JUST weeks before a global ban was lifted on Marange diamonds in Zimbabwe, an outpouring of mourners clogged the usually sleepy streets of Mutare in the eastern mining region.
The traffic-stopping occasion was the burial of the area's apex gem dealer, Bothwell Hlahla, an ally of President Robert Mugabe's Zanu PF party, who made his fortune in the rough stones at the centre of a human rights storm.
"His funeral helped to reveal that the illicit trade in diamonds had simply gone underground but it was alive and well," a source close to the diamond fields told AFP.
Marange diamonds are now part of the formal global gem trade, green-lighted by the "blood diamond" Kimberley Process watchdog in November, four years after Mugabe's military ruthlessly forced out casual panners to seize control.
Diamonds are seen as key to turning around Zimbabwe's spectacular economic collapse with five companies licenced to mine what is touted as the biggest find of the last decade.
But the black market endures.
While Zimbabwe's cash-strapped budget expects an extra $600 million this year, a 17-percent boost, a mines source estimated that billions are being skimmed and fears the money is propping up Mugabe's Zanu PF cronies.
"What trickles into the Treasury is a drop in the ocean," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of his safety.
The state has stakes in all mines in Chiadzwa, part of the Marange district 60 kilometres southwest of Mutare, but secrecy clouds the gem chain from rough stone yields to their auctions.
"It is difficult to estimate because the whole handling of diamonds is very opaque," said Melanie Chiponda of the Chiadzwa Community Development Trust (CCDT). "We suspect the amounts could run into billions per year."
During the initial panners' frenzy before an army crackdown, buying a Marange stone was as simple as stopping by a roadside seller waving a rough diamond, or crossing into Mozambique where an international dealers market had sprung up.
The richest fields have since been secured, and villagers relocated, including Taurai Maswere who said he once sold a 12-carat rock for $18,000. That was in the days when gems were so easily available that a local chief gave children bicycles for good hauls.
"We cannot say they are scarce but it's just less than before. Every day, diamonds, they come out," said Maswere, who used a pseudonym for fear of reprisals.
Activists say the illicit networks are vast: soldiers and illegal panners in cahoots, buyers meeting company workers coming off shifts, and state security at road blocks taking $100 to $200 bribes. Even gem-smuggling pilots are cited.