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Organized crime brings renewed threats to Yanomami in Brazil

Two Yanomami men carrying wood in the Amazon forest.

Two Yanomami men carrying wood in the Amazon forest. Image by Palácio do Planalto via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

  • Government efforts to evict several thousand illegal miners from the Yanomami Indigenous Territory have so far been insufficient, as organized crime groups work with miners to confront state agents.
  • Miners receive logistical, financial and weapons support from criminal groups, such as the First Capital Command (PCC), which has complicated actions by the country’s environmental protection agency (IBAMA), which fights miners with a reduced budget and resources.
  • Meanwhile, hundreds of Yanomamis continue to suffer from disease, mercury contamination in their rivers, severe malnutrition, attacks and deaths.

As criminal groups combine forces with miners in Brazil’s Yanomami Indigenous Territory, officials have found it more difficult to control the spread of crime and violence that have killed hundreds of Yanomami.

Following a brief period of calm last June, the Yanomami Indigenous Territory in Roraima state, stretching more than 8 million hectares (about 19.7 million acres) — nearly the size of Portugal — saw an explosion of illegal mining and violence at the end of 2023. Measures to combat environmental crimes and remove offenders were ineffective, the Public Ministry said in a press release.

This is in part due to the logistical, financial and weapons support provided by criminal groups to garimpeiros (illegal miners). Many of the garimpeiros are increasingly well-armed and have equal or greater access to resources than state officials, experts said.

“Both drug trafficking and illegal mining have coexisted since the 1980s, but now they are merging,” Rodrigo Chagas, a researcher at the Society and Borders Postgraduate Program at the Federal University of Roraima (UFRR) and the Brazilian Public Security Forum, told Mongabay.

Alisson Marugal, the federal prosecutor responsible for the Yanomami case, said in a call that members from criminal organizations provide security for garimpeiros or, in their language, “discipline” and “order.” These groups mainly operate in the mines of the Uraricoera River, one of the main rivers in the Yanomami territory, where they can “profit from the provision of security services.”

Illegal mining within the Yanomami Territory.
Illegal mining within the Yanomami Territory. Although the law forbids outsiders to enter the demarcated Indigenous land, the territory was flooded with tens of thousands of prospectors who contributed to a devastating health crisis among the Yanomami people. Image © Christian Braga/Greenpeace.

New guns and a new order

Chagas said he believes the criminal organization in question to be the First Capital Command (PCC), a gang that emerged from the state of São Paulo’s prison system and, since 2018, has introduced “new mechanisms of domination and governance” to the territory.

“With the arrival of the PCC, new forms of financing for illegal mining emerge, while the mining activity itself provides new sources of income for the group and expands routes and logistical modes for large-scale trafficking,” he added. “The pattern of armament has also evolved, moving from .22 hunting rifles and revolvers to war rifles, machine guns and pistols.”

Months after President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva declared a health emergency in the territory, the Brazilian military reduced its operations in mid-2023 for reasons undisclosed to Mongabay. While they were fully present, there was a brief respite of calm in June 2023 when mining alerts zeroed. After they were gone, the Brazilian environmental protection agency (IBAMA) had to carry out anti-mining operations in the territory with few resources. The military stopped the transfer of fuel for IBAMA’s helicopters, which made it more difficult for agents to access difficult-to-reach areas where the miners are usually found, three IBAMA officials told Reuters.

“The gradual demobilization of the Ministry of Defense, with the removal of storage and fuel supply structures for aircraft, made all activities planned for the end of this year unfeasible, harming the performance of bodies such as Funai, SESAI and IBAMA,” said Joenia Wapichana, president of the Indigenous affairs agency, Funai, in a letter to the Ministry of Economy, seen by the Brazilian news agency Brasil de Fato.

In March this year, the government announced that it would allocate 1 billion Brazilian reais ($181 million) toward the implementation of new actions to evict the invaders, and this was distributed among eight ministries, including the Ministry of Defense. Several days earlier, the government had deployed 800 military personnel and additional resources, including four aircraft, to the territory. There is still yet any information on how long the personnel will be deployed for and the impact of their presence.

Marugal told Mongabay that the Brazilian state is still largely absent in the Yanomami territory, especially in the most isolated areas. This “state vacuum” has allowed miners to take advantage of landing strips, which were meant to supply the health centers inside the territory and had to be closed due to a lack of security, he said.

Illegal mining in the Kayapó Indigenous land in the Amazon.
Illegal mining in the Kayapó Indigenous land in the Amazon. Image © Marizilda Cruppe / Greenpeace.

According to Reuters, the Air Force did not enforce a no-fly zone, which led to an increase in the number of unregistered pilots flying miners into the Yanomami territory. The Navy also failed to stop miners using the main rivers to transport machinery and supplies, the news agency reported.

Brazil’s State Military Police, Air Force and Navy did not reply to Mongabay’s requests for comment.

According to a report by UOL, in May 2023, there were between 40 and 50 fugitives linked to criminal factions in the territory. A month earlier, in April, PCC leader Sandro Moraes de Carvalho, also known as “President,” was killed in a confrontation with police. Sandro was then replaced by a member identified as Escobar, who previously provided security services to the miners, according to information provided to UOL by state police sources. Each of Roraima’s regions is managed by different PCC leaders, and Escobar is thought to be in charge of region 019, which is the area where mining is concentrated, according to WhatsApp audio messages obtained by the police and shared with UOL.

“The entry of factions poses greater danger to combat actions, as these criminals have larger caliber weapons and are willing to confront police and inspection agents,” Marugal said. “Therefore, better equipped teams are needed to combat mining operations with the presence of factions.”

In Roraima, at least 100 military police officers are under investigation for their alleged involvement in a militia group that supports illegal miners in the Yanomami territory. These officials, according to documents seen by Brazil media organization GLOBO, have provided armed security for miners and have taken part in criminal activities directly, such as illegal mining and drug trafficking. The investigation is being carried out by the Civil Police and the Public Ministry of Roraima.

President Lula during the announcement of emergency actions for the Yanomami population in Boa Vista in Jan. 2023.
President Lula during the announcement of emergency actions for the Yanomami population in Boa Vista in Jan. 2023. Image by Ricardo Stuckert/PR via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

Impacts on Yanomami

At the end of 2023, the Federal Court in Roraima ordered the government to escalate actions against illegal mining in the Yanomami territory. The Public Ministry argued that the efforts so far had been ineffective. As a result, hundreds of Yanomami now suffer from disease, mercury contamination in their rivers, malnutrition, attacks and death.

In 2023, 1,127 deforestation alerts were registered in the territory, which totaled 238.9 hectares (590.3 acres), according to a technical note signed by the Hutukara Association and other organizations, such as Greenpeace Brasil and Instituto Socioambiental. However, from January to April this year, deforestation alerts dropped 73% compared with the same period in 2023 before illegal mining alerts briefly zeroed in June.

“The environmental damage has a severe impact on the entire Yanomami territory,” Gilmara Fernandez, coordinator of the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) North Regional 1, told Mongabay. “Several communities have been so impacted by mining that they have had to relocate because their rivers are contaminated.”

In April, Brazil’s top public health institute collected hair samples from nearly 300 Yanomami in nine villages along the Mucajaí River, a remote region where illegal mining is widespread. The researchers revealed that 85% of the Yanomami tested had contamination levels equal to or above 2 micrograms per gram — a level that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and World Health Organization say is enough to lead to several health problems, such as respiratory issues. Ten percent had levels that exceeded the six micrograms per gram threshold, which is often associated with more severe medical conditions, such as brain damage or death.

An investigation published in May 2023 by Brazilian news site Veja found that the PCC also runs prostitution and drug trafficking rings on Yanomami land. According to Fernandez, since the arrival of the criminal groups, there has been an increase in reports of sexual exploitation, rape and grooming among the Indigenous communities.

IBAMA and Funai did not respond to Mongabay’s requests for comment by the time of publication.

In February, President Lula established the Government House in the city of Boa Vista. The Government House, which will operate until Dec. 31, 2026, was built to guarantee the permanent presence of federal agents in the Yanomami territory and to ensure the protection and security of Indigenous peoples.

However, according to Chagas, “This seems to fall far short of what is necessary, both for the Yanomami Indigenous Land and for the Amazon as a whole. After all, while the Yanomami case is the most alarming and urgent, it is not the only one: Illegal mining practices are widespread throughout the Amazon as a whole.”


Banner image: Two Yanomami men carrying wood in the Amazon forest. Image by Palácio do Planalto via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

Six months on, the Yanomami crisis continues amid rising violence

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