Death and deforestation: cocaine trade adds to Amazon's woes

The murders of Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips have stoked concern in Brazil about links between drugs smugglers and environmental crime.

Amazon_Rainforest_Brazil
Aerial view of the Amazon rainforest, near Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas. Brazil. Image: CIFOR, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

In the far west of Brazil’s Amazon, in Tabatinga, walls are scrawled with drug gang graffiti. At the city’s jail, half the cells are occupied by members of criminal groups vying to control the cocaine trade, and murder is rife.

“Almost every day we receive photos of someone who has been killed - in most cases it’s to do with drug debts or disputes,”  said Octaviano Gondos, a Roman Catholic priest who works with the local branch of a church group supporting prisoners.

The grisly images are shared by gang members on social media as a means to intimidate rivals, he added.

Bordering both Colombia and Peru, riverside Tabatinga is also a gateway to the Javari Valley indigenous territory, where indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips were murdered in early June.

Their killings highlighted increasing violence in the Amazon and fueled concern about links between drug traffickers and environmental crimes such as illegal logging, fishing and mining in the furthest reaches of the rainforest.

A US Treasury official said this month he had learned alarming information about ties between Brazil’s First Capital Command (PCC) - a major cocaine trafficking organisation - and wildcat gold miners ravaging the Amazon.

Police and indigenous leaders say increasing violence in the region is likely a reflection of the deeper involvement of Brazil’s drug-smuggling organisations in a wide range of illicit environmental activities.

There has been an exponential rise in gun crimes and executions, which reflects the atmosphere of disputes in the region.

Eliesio Marubo, legal representative, Union of Indigenous Peoples from Vale do Javari

Several arrests made in the Pereira-Phillips case have pointed to a connection with illegal fishing, and police are investigating possible ties to drug trafficking though no clear links have yet been established.

“This is not new or exclusive to Brazil … Criminal organisations, mafias go where there is easy money,” said Alexandre Saraiva, a Federal Police officer and former superintendent in the state of Amazonas, where Tabatinga lies.

“If a guy gets money in (illegal) gold, he invests in drugs and vice-versa. It’s a chain of illegal crime that feeds upon itself in the absence of the state,” he said, adding that his name appeared on a PCC hit list after he worked to fight illegal logging.

Easy laundering

Less stringent controls and penalties - particularly in recent years under President Jair Bolsonaro - make criminal environmental activities an attractive sideline for drug gangs, or as a means of laundering drug money, experts say.

“It is easier to launder money in environmental crime,” said Melina Risso, research director at the Igarapé Institute think-tank.

A congressional commission established after the murders of Pereira and Phillips said it had received reports of cross-border criminal groups buying up local river fish to launder drug funds, fueling demand for two varieties in particular.

One of the men arrested in connection with the killings is suspected of financing illegal fishing in the area where Pereira and Phillips were killed as they travelled by boat down the Itaquaí river.

A growing nexus between drug smugglers and environmental criminals helps explain a surge in violent crime in the Javari, said Eliesio Marubo, legal representative of the Union of Indigenous Peoples from Vale do Javari (Univaja). 

“There has been an exponential rise in gun crimes and executions, which reflects the atmosphere of disputes in the region,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

The number of murders in Amazon areas in Brazil has been rising much faster than the national average.

An annual report by the Brazilian Public Security Forum, a nonprofit, found the homicide rate in the country’s northern region - covered mostly by the Amazon - rose by 62 per cent in 2021, whereas the overall rate for Brazil fell by 9.3 per cent.

Until about 2014, Amazon areas with greater risk of illegal logging, mining, and land seizures were more affected by rising violence.

But in recent years the murder rate has surged in areas located in waterway and highway routes used by drug traffickers, found research published last year by the Amazon 2030 project.

Cartel connections

Just 10 days after Pereira and Phillips disappeared, there were two other high-profile murders in the area - in a riverside town just across the Colombian border.

A Dutch tourist died after being shot in a restaurant in the city of Leticia - hit by a stray bullet meant for a Brazilian man wanted by Interpol for drug trafficking, who was also killed in the assault by unknown gunmen.

Amazonian drug routes are managed and disputed by dozens of criminal groups straddling Brazil and leading cocaine producers Colombia and Peru.

Last year, the Colombian Public Defender’s office said members of the PCC as well as Red Command (CV) and the North Family (FDN) based in Tabatinga had links with Colombian rebel group the First Front and Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel.

Whereas Colombian and Mexican cartels tend to be centralized and hierarchical, Brazil’s drug networks let members develop illicit sidelines, said Bruno Paes Manso, a researcher from the Center for the Study of Violence from the University of São Paulo and co-author of a book focused on the PCC.

Details of police operations indicate that the same river and air routes used for cross-border cocaine trafficking are used for the transportation of illegal wood, gold or manganese, said Aiala Couto, a researcher from Pará State University (UEPA) and member of the Brazilian Forum on Public Security.

A recent police investigation in the southeastern state of São Paulo into an airstrip used for drug trafficking from northern areas uncovered a billionaire scheme of illegal gold extraction and laundering in the Amazon. Five alleged bosses were arrested early in July.

An April 2022 report by the Hutukara Yanomami Association, which represents the Amazon’s Yanomami people, highlights evidence of the PCC’s involvement in illegal mining operations on their territory and an upswing in violence.

Masked men dressed in black and armed with assault rifles started to circulate in the region, the report said, describing an assault on local people last May.

“Seven boats with armed men dressed in vests and balaclavas approached the Yakepraopë community and opened fire on its residents, including women and children. In the escape, two children died,” the report said.

Like many indigenous leaders, Marubo blames the upswing in environmental and drug-linked violence on a dismantling of state environmental, police and indigenous watchdogs under Bolsonaro, who is trailing in the polls ahead of an October election.

While Marubo recognized that criminality is nothing new to the Amazon, he said Bolsonaro had “weakened all of the agencies which worked in the region”.

Regardless of the outcome of October’s vote and despite their rising fears, indigenous leaders in the Javari will remain vigilant, he said.

“Many people who are the face of Univaja had to leave the state or the country to save their lives … (but) we will keep providing information to the authorities.”

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate.

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