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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Tom Phillips and Ana Ionova in Belém

Amazon facing ‘urgent’ crime crisis after gutting of protections, says drugs tsar

View of the amazon river from above
Current officials say Jair Bolsonaro’s administration weakened ‘the mechanisms of monitoring and surveillance for organized environmental crime’. Photograph: Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images

The Brazilian government’s drug policy chief has admitted that the rapid advance of drug factions into the Amazon rainforest has produced a “a very difficult situation” in the region, as a UN report warned that flourishing organized crime groups were driving a boom in environmental devastation.

Marta Machado, the national secretary for drug affairs, said the previous administration’s intentional dismantling of Brazil’s environmental and Indigenous protection agencies had created a dangerous vacuum in the Amazon which had been occupied by powerful crime syndicates from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.

“The situation of drug trafficking in the Amazon is urgent,” Machado told the Guardian on the sidelines of a major public security summit in the Amazon city of Belém.

Machado laid the blame for the crisis with the government of former president Jair Bolsonaro, who stripped away rainforest protections during his four-year term of office.

“Weakening the mechanisms of monitoring and surveillance for organized environmental crime has opened this space that was occupied by the drug cartels,” she warned, adding: “The problem in the Amazon is clearly a consequence of … the deliberate omission of the previous government and [its] almost [encouragement of] environmental crimes in the Amazon.”

Machado was speaking during a three-day congress organized by the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety that was attended by senior security chiefs and government officials as well as environmentalists, Indigenous activists and intelligence analysts.

For the first time, the event was held in the Amazon, in a sign of mounting concern over the impact organized crime groups are having on the sprawling rainforest region where illegal deforestation and mining exploded during Bolsonaro’s 2019-2023 presidency.

Earlier this month, a former senior police chief in the Amazon told the Guardian that the advance of organized crime groups could turn the region into a conflict-stricken backcountry plagued by heavily armed “criminal insurgents” wreaking havoc on Indigenous lands.

Those warnings were echoed at the Belém conference, as well as in a report released this week by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

The group’s annual World Drug Report said drug trafficking was “exacerbating and amplifying an array of other criminal economies in the Amazon Basin, including illegal land occupation, illegal logging, illegal mining, trafficking in wildlife and other crimes that affect the environment”.

“‘Narco-deforestation’ – the laundering of drug trafficking profits into land speculation, the agricultural sector, cattle ranching and related infrastructure – is posing a growing danger to the world’s largest rainforest,” warned the report, which focused on the Bolivian, Brazilian, Colombian and Peruvian portions of the Amazon that comprise about 87% of the region.

“Narco-penetration has also extended into trafficking in wildlife and illegal fisheries,” the report added, citing investigations into the killings of British journalist Dom Phillips and the Indigenous activist Bruno Pereira last year. Federal police have named an alleged illegal fishing boss – with suspected ties to the drug underworld – as the mastermind behind those killings in the remote Javari valley region near Brazil’s border with Colombia and Peru.

The UN report claimed the tri-border drug smuggling hotspot where Phillips and Pereira died “probably [had] among the densest concentration of organized crime groups on earth”.

Machado voiced concern over how Brazilian drug factions had tightened their grip over a region that has long been used as a corridor to smuggle Bolivian, Colombian and Peruvian cocaine to Europe, but where such activities were intensifying, with terrible consequences for traditional and Indigenous communities.

“What we see now is an advance of [criminal] organizations that were mostly based in the south-east of Brazil and were mostly based inside prisons … We have two big organizations in Brazil – the PCC [First Capital Command] and the CV [Red Command] – and they are still fighting for dominance in the [Amazon] region. And when that happens, we know that homicide rates grow a lot,” she said.

Machado also expressed concern over the “total convergence” between the different illegal groups operating in the Amazon, as drug factions and environmental criminals increasingly collaborated.

Drug factions were not only using activities such as illegal mining to launder their profits but also taking advantage of clandestine mining airstrips to smuggle drugs. “They are sharing the [transport] routes, sharing planes, sharing runways … They’re basically sharing the infrastructure. So there is this total convergence between these crimes.”

Machado said security forces were working to address the problem, pointing to government efforts to evict thousands of illegal miners – some with suspected ties to the PCC – from Brazil’s largest Indigenous enclave, the Yanomami Indigenous territory. “But it’s also our view that only repression through the police is not enough [and] that we need to [combine this] with policies of sustainable and social and human development in the region,” she added.

The UN report also described how the CV and PCC had “deepened their presence” in Brazil’s Amazon in recent years and now operated in all of its nine states.

“Large areas of the Amazon Basin are experiencing the convergence of multiple forms of criminality with severe implications for public security and sustainable development,” the report said.

Humberto Freire, the head of Lula’s newly created federal police department for the environment and the Amazon, played down the idea that criminal gangs were close to commandeering the region as “premature” but said authorities were stepping up their actions after several years during which protection efforts were “destroyed”.

“Every journey – no matter how short or how long – starts with the first step, and we’ve already taken several, but we have a long trek ahead,” Freire said.

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