Deforestation in the Amazon Fuels Violence and Bolsters Criminal Organizations
British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian Indigenous rights defender Bruno Pereira will always be remembered in the hearts of Brazilians who love the Amazon and have worked for years to protect it. Their murders became a symbol of the struggle to save the world's largest green lung from environmental crimes.
The two vanished on June 5 from a little village called São Rafael, during a mini-expedition for Phillips’s new book about the Amazon. They were discovered dead approximately ten days later amidst continuous controversy surrounding President Jairo Bolsonaro’s statements and the delay in the search.
According to the Brazilian Federal Police, the double murder was instigated by Rubens Villar Coelho, also known as Colômbia. Colômbia is a drug trafficker from Peru who used to buy illegal fish from local criminals. While Bruno had recently trained indigenous vigilantes to document illegal fishing, Phillips photographed drug traffickers threatening him the day before his death. It was a likely motive for the local criminals to execute both of them.
Dom and Bruno's murders unearthed Pandora's box of environmental and security issues facing the Amazon, which spans 6.7 million km2 over nine countries, with 60% of the forest being in Brazil. Their violent deaths indicate how these issues are intertwined in this no-land man's region of Latin America.
A recent report 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 linked violence to deforestation. In 2020, the Brazilian Amazon had the highest murder rate in Brazil, at 29.6 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, versus the national average of 23.9. The greatest rates corresponded to municipalities suffering the most deforestation.
In 2022, Amazon deforestation rose 10.6% from the previous year. Since 2012, Brazil's national space research institute, INPE, has shown that legal and illegal deforestation has risen steadily, with at least 90% illegal. More than a third of Amazon killings in 2020 occurred in deforested areas. In Amazonian municipalities with high deforestation, violent deaths are 48% higher than in places with less than 5% deforestation (37.1 against 24.9 per 100,000).
Phillips and Pereira were killed in the Vale do Javari, an 85,000-square-kilometer indigenous reserve with the world's most isolated indigenous communities. The niobium, potassium, manganese, and tantalum oxide found in this extreme eastern Amazon region lures residents and foreigners alike in a wild gold rush. Petrobras had already conducted oil explorations in the area in the 1980s.
An impenetrable natural environment works in favor of criminals. Controlling the region is a challenge. Even though the federal government spent $109 million on operations in the Amazon since 2019, violence and environmental crimes did not decrease.
Since the 1980s, drug trafficking groups have utilized the Amazon jungle as a gateway. For example, Cosa Nostra mobster Tommaso Buscetta purchased a massive farm in the Brazilian state of Pará. With Gaetano Badalamenti, who also owned farms in Brazil, Buscetta wanted to establish a cocaine trading operation. According to their criminal plan, small biplanes carrying cocaine from Peru and Colombia would have to land in the Amazon to dodge police checks. According to a recent investigation by The Intercept, there are 1,269 illegal runways in the Amazon near illegal gold mining. This exceeds the region's total number of regular runways.
Drug traffickers also utilize the Amazon rivers as routes for transporting cocaine from Colombia to Peru to Brazil, a major hub for the European market. The state of Amazonas has become the principal entry point for Peruvian cocaine and marijuana via the Solimões and Javarì rivers.
According to the FBSP report, Brazil's most significant criminal organizations, including First Capital Command (PCC) of São Paulo and Red Command (CV) of Rio de Janeiro, operate in the Amazon region. The PCC acquired a substantial foothold there in the late 2010s. In addition, state-level groups like Cartel of the North and Family of the North (FDN) fight for territory control. In June and July 2015, FDN members allegedly beheaded three PCC leaders in jail in Manaus, Amazonas' capital. These murders resulted in a faction war that ended PCC and CV's 20-year collaboration, showing Amazon's strategic importance in drug trafficking.
Pirates from the Coari region, the FDN, and the PCC compete to control the Solimões route. Some pirates utilize counterfeit federal police boats to attack gold-carrying smugglers and drug traffickers. In July, pirates employed grenade launchers during an attack in the Tonantins region, a few kilometers from Manaus.
In recent months, the Javari route has grown more dangerous than the Solimões route due to the formation of a new criminal organization, os Crias, which originated from an internal split within the FDN. Os Crias includes former members of the Brazilian PCC, the Colombian gang Alcateia, and criminals from Peru. They are active in Tabatinga, 1105 kilometers from Manaus, and along the border between Brazil, Peru, and Colombia, where they control the main Peruvian drug route. Os Crias have benefited from the help of a criminal organization named People’s Army (Ejército Del Pueblo), which includes The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) dissidents who supply them with weapons and ammunition.
The Solimões and Javari rivers are so dangerous that tourists are not advised to navigate them alone. British kayaker Emma Kelty died in 2017 during her 4,000-mile trip along the Amazon River in Salomon’s leg. She was robbed and murdered by a local drug gang.
According to the former head of the Amazonas Federal Police, Alexandre Saraiva “crime in the Amazon has grown multidimensional. There are drugs, firearms, and the narcotrafficker's control of territory is intertwined with illicit mining and fishing."
Recently, four Brazilian miners and a woman were slain in the Brazilian-Venezuelan border region of Alto Orinoco de Amazonas. Witnesses said that Venezuelan National Guard officers killed them. The victims worked in the illegal Taboca gold mine.
The trafficking of timber also plays a significant role. It follows the paths of cocaine trafficking, which is frequently concealed in timber. At least 90% of Amazonian timber is illegally exported using fake documentation. In 2021, Pará's Civil Police intercepted 120 kilos of cocaine hidden in containers of timber bound for Europe.
Drug traffickers exploit communities' poverty to commit environmental crimes such as illegal fishing to cover up drug smuggling and money laundering and gain local support. Brazilian legislation penalizes environmental crimes less than drug smuggling. On the Peruvian border, hundreds of locals smuggle pirarucu, tracajàs, and turtles. This illicit economy allows hundreds to survive, drug traffickers to launder money and store drugs in fishers' homes, and local politicians to fund election campaigns.
Significant drug activities intersect with illegal gold and manganese mining, which are associated with money laundering and tax and financial crimes. At least one-fifth of indigenous territory in Brazil is illegally mined. Between 2010 and 2020, this activity increased by 495 percent, making Indigenous people more vulnerable to crime and violence.
In the Amazon, illegal mining is a serious concern. The non-profit organization Instituto Socioambiental stated that more than 20,000 illegal gold miners were operating on Yanomami indigenous territories in Roraima State. According to a report of the indigenous NGO Missionary Council, illegal invasions and exploitation of natural resources occurred on 253 indigenous lands in 19 states in 2019. In March, the Federal Police led an operation to dismantle a large illegal mining camp on Yanomami lands in Roraima. Officials compared the illegal camp on Yanomami territory to a small city with marketplaces, restaurants, and a dental clinic, capable of sheltering more than 2,000 people.
Recent federal police operations demonstrated that illegal gold mining profits are frequently cleaned and redistributed using cryptocurrency. Operations Ganância, Golden Greed, and Comando discovered illegal miners' money laundering activities, which damaged 212 football fields worth of rainforest in the Amazon. As a result, the investigators confiscated and froze assets worth around 2 billion reais ($371 million).
These criminal organizations are empowered by the government's removal of environmental regulations and enforcement authorities. Brazil should enhance its environmental institutions, improve integration, and adopt effective public policies to reduce Amazon violence. It is also worth noting that the Amazon is a transregional issue affecting all countries that border and trade with it. While controls in Brazil are permeable, they should be stricter in Europe regarding gold and timber on which narcotics frequently travel. Additionally, joint operations along the border with Colombian and Peruvian law enforcement might contribute to the containment of the environmental emergency and, subsequently, to security improvement.