Establishing this supply chain used to take a long time, but today, with social media, it only takes a few seconds."
Ahead of the game
Facebook has repeatedly emerged as a popular platform for African criminals. In Nigeria, you can buy barrels of oil of questionable provenance, but probably coming from stock stolen by armed groups from the Niger Delta or the region's many refineries, on closed Facebook groups. In Libya, arms dealers offer any caliber of weapon on Facebook, like RPGs, handguns, automatic weapons and even ground-to-air missiles, according to a 2016 study by the Swiss-based Small Arms Survey.
These digital showrooms keep cyber-diamond-dealers ahead of the game. The selling techniques for Central African gems have taken governments and international organizations by surprise, but the routes themselves have not really changed, as one dealer explains:
"We pick up all the diamonds on the rebels' side (...) because they are even cheaper there (...). There's often a rebel chief there, he welcomes the traffickers (...)."
Then the stones are sent to Cameroon by land or air. Some traffickers offer logistical services between the two countries. Global Witness, who conducted investigations in Cameroon in 2014, recalls being assured, "We'll send people by motorbike, for example, to Berberati (a city in the West less than 100 kilometers from the border) to pick up the diamonds and then deliver them to you." In Cameroon, these diamonds are "naturalized" as Cameroonian, and thereby become "legitimate" on the international market.
Global Witness has advised the Central African authorities to confiscate diamond stocks and develop reliable tracking systems with Kimberley Process agents, and to call for the Special Criminal Court to investigate diamond trafficking with the help of the International Criminal Court.