Selling blood diamonds is as simple as a Facebook post and a WhatsApp message

Smuggling, made simple.
Smuggling, made simple.
Image: Reuters/Emmanuel Braun
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Finding the black market pushing blood diamonds is as simple as logging on to Facebook.

Since the chaos of a 2013 coup in the Central African Republic, conflict diamonds have become a key source of income for both sides of the ongoing conflict, according to a report by Global Witness, published on June 22.

The CAR is one of the world’s poorest countries, and yet tens of thousands of carats of diamonds are mined there each year. Since 2014, the Kimberley Process has banned the export (pdf) of diamonds from the war-torn country, used to fund rebel fighters.

Rough or uncut diamonds, however, are notoriously simple to smuggle, and in the age of social media, that is made even simpler. The smugglers are young and tech savvy and their international networks are created and maintained over the internet.

Finding the smugglers was as simple as tracking their Facebook comments, photos and posts—no complex encryption programs or trawling the deep web required. Like any young person, CAR’s blood diamond smugglers chronicled their lives on Facebook, making them easy to spot.

“They sent us far from our home-country. Now, we can choose a new name for our diamond and change its nationality,” one smuggler posted on Facebook, captioning a photograph of a pile of rough diamonds.

Investigators from Global Witness posed as smugglers, creating online profiles to identify smugglers. They reported communicating easily via WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger with smugglers who sold in countries like Belgium, France, Brazil, Israel and the Middle East.

There is still some paperwork involved, through a process known as “naturalization” to introduce the conflict diamonds into the legitimate market. The stones are given a new identity, usually Cameroonian, by filing the necessary paperwork to disguise them as stones mined in neighboring conflict-free Cameroon. This process requires old-fashioned bribery and in some cases forgery, removing any trace of the diamonds’ ill-gotten origins.

With no real state control in the CAR, rebel movements have set themselves up in diamond-rich areas, controlling the extraction and export of the stones through an illegal and deadly parallel system. Citizens are trapped in violence and poverty, while all around them the country has nearly 40 million carats still waiting to be mined, many of them as blood diamonds.