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Organized crime drives violence and deforestation in the Amazon, study shows

Timber is sorted for transport in Uruará in the state of Pará.

Timber is sorted for transport in Uruará in the state of Pará. Drug trafficking frequently uses the same smuggling routes as timber. This piggybacking of criminal activity in the Amazon has driven an increase in conflicts and violence. Image © Marizilda Cruppe/Greenpeace.

  • Increasing rates of both deforestation and violence in the Brazilian Amazon are being driven by sprawling national and transnational criminal networks, a study shows.
  • Experts say criminal organizations engaged in activities ranging from illegal logging to drug trafficking often threaten and attack environmentalists, Indigenous people, and enforcement agents who attempt to stop them.
  • In 2020, the Brazilian Amazon had the highest murder rate in Brazil, at 29.6 homicides per 100,000 habitants, compared to the national average of 23.9, with the highest rates corresponding to municipalities suffering the most deforestation.
  • Experts say the current government’s systematic dismantling of environmental protections and enforcement agencies has emboldened these criminal organizations, which have now become “well connected, well established and very strong.”

The deaths of journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous rights defender Bruno Pereira in June this year exposed an interlocking web of crime involving drug trafficking, money laundering, and illegal fishing deep in the Brazilian Amazon. This sprawling criminal network stretches throughout the rainforest and beyond, and is responsible for soaring deforestation rates and increasing violence in the region, a study has found.

“Much of the destruction of the forest in the region is the result of illegal activities fueled by complex national and transnational criminal chains,” according to the study from the Brazilian Forum on Public Security (FBSP), in partnership with the Climate and Society Institute of Brazil, and the University of the State of Pará.

The research, published in November 2021, shows that drug trafficking is increasingly intertwined with environmental crimes in the Amazon. Drugs, especially cocaine and marijuana, are trafficked along the same forest routes as illegal timber and gold, and are smuggled together to Europe and other overseas markets.

An illegal gold mine outside Macapá, the capital of Amapá state. The state with the highest levels of violent deaths in the Brazilian Amazon, with a homicide rate of 41.7 per 100,000 habitants. Image © Daniel Beltrá/Greenpeace.

“Many drug traffickers began to see how it was an advantage for them to connect with other criminal activities in the Amazon that use the same routes and same strategies,” Aiala Colares, the research coordinator for the study, told Mongabay by phone.

Large drug operations increasingly overlap with illegal gold and manganese mining operations, which in turn are linked to money laundering and tax and financial crimes, according to research from the Brazilian think tank Igarapé. Mining occurs on at least one-fifth of Indigenous territory in Brazil, all of it illegal by definition. This activity increased by 495% between 2010 and 2020, putting local communities — Indigenous people, riverbank-dwelling ribeirinhos, and Afro-Brazilian quilombolas — ever closer to criminal activity and deadly conflicts.

“The risk to life is real,” Colares said. “Nowadays we have Indigenous people [in the Amazon] being murdered, riverside people being enticed by drug traffickers, quilombolas living with trafficking, mining companies, and illegal logging.”

Timber is one of the key resources used to mask the shipment of drugs to Europe, according to Colares. At least 90% of wood exported from the Amazon is of illegal origin, with criminals using false documents to ship it. These same timber export routes are also used to conceal drugs being sent overseas. In 2021, the Civil Police in Pará seized approximately 120 kilograms (265 pounds) of cocaine stashed inside containers of wood that were destined for several European countries.

Image courtesy of Aiala Colares / Cartography of Violence in the Amazon research project / Mongabay
An environmentalist walks over illegally cut mahogany logs in Pará. Illegal timber is mostly exported to the U.S. and Europe, and its origin is often masked behind a trail of false paperwork. Image © Daniel Beltrá/Greenpeace.

This piggybacking of seemingly disparate criminal businesses also extends to money laundering, according to the researchers. For decades, drug traffickers have relied on shell companies to launder the money they make, and now this same model allows timber traffickers to conceal their own operations behind a veneer of legality.

“There is a huge complicating factor for us, which is that usually the big deforesters use intermediaries and third parties, who have no assets, to mask their operations,” Pablo Hernandez Viscardi, a prosecutor with the Rondônia State Public Ministry, told Mongabay by phone. A large team of police, environmental authorities, and state and federal intelligence forces are required to weed out the main deforesters, which Viscardi said is an “extremely complex and time-consuming investigation.”

The study says that several of the most prominent criminal organizations in Brazil now operate in the Amazon region, including First Capital Command (PCC) of São Paulo and Red Command (CV) of Rio de Janeiro. The PCC gained a significant presence there from the late 2010s and forged connections with smaller local groups as well as overseas organizations to connect cocaine from the Andes to global markets, the researchers found. Groups operating at the state level, such as the Cartel of the North and Family of the North, are also present deep in the rainforest.

“Today we have a variety of criminal groups present in the Amazon that make the region much more violent and make much more complex and dynamic conflicts,” Colares said.

Timber is sorted for transport in Uruará in the state of Pará. Drug trafficking frequently uses the same smuggling routes as timber. This piggybacking of criminal activity in the Amazon has driven an increase in conflicts and violence. Image © Marizilda Cruppe/Greenpeace.

Deforestation and violence

Criminal operations in the Amazon fuel deforestation and other environmental violations. In July this year, a Federal Police investigation revealed that a gang used cryptocurrency to conceal the origins of gold from illegal mining across seven states in the north of Brazil, in an operation that devastated an area in the Amazon the size of 212 football fields. The investigators seized and blocked assets valued at around 2 billion reais ($373 million), including from the owners of a mining company identified in previous reporting by The Intercept Brasil and Mongabay. In Roraima, a mine in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory was big enough to house 2,000 people and had its own market and dental clinic, according to a U.S. government human rights report.

The FBSP study indicates that crime in the Amazon drives the region’s murder rate, which is higher than the average across Brazil. In 2020, the country’s Amazonian states had an average homicide rate of 29.6 per 100,000 habitants, compared to the rest of Brazil’s average of 23.9. The Amazon’s deadliest states were Amapá (41.7 homicides per 100,000), Acre (32.9) and Pará (32.5).

The murder rate in the north of Brazil, home to seven of the nine Amazonian states, increased by 260% between 1980 and 2019, with the highest increase from the 2000s onwards. Over the same period, the southeast of the country, including the states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, saw a drop in homicides by 19.2%.

The murder rates in the Amazon have shifted from the region’s urban centers to rural and forest areas, a phenomenon that researchers call “internalization of violence.” Between 2018 and 2020, the region saw a decrease of 25.7% in homicides in urban centers, but an increase of 9.2% in rural areas and 13.8% in small towns in the interior of the Amazon states. In comparison, violent deaths in both urban and rural areas in the rest of Brazil fell by 16.2% and 6.1%, respectively, in the same period.

An illegal mining operation in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory in Roraima state. Illegal mining nearly tripled in the Yanomami reserve, and more than half of the Indigenous habitants in the territory are directly affected by the activity. Image © Christian Braga/Greenpeace.
Criminal operations in an illegal mine inside the Munduruku and Sai Cinza Indigenous territories in the state of Pará. The illegal mining in these reserves has destroyed hundreds of miles of river through water contamination from toxic waste. Image © Chico Batata/Greenpeace.

Experts and locals say criminal organizations commit violence against government officials, environmentalists, and Indigenous people who try to stop their illegal activities.

“We see the [enforcement]agencies being attacked with gunfire by these environmental criminals,” Marcelo Ferronato, a biologist based in Rondônia with close contact with local environmentalists, told Mongabay by phone. “Our feeling of insecurity in carrying out [activist] work is growing because we don’t know what these groups are thinking and what they are capable of.”

Violence is also often wielded as a tool of revenge or to serve as a warning. “If someone gets in the way of an [illegal] operation, [the criminals] will first threaten them and then later murder them,” Josep Iborra Plans, from the Catholic Church-affiliated Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), told Mongabay by phone. “They are murdered cruelly to set an example that shows [the criminals] cannot be messed with, so others will keep quiet.”

The criminal network also takes a heavy toll on the environment. In the first half of this year, deforestation in the Amazon amounted to 3,988 square kilometers (1,540 square miles), an increase of 10.6% from the same period last year. Data from Brazil’s national space research institute, INPE, show that deforestation, both legal and illegal, has risen continuously since 2012, with indications that at least 90% of it is illegal. The FBSP study also reveals a link between deforestation and violence, showing that areas with 70% deforestation or more also accounted for more than a third of the murders in the Amazon region in 2020. Additionally, Amazonian municipalities where deforestation rates are high have a rate of violent deaths that’s 48% higher than in areas where less than 5% of the land has been deforested (37.1 against 24.9 per 100,000).

The Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Justice did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

A road that joins an extensive and complex network of smuggling routes built by invaders to remove timber inside the Karipuna Indigenous Territory in Rondônia state. The Karipuna are an Indigenous people who only recently came into contact with the outside world, after having been almost entirely wiped out in the 1970s. Image © Christian Braga/Greenpeace.

Current politics driving criminal conflicts

The FBSP research concludes that the Brazilian Amazon is “hostage to alliances and conflicts inherent to the dynamics of organized crime.” It attributes this to public security failures and the systematic weakening of environmental and enforcement agencies. It also reveals that there aren’t enough police personnel to respond to criminal incidents in the Amazon, or experts to lead investigations. The rates of drug trafficking reported in most of the Amazonian states are below the national average, despite the region being a known strategic route for traffickers.

Since 2019, the government of President Jair Bolsonaro has actively dismantled environmental policies and agencies designed to protect the environment, in order to accommodate mining, logging and ranching interests — both legal and illegal. It handed responsibility for tackling environmental violations to the military, which conducted several operations in the Amazon between 2018 and 2021. However, the FBSP study criticizes the missions as being expensive and ineffective.

“The federal government spent 584.5 million reais [about $109 million] on operations in the Amazon and did not manage to reduce violence nor environmental crimes,” the study says.

Experts say Brazil should strengthen its environmental agencies, improve their integration, and establish sound public policies for vulnerable regions as essential steps in reducing conflict and violence in the Amazon. But Colares said this will be a challenge to implement.

“It will not be easy to eliminate these conflicts overnight because criminal organizations are already very well connected, very well established and very strong,” he said. “There’s no simple solution.”

A strip of Amazon rainforest was burned to the ground in the Cachoeira Seca Indigenous Territory in the state of Pará. Being a legally protected reserve hasn’t stopped it being targeted by land grabbers and illegal loggers. Image © Daniel Beltrá/Greenpeace.

Banner image: Timber is sorted for transport in Uruará in the state of Pará. Drug trafficking frequently uses the same smuggling routes as timber. This piggybacking of criminal activity in the Amazon has driven an increase in conflicts and violence. Image © Marizilda Cruppe/Greenpeace.

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CORRECTION (8/1/2022): A previous version of this story failed to credit Marcelo Ferronato for his quotes. His name has been added.