Red mercury is a hoax.
That needs repeating. Red mercury is a hoax. A myth. A fairy tale.
It’s the Fountain of Youth. El Dorado. Shangri-La. It’s snake oil in a devastatingly dangerous vial.
It’s a promise of fantastic wealth and all it takes to access that wealth is extracting the substance from an explosive. From a landmine.
According to the myth, red mercury has two purposes: it’s an important part of a nuclear bomb and an anti-aging ointment. Because of its association with ancient Egyptian embalming procedures and its promise of permanent youth, red mercury is sometimes called “pharaohnic mercury.” However, despite the appeal of eternal life, the nuclear connection is the most commonly referenced.
In the 1970s some Soviet scientists tried to sell a newly identified substance they called “red mercury” on the black market, asking for US $100,000 to $300,000 per kilogram (gold is selling for about US$40,000 per kilogram). Supposedly the red mercury could be used in a nuclear bomb of remarkably small size and ease, skipping all that Uranium enrichment that’s getting the Iranians in so much trouble. Basically, red mercury was a short-cut to a very powerful nuclear weapon and luminaries like Moammar Gaddhafi and Saddam Hussein tried to get their hands on the stuff.
The myth persisted because some law enforcement agencies launched sting operations against would-be terrorists by offering to sell them “red mercury.” Also, some Russians supposedly did sell a product they called red mercury (actually ordinary silver mercury colored with red nail polish) on the black-market for nearly half a million dollars just after the collapse of the Soviet Union (The Guardian; David Meyer; IO9; BBC News). That kept the possibility of acquiring such a substance alive in the darkened hallways of arms smugglers and terrorists.
Where the story gets weird is in Saudi Arabia in the late 2000s. An internet rumor spread through the country that a drop of red mercury could be found in the needle of Singer sewing machines and the presence could be detected by a cell phone whose service would be interrupted by proximity to red mercury. With an inflating value (now even small amounts might be worth millions of dollars), Saudis rushed to buy up old sewing machines, for US $50,000 or more as well as breaking into sewing factories and stores and stealing the machines. Reports suggested that the red mercury hunters were only in it for the money; they weren’t looking to make bombs, just sell the stuff to people who might. The Saudi Interior Ministry tried to quell the rumors, but were unsuccessful as many people invested their life savings in the futile search (BBC News; Wired; Arabian Business).
While taking apart a hundred year old sewing machine is not likely to result in catastrophic injury, maybe some cuts and scratches, the next supposed repository of red mercury very well could: landmines. In southern Africa, along the shared borders of Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, hundreds of thousands of landmines had been placed during the liberation wars of Zimbabwe and Mozambique and the civil war in Mozambique. At some point in the last couple of years, the rumor emerged that red mercury could be extracted from those landmines. Persons living in poverty in these countries live in dire conditions and the lure of instant, fabulous wealth has proven to be far stronger than the fear of calamity from tampering with explosives. Using hacksaws, drilling machines and black magic, Zimbabweans, Zambians and Mozambicans have been trying to open anti-personnel landmines, anti-vehicle landmines and mortar bombs with unfortunately predictable outcomes. The governments of Zambia and Zimbabwe both believe that most reported injuries from landmines and unexploded ordnance result from the attempts to extract red mercury from explosives that have either been dug out of the ground or stolen from ammunition depots. Dozens of people have been killed or injured in recent years, too many of whom were innocent bystanders. Reports have even surfaced of school teachers saving up to buy landmines to attempt to extract red mercury (News Day; Government of Zambia, Statement of the Delegation to the 7th Conference on the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, Protocol V; News Day) .
So, to wrap up, red mercury doesn’t exist, but the belief in it can kill.
Michael P. Moore
July 29, 2014
moe (at) landminesinafrica (dot) org