LAW enforcement agents tasked with clamping down on and regulating Zimbabwe's illegal gold industry have been exposed as being some of the vice's biggest beneficiaries.
This is according to a recent report by the Southern African Resource Watch (SARW) released last Thursday.
The report implicated state security agents seconded to the Gold Mobilisation Technical Committee (GMTC) as being the ringleaders and making illicit gold trade to flourish.
"It is not exactly clear when the GMTC was formed... Initially, the GMTC comprised of RBZ (Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe), MMMD (Mines Ministry) and the ZRP (Zimbabwe Republic Police) department formerly called the Minerals Border and Control Unit (MBCU), now called the Minerals, Flora and Fauna (MFF) unit," the report, Decrypting Illicit Gold Trade in Zimbabwe, noted.
"After the military-assisted change of government in November 2017, the military, through its investment arm, Nkululeko-Rusununguko Holdings, is now part of the GMTC, and in fact is its de facto leader."
The report said the GMTC was also involved in the vetting and final approval of gold buying licence applications and its officers are stationed in each province.
"This makes GMTC complicit in the illicit gold trade. Government institutions involved in gold production and trade have lowered the bar for the illicit gold trade to flourish," the report said.
"It appears that policy-makers are aware of some of the key actors behind illicit gold trade but tightening the noose around these illicit actors is proving to be elusive."
In the midst of Zimbabwe's mining recovery, gold extraction is estimated to bring in some US$4 billion a year to the country's economy by 2023, a solid third of the $12 billion which is expected to be brought in by the entire mining sector in the same period.
To facilitate and regulate that effort, the government established the special GMTC to oversee the gold sector.
However, according to SARW, since 2017, the commission has come under the influence and de-facto control of the military and is rife with corruption.
In Zimbabwe, the gold industry is overwhelmingly defined by artisanal and small-scale miners (ASMers), and that leaves the industry particularly vulnerable to exploitation and illicit financial flows.
"There is a strong feeling among ASMers that the GMTC is corrupt and extracts routine rents ranging from $US50 to $US500 per month," said the report.
"Most often illegal mining happens in fixed locations, such as closed down or temporarily shuttered legal mines; however, also popular in the country is a nomadic form of prospectors, colloquially known as 'rippers' (makorokoza).
"This group of ASMers is generally referred to as rippers because they are ready to dig whenever a gold detector sniffs possibilities of gold. This type of arrangement rarely depends on mining titles; they prospect and mine gold in claims that are not being utilised, on farms or any other space they want, even if it means destroying graveyards or homesteads in search of alluvial gold."
Ripper work also brings with it a threat of violence, since during gold rushes, the ripper's sponsors will often employ machete gangs to displace rival miners.
The rush for gold in resource rich Zimbabwe has been fuelled by recent high export incentives.
Traditionally, Zimbabwean gold was transferred to South Africa to be refined into bullion.
However, the emergence of Dubai as a mecca for the global gold trade -- where illegally mined and even conflict gold from Africa is often laundered -- has only made illegal mining in Zimbabwe more lucrative.