The Best Books and Movies on Illegal Mining and the Drug Trade

RiverofGold_NovelSuspectsThe illegal gold trade is intimately linked to drug trafficking in South America. Drug traffickers and other criminal groups control many of the mines and smuggling routes, and invest their dirty money in illegal gold. Here are four stories that delve into these destructive black market economies.


Kilo: Inside the Deadliest Cocaine Cartels – From the Jungles to the Streets

With unprecedented access to the dark underbelly of the Colombian cocaine trade, Toby Muse tells the story of how South America’s once-sacred coca shrub gets transformed into a powerful narcotic that fuels violence, power, sex, and wealth. The book is part travelogue and part character study, as it follows the plant from the fields where it’s grown—harvested by Venezulan migrants under the watchful eyes of guerrilla groups—through booming cocaine villages to the streets of Medellin and the United States. Muse spent 15 years building relationships with cartel-assassins, drug financiers, traffickers and law-enforcement officials to tell this story. It’s vivid, terrifying, and a must-read for anyone who is trying to understand why decades of bloodshed and billions of U.S. dollars haven’t won the war on drugs—or simply wants to be swept away by an underworld tale.

maria full of grace - novel suspects

Maria Full of Grace

This unforgettable movie follows 17-year-old María Álvarez as poverty, desperation, and an unexpected pregnancy push her to become a drug mule. María’s hope that carrying drugs from Bogotá, Colombia, to New York City will enable her to provide a brighter future for her unborn child quickly dissipates as she faces the life-threatening consequences of her decision. Actress Catalina Sandino Moreno delivers an incredible performance as María, which earned her a nomination for Best Actress at the 2005 Oscars. Maria Full of Grace is more than a dramatic crime movie; it’s a heart-breaking story about the lengths people will go for a shot at a better life.

River of Gold

Produced by the nonprofit Amazon Aid Foundation and narrated by Sissy Spacek and Herbie Hancock, River of Gold follows a team of war correspondents and scientists venturing deep into Amazonian rainforests ravaged by illegal mining. “It’s like the Wild West,” says writer Donovan Webster as he gazes out at a pitted hellscape where lush jungle once grew. The 2020 documentary shows life in the lawless towns that have sprung up outside the mines and incursions by heavily armed police and military units trying to shut them down. It expertly navigates the environmental damage caused by mercury pollution and explains why impoverished miners are so desperate to keep digging and maintain their connection to a multi-billion-dollar global gold trade that supplies jewelers, banks and electronics makers in wealthy nations.



The Italian TV crime drama ZeroZeroZero, based on the book of the same name by Roberto Saviano, is not just another narco tale. Yes, it features the familiar plot of betrayal and death that follow the odyssey of five tons of cocaine from a Mexican cartel through Africa to an organized crime family in Southern Italy. But what holds this dark and disturbing narrative together is the broker of the deal, a New Orleans family that has been transporting narcotics across oceans and continents for decades through its seemingly legitimate shipping company. The family patriarch tells his adult children, “What we do keeps the world’s economy afloat. Don’t ever forget that. If we don’t continue to broker cocaine, this company will cease to exist.” The series, aired by Amazon’s Prime Video, reveals in gripping detail the human price that the father and his offspring must pay to complete the delivery of this massive load of cocaine.

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