Mercury, employed by miners to extract gold from soil and sediment, is smuggled daily in bottles across Bolivia’s borders with Peru and Brazil, reaching numerous illegal mining hotspots through the Amazon Basin.

The uncontrolled disposal of mercury waste, especially from small-scale mining throughout the Amazon, contaminates the air, rivers, and fish that many local communities eat. People who breathe this air and consume these fish are gradually being poisoned.

Several countries in the Amazon have cracked down on toxic metal imports as part of the Minamata Convention on Mercury. This United Nations-based international treaty seeks to reduce the environmental and health impacts of mercury’s use in mining. But Bolivia has implemented virtually no reforms despite ratifying the convention in 2016. As a result, the country has become the main entry point for mercury into Latin America and a key hub for its trade.

*This article is part of a joint investigation by InSight Crime and the Igarapé Institute on illegal mining, wildlife, timber, and drug trafficking in the Bolivian Amazon. Read the other chapters here, or download the full PDF.

Mercury comes in small white bottles, stamped with a bullfighter, and labeled “El Español,” meaning “the Spaniard.” A kilogram costs about $260, and a gram for just under a dollar.

The liquid metal is not hard to find, sold by rows of gold buyers on Tarapacá Street in downtown La Paz. Reporters from La Nube, a Bolivian online investigative news outlet, discovered that certain storefronts were releasing smog as a result of mercury being burned off during the gold refining process. 

By joining the Minamata Convention, many Amazon countries have tried to curb the use of the poisonous metal in small-scale mining. Bolivia is among the more than 100 countries to sign and ratify the convention in 2016. However, at the same time, its failure to restrict mercury’s imports has turned the country into a hub for mercury imports to support its booming gold production and that of Brazil and Peru. 

SEE ALSO: Dirty Business – The Smuggling Pipeline Carrying Mercury Across the Amazon

Since 2015, the country has ranked first or second in the world in importing the toxic chemical, trailing only India at times.

Between 2016 and 2021, the country imported more than 1,100 tons. For comparison, Brazil imported around 100 tons during that same period. Between 2013 and 2019, Peru decreased its formal mercury imports by 93%.

The mining sector imported around 84% of the mercury that arrived in Bolivia between 2014 and 2018. The chemical and textile industries imported the rest, according to a study conducted by CEDIB director, Oscar Campanini. This means that in Bolivia, unlike other Amazon countries, mercury is imported directly for gold mining, with no need to divert it illegally from other industries like dentistry, science, and research.

The country’s excessive trade in the toxic metal has been facilitated by Bolivia’s failure to implement the majority of controls recommended by the Minamata Convention for regulating mercury importation. Such recommendations include the prior registration of importers, declarations of amounts to be imported, and consents from customs to receive shipments. Bolivia’s customs agency does not require special certification to import mercury. 

“In Bolivia, it is easier to import mercury than to import books or medicines,” Campanini said. 

It was not until June 2023 that the government launched Supreme Decree 4959 to implement some of the controls recommended by the Minamata Convention. The first states that prior authorization by the Ministry of Environment and Water is needed to import and export mercury. The second created the Single Registry of Mercury (Registro Único de Mercurio – RUME), which seeks to register all importers, exporters, and traders of mercury in Bolivia. 

However, Campanini and Alfredo Zaconeta, a mining researcher at the Center for Labor and Agrarian Development (CEDLA), say that the measure does not attack the fundamental problem: the unrestricted flows of mercury used for mining within the country. Although the decree requires increased documentation from mercury traders, it does not limit the amount of mercury being imported and used for mining, as has been done in other Amazonian countries such as Colombia, Peru, and Brazil.

“The measure does not aim to reduce mercury for gold mining. It doesn’t even seek to decrease mercury imports,” Campanini said. “It does not raise anything about caps, goals, mercury import quotas.”

Bolivia’s mercury imports began to soar in 2015 when the country received around 150 tons, a massive leap from the 12 tons imported the previous year. All the mercury came from Mexico.

For the next three years, Mexico remained the main exporter of mercury to Bolivia, supplying nearly 600 tons. Mexico’s role was a result of two actions. The first was the favorable trade agreement between the countries, which reduced the import tax on mercury from Mexico to Bolivia from 5% to 3.66%. The second was Peru and Brazil’s ban on mercury imports, which led to an increased demand for the toxic metal in Bolivia. Consequently, Peruvian and Brazilian markets started receiving Mexican mercury that was smuggled in through neighboring Bolivia. 

However, in 2019, Mexico supplied only a quarter of the 216 tons of mercury Bolivia received. This shift was likely due to Mexico ratifying the Minamata Convention, and the increased pressure on Mexico to control mercury exports after reports of its widespread use in illegal mining in the Amazon. 

Other countries, including India, Vietnam, Turkey, and Russia began to fill the void, sending large volumes of mercury to Bolivia. Exports from Russia have increased markedly over the past three years. In 2021, the country exported 65 tons, turning Russia, which never ratified the Minamata Convention, into Bolivia’s top supplier. 

The amount of imported mercury being used by Bolivia’s gold miners is hard to determine. Miners try to recover used mercury from sediment to reduce their costs. But they also expend much more mercury than needed to separate gold, since they do not employ best practices to avoid leakage. 

Zaconeta investigations found that for every ton of gold extracted, at least 3 tons of mercury are used.

A joint report backed by Bolivia’s government and Switzerland’s Better Gold Initiative estimated that 141 tons of mercury were used in local gold production in 2019. That accounted for about 73% of some 193 tons of mercury imported that year. Investigators acknowledged that the disparities nonetheless indicate something amiss. 

“Considering this amount, Bolivia should have more gold,” Zaconeta said.

At least 27% of Bolivia’s mercury imports are diverted to illegal mining.

Mercury Smuggling Throughout the Amazon Basin

Bolivia’s neighboring countries have tried to control the use of mercury. Peru banned its import in 2015. While Brazil does not have a ban, the country has adopted Minamata’s rules for its control and inspection, resulting in reduced imports. In 2021, Brazil did not import any mercury at all.

Still, illegal mining is rampant in the farthest corners of the Amazon regions of all these countries, and prospectors never seem to run short of the toxic metal. The reason: the brisk smuggling trade in mercury. 

Desaguadero is a busy border town that straddles both Peru and Bolivia. It sits on the southern shore of Lake Titicaca, and the Desaguadero River runs through it. Riverboats transport a variety of contraband items – including avocados, cocaine, and mercury – across a sparsely patrolled border. A significant portion of mercury smuggling employs “ant trafficking” techniques, wherein numerous couriers carry small quantities of the substance instead of consolidating it into one large shipment. The “ant trafficking” approach is preferred for mercury smuggling in border regions because it reduces the risk of massive losses that occur when shipments are intercepted. According to authorities who spoke with reporters from Ojo Público, a Peruvian investigative news outlet, small bottles of mercury are often hidden in backpacks and cargo. 

However, some large-scale seizures have also been made in Peru’s southeastern Puno region, on the border with Bolivia. In 2019, Peruvian customs officials confiscated a shipment of around 110 liters of mercury found in an abandoned truck that had arrived from Bolivia. Authorities valued the cargo at $82,000.

Smuggling occurs on the opposite side of the country, across the Mamore River, which separates Bolivia and Brazil. In Bolivia’s Amazon border town of Guayaramerin, deals are made for large amounts of mercury. A single vendor can sell more than 100 kilos per month, according to an investigation by InfoAmazonia. Small bottles are also available for purchase at stores. This smuggled mercury is trafficked to the Brazilian city of Porto Velho, in the state of Rondônia, from where it can be transported to mining sites by river or highway. 

SEE ALSO: Illegal Mining Behind Mercury Contamination Harming Colombia’s Indigenous

“Bolivia’s borders are very dispersed, so it’s a matter of getting to a border point, and you make the exchange of mercury for payment,” Zaconeta said.

The supply chain for mercury in Bolivia begins with wholesale importers registered in the capital city of La Paz and neighboring El Alto. 

Between 2014 and 2018, 37 companies officially imported mercury into the country. Since 2018, Bolivian customs authorities have restricted information about mercury importers. During that period, tellingly, the largest importers were Peruvian nationals with ties to their country’s mining sector, including the companies Mercurio y Químicos S.R.L (Merquim), Alvior Bolivia S.R.L, and Sociedad Química Potosí. Peruvian citizens Juan Orihuela Mamani and Elisa Huamán Chávez were also listed as importers, according to an investigation by Ojo Público. 

Campanini said some of the Peruvian importers partnered with people previously implicated in smuggling chemicals used to make cocaine. 

After its import, the mercury is bought by wholesale companies that sell to retailers and cooperatives in mining regions. Transportation to mining or border areas, where most retailers are located, is by land, often using transport companies, freight fleets, and private vehicles.

“Mercury reaches the most remote places,” Zaconeta said. 

Marcos Orellana, the UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights, has called out Bolivia for not adhering to the Minamata Convention. He has also repeatedly warned of how the indiscriminate importation and use of mercury in mining there is dangerous not only for Bolivia but the region as a whole. 

When miners use mercury to separate gold from sediment, leftover mercury washes into rivers and leaches into the forest floor. Trees also absorb mercury vapor when the resulting amalgam is burned off to leave behind gold. According to CEDIB, gold mining causes 82% of mercury emissions in Bolivia. 

Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin for humans. It can impair children’s development, damaging the brain and central nervous system. Prolonged exposure to mercury in adults can cause damage to the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune system, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Various scientific studies have found that Indigenous peoples across the Amazon who live near mining sites have been exposed to elevated concentrations of mercury. This includes Bolivia. According to a report by the UN’s Orellena in September 2021, alarming levels of mercury were found in Ese Ejja Indigenous women living on the banks of the Beni River. Hair samples from the women tested – all between the ages of 14 and 44 – detected mercury levels of between 4.75 and 7.58 parts per million (ppm). The threshold considered safe by the World Health Organization is 1.6 ppm. 

Mercury left in waste rock and tailings from mining are poisoning Bolivia’s rivers. According to Orellena’s report, the elevated levels of mercury seen in the pregnant women of Ese Ejja were due to their eating contaminated fish.

“They live from fishing. It is their common food source,” journalist Iván Paredes said. “Mercury is already damaging lives.”