Garoua-Boulaï, Cameroon — Much of the bloodiest fighting since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine has been around the eastern city of Bakhmut, where thousands of ill-equipped Russian forces have died on the front lines since the end of last year. Many of those fighters have not been enlisted Russian soldiers, but mercenaries recruited and paid by the Wagner Group, a private army run by President Vladimir Putin’s long-time associate Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Prigozhin’s seemingly endless supply of hired guns in Ukraine requires deep pockets, and a CBS News investigation has found that he’s funding his operations in large part by putting his private army to work in Africa.
Wagner in Africa
The Russian businessman has used his forces to prop up some very unsavory regimes in exchange for free reign to plunder the valuable resources of mineral rich countries including Mali, Sudan and Libya. But it’s in the small nation of the Central African Republic (CAR) that his business model has been honed to perfection.
The story Wagner tells in a Prigozhin bank-rolled movie aired in the country — innocuously titled “Tourist” — is that his mercenaries are the saviors of CAR. The movie glorifies the mission of these soldiers of fortune as heroes repelling rebel attacks and thwarting a plan to storm the capital and overthrow the president. There was even a Hollywood-style premier in the capital, Bangui, and promotional t-shirts bearing the slogan “Je Suis Wagner.”
But it’s all Russian propaganda, at its most lavish and its most distorted.
The paramilitary group does indeed provide the country’s President Faustin-Archange Touadéra with mercenary muscle to prevent a coup from toppling his shaky grip on CAR. There’s even a statue in Bangui honoring the Russians for bravely protecting women and children.
What Wagner doesn’t tell you, however, is that it is effectively helping to run CAR through violence, disinformation and a galaxy of shell companies that obscure the exploitation of the country’s mineral riches.
In a rare moment caught on camera, included in the CBS News report at the top of this article, masked Russian mercenaries can actually be seen guarding the president. The United Nations has accused Wagner of gross human rights atrocities and CBS News has confirmed multiple stories of civilian massacres, executions and rape in CAR.
Wagner’s bloody entry to CAR
Convincing people from CAR to talk to CBS News wasn’t easy. Everyone was understandably terrified, convinced that Wagner has eyes everywhere. One man finally agreed to be interviewed on the condition that we change his name, conceal his identity and go to the extraordinary lengths of meeting him in neighboring Cameroon. Usman, as we’re calling him, spent a day traveling through military checkpoints in taxis and on the back of motorbikes to cross the border.
“Wagner is not here to defend the country,” Usman scoffed as soon as he met us. “Whoever told you that, it’s a lie!”
His family used to be in the gold dealing business, which is a big one in CAR.
“It was very prosperous,” he said. “It paid for the education of all the children in our family and gave us a good life. We lacked nothing.”
Wagner mercenaries seized in Ukraine on the lies and threats they faced
Then in 2021, Wagner came to his family’s small-scale, artisanal mining town. Usman told us that his younger brother was killed, his sisters were raped and their gold business was seized by the Russians.
Usman said he was carted off to a makeshift prison cell at the Wagner forces’ base, where he was tortured for days and tied up in a bag with a rope. He claims he eventually escaped and that he’s been in hiding ever since.
“What they did to my country, seeing my parents… As a man it makes you feel useless,” Usman said, breaking down weeping as he spoke with us. “They stole our possessions, burnt down our home… I even see Wagner soldiers riding on my motorbike with my name still on it.”
He paints a painful, poignant image, which encapsulates the extent to which the Russian mercenaries have taken everything from one of the poorest countries in the world.
What’s in it for Wagner?
Wagner has a pact forged in blood. The pay off? Unfettered access to CAR’s gold mines and forests, which fund the group’s criminal and paramilitary activities far beyond Africa.
“Like the war in Ukraine,” explained Usman, connecting the conflict 6,000 miles away directly with his own country’s suffering. “How else do you explain that Russia is under sanctions, but their economy remains unaffected. It’s like witchcraft!”
David Otto, of the Geneva Centre for African Security and Strategic Studies, explained succinctly that Wagner is compensated for its services to the autocratic regime in CAR with lucrative mining rights and forestry concessions.
“It’s all about following the money,” Otto told CBS News. “You’ve got to understand that these private militaries, they need money to function, they need resources to function… We’re talking about billions of dollars here, perhaps even more.”
But following the money isn’t clearcut, Otto added, explaining that Wagner’s operations in CAR are always covert — Wagner would never have its actual name on the registration of a company involved.
All that glitters is gold
Satellite images provided to CBS News by independent intelligence company Grey Dynamics clearly show the Ndassima gold mine in CAR being developed. Wagner has a 25-year mining concession for the mine, but it operates the facility under the cover of Midas Resources, a Prigozhin-linked front company.
Exporting gold through the country’s international airport, however, surely would be difficult for a group designated by the U.S. as a transnational criminal organization. Not for Wagner.
“They have control of the airport and the staff,” explained Usman. “There’s a cargo plane flying between Moscow and Bangui.”
It’s as simple as that. Wagner, it appears, is flying CAR’s gold right out of the country, straight to the Russian capital.
CBS News secretly recorded a Wagner cargo plane moments after it landed at Bangui’s M’Poko Airport. It taxied toward the mercenary group’s base, situated near the runway. We were told the planes usually arrive in the capital on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and nobody is allowed near the aircraft. Security is extremely tight.
Working with Grey Dynamics we tracked that plane, which went dark over Africa, dropping off air traffic monitors. If a plane wants to conceal its identity the pilot can deliberately turn off the transponder. The same plane eventually reappeared, in the United Arab Emirates. Within half an hour of its landing, another plane also touched down on the tarmac, from Moscow. The two aircraft overlapped for eight hours — plenty of time to potentially transfer cargo in a country with lax customs regulations.
Wagner finds a new revenue stream in timber
CBS News’ investigation found that Prigozhin has also expanded his operations to include the plunder of CAR’s virgin redwood forests. But conflict timber — trees taken by an armed group to perpetuate or take advantage of a conflict — is even harder to hide than gold.
Documents shared with CBS News by All Eyes on Wagner, a research group that investigates Wagner’s alleged criminal activities and human rights abuses in multiple countries, show a company called Bois Rouge received a forestry concession in 2021 from the CAR government to fell trees in the country’s Lobaye region.
On paper, Bois Rouge is headed by a woman who is a CAR national. But the company also appeared at a Shanghai trade exhibition as a Russian firm, with Artem Tolmachev listed as its sales manager. His tax records, seen by CBS News, reveal that he’s paid by two companies linked to Prigozhin: Service K and Ferrum Mining.
CBS News secretly filmed Wagner trucks leaving the group’s military base near the capital loaded with wood. The convoy was protected by Russian mercenaries all the way to the border with Cameroon, where they were waved through before continuing to the town of Garoua-Mboulai.
At the border, the drivers presented a safe passage document stamped by the CAR government. The document functions like a diplomatic badge — it means vehicles cannot be searched.
“We know Wagner often marks their wood with white or green dots,” Usman told us, “and it’s cut in a very specific way.”
CBS News filmed several trucks that were part of the Wagner convoy with those tell-tale signs.
“Serious organized crime”
The drivers transport the wood to Cameroon’s port of Douala, or the deep-sea port of Kribi about a three-hour drive further south. With hidden cameras and posing as potential buyers, CBS News visited a customs office run by officials from the neighboring Central African Republic at the busy Douala port.
There was wood everywhere — as if an entire forest had been chopped down. Much of it was legally exported by registered timber companies. But among the logs there was also timber bearing the tell-tale signs of having been hacked down by Wagner — evidence of a sanctioned organization running what is effectively a multinational criminal syndicate.
A CAR official at the port told CBS News it was very easy to get timber from the Central African Republic through customs in Cameroon, calling it “a smooth process, with no delays.”
But we could not find any wood labeled as being exported by Bois Rouge, the front company that’s been running the Wagner logging business in CAR. Instead, nearly 100 export documents obtained by CBS News from a Wagner convoy show a company called Wood International Group tasked with exporting the timber from Cameroon.
After poring over the documents looking for anomalies, we finally spotted it: Wood International Group has exactly the same address and contact details as Bois Rouge. A deeper dive found that Wood International and Bois Rouge share the same company registration number. It’s another Prigozhin subterfuge — changing the name of a front company to avoid detection.
“This is, you know, one of the key elements of serious organized crime,” said Otto, the analyst at the Geneva Centre. “In order to disguise one company, they use a proxy company.”
The U.S. government has sanctioned the Wagner Group and associated entities, and a State Department official told CBS News that, with international partners, the U.S. was “working to limit the Prigozhin criminal enterprise’s ability to profit from its operations in Africa.”
“The Department of State is engaging all countries who may be facilitating Wagner profiteering, knowingly or unknowingly,” the official said, adding that the U.S. was “fully committed” to working with its partners in Africa and other nations to address the “destabilizing” activities of the Wagner Group.
The official accused Prigozhin and Putin together of “actively undercutting the independence of our African partners.”
How much could Wagner rake in from CAR?
Experts estimate Wagner’s projected revenue for the timber alone to be close to $1 billion, while the potential revenue from the Ndassima mine — now run entirely by Wagner — is estimated conservatively at around $2.7 billion.
CBS News has been told that Wagner is also mining diamonds in CAR.
Wagner has always been a plausible deniability for Russia. Mercenary outfits are banned in the country, but increasingly during Putin’s war in Ukraine, Prigozhin has stepped out of the shadows to claim glory for isolated victories — and to publicly lash senior government ministers — without any apparent repercussions.
He appears to answer only to Putin, and our investigation suggests his hundreds of front companies are central to the Kremlin’s strategy to win allies across the African continent, while grabbing their resources and finding new ways to evade crippling Western sanctions.
It’s worth noting that, despite the unprecedented sanctions imposed on Russia by the US and many other nations since the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Moscow’s gold reserves have increased over the last year, reaching an all-time high in the first quarter of 2023 according to their own figures.
Wagner’s business model is one it likely hopes to replicate across Africa, where there’s no shortage of dodgy dictators eager to halt democratic resistance or fight off insurgencies. All the while, Prigozhin continues to evade sanctions and rake in the billions that fund both his rapidly expanding criminal empire, and his private army helping fight Russia’s war in Ukraine.
CBS News sought comment from the Wagner Group for this story, but had not received a reply by the time of publication.
Exclusive discounts from CBS Mornings Deals
Former NFL player R.K. Russell on new memoir detailing upbringing and coming out in the NFL
Former President Barack Obama on My Brother’s Keeper initiative, gun reform and legacy