In March of 2017, Jay Weaver, the Miami Herald’s federal courts reporter, got a tantalizing tip. Three Miami-based gold dealers were going to be arrested on money-laundering charges. The amount of laundered loot was $3.6 billion — that’s billion with a B.
This wasn’t a garden variety South Florida scam.
It was in fact a revelation. Unbeknownst to any of us who have lived here a long time, Miami had become the hub of a vast gold empire. one that would have made Blackbeard salivate. It sprawled across two continents and involved dangerous drug lords, desperately hungry subsistence miners and machinery that chews up the rain forest and turns rivers into a toxic glop. How could a local news operation paint this sprawling story on a digital canvas?
To plumb the depths of this murky world, the Miami Herald deployed Weaver, investigative reporter Nicholas Nehamas, Latin America specialist Kyra Gurney, South America correspondent Jim Wyss, and three visual journalists: Jose Iglesias, Aaron Albright and Pedro Portal.. We called their project Dirty Gold/Clean Cash.
Money laundering — which the gold scheme is at its core — can be a complicated, even baffling, topic. To explain it, we reached into our digital toolbox. These tools included a clever animation designed with the help of our Washington-based colleagues, It shows the links forged between Chicago-based Sinaloa Cartel associates, a mom-and-pop pawnshop and estate sale operation in Hallandale Beach, Florida, and drug tycoons in Mexico. They built a washing machine for turning dirty drug dollars into clean cash.
The Herald also fashioned an interactive graphic that showed how illegally mined Peruvian gold was flooding into South Florida through circuitous routes, crisscrossing various borders and frontiers to evade detection. And how South Florida refineries and a Jackson, Ohio, smelting plant desperately depended on an unending supply of ill-gotten gold.
The narrative was bolstered by powerful videos, shot from the air, ground level and deep inside underground mines. One of those videos shows backhoes and other excavators being blown to bits by troops with plastic explosives while a hapless caretaker, who says he was recently kidnapped and had to be ransomed by his bosses, pleads to be left alone.
The main course of Dirty Gold/Clean Cash was a series of stories from reporters dispatched to locales as disparate as the Andean rain forest and Appalachian Ohio.
All told, it was a comprehensive, authoritatively written, visually pleasing, intellectually stimulating journalistic effort.