Victor Carranza, known as the "Emerald King" of Colombia, who built a near monopoly in trade in the precious gems and survived at least two assassination attempts along the way, died of lung cancer Thursday at a Bogota hospital. He was 77.
Officials at the Fundacion Santa Fe hospital announced his death.
A former prospector who became one of Latin America's wealthiest men, Carranza was never criminally convicted despite several prosecutions on charges that included kidnapping and sponsoring private militias as he battled for control of the mountainous emerald region. Colombia produces more than half the world's emeralds.
Carranza, who was also a millionaire cattleman and one of his country's biggest landowners, was legendary for his ability to locate the green jewels, the second most valuable gemstone after diamonds. "They call to me," he said in various interviews.
Born Oct. 8, 1935, in Guateque, a mountain town about 50 miles northeast of Bogota, Carranza grew up in a poor family. His father died when he was 2, he told the Colombian newspaper El Espectador in 2010.
"We were left without protection, five siblings and my mother," he said. "We had a small farm and we were very poor. It fell to me to get things going."
Going to work in the mines, he discovered his first emerald cache as a boy in the 1940s.
He later fought three power struggles for control of the emerald industry, beginning in the 1960s.
In the late 1980s, thousands died when leaders of the Medellin drug cartel tried to seize control of the emerald zone from Carranza, who formed a paramilitary army to retain control. In 1998, he was arrested and charged with kidnapping and sponsoring illegal right-wing militias, which prosecutors blamed for more than 50,000 deaths in the country over three decades.
Colombia's chief prosecutor at the time, Alfonso Gomez Mendez, told the Associated Press that he had no doubt Carranza was one of the paramilitaries' primary creators and sponsors.
But after three years in jail, Carranza, whose powerful connections included a former Supreme Court justice serving as one of his lawyers, was released, with all charges dropped.
"If people declare against Carranza, they are killed," Robin Kirk, a Colombia expert for Human Rights Watch, told The Times in 1998. "So no one does."
He is survived by his wife, Blanca, and five children.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun