Several investigations have long pointed out the significant volume of illegal exploitation in the Brazilian timber market and its relationship with deforestation in the Amazon. According to a study carried out in 2020 by the NGO Imazon, around 70% of the wood exploited in the state of Pará between August 2017 and July 2018 had an illicit origin, that is, it comes from areas where there was no authorization from the state.
However, what is new is the phenomenon of the growing overlap of the routes of criminal drug trafficking factions with those of groups linked to environmental crimes. Environmental crime may be serving as a new form of capitalization for drug traffickers, with evidence of the use of shipments of forest origin to disguise drug shipments abroad.
It is explained by sources linked to the Federal Police (PF) and public security investigators to the Public Agency. “The main forest product used to export drugs to Europe is wood,” says Aiala Couto, geographer at the State University of Pará (Uepa) and a researcher associated with the Brazilian Forum for Public Security and the Climate and Society Institute. Couto is developing an investigation that will be published this year and that deals with the territorialization of organized crime in the Amazon and its relationship with environmental crimes. According to him, mineral products, especially manganese, rank second on the list of seizures.
Cocaine in shipments of wood
An Agência Pública study, based on news from official government websites and the press, identified at least 16 large seizures of cocaine in shipments of wood destined for export by sea between 2017 and 2021. In total, seizures amounted to about nine tons of the drug and were destined for European countries such as Spain, Belgium, France, Germany, Portugal, Italy and Slovenia. They were produced more frequently in the ports of the south and southeast of Brazil, in shipments of wood logs, beams, pallets and laminates.
Couto’s research shows that between 2017 and 2020, some nine tons of drugs – mainly cocaine and marijuana – were seized in the Amazonian states from Suriname, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela and Peru. The drug arrived mainly by river and land. The data was also collected from the news about the seizures. The information compiled by the investigator points to an overlap between the areas where illegal timber seizures and mineral smuggling occur and the drug seizure areas.
According to information from the Federal Revenue Secretariat, only in the port of Santos, in the state of São Paulo, more than two tons of narcotics packaged in extractive products were seized between 2019 and 2021. The drugs were found on wooden pallets , asbestos fibers, graphite fillers, microsilica and corundum (a mineral based on aluminum oxide).
According to Víctor Mota, the chief delegate of the Narcotics Repression Police Department (DRE) PF in the state of Amazonas, it has been found that wood is the cargo most used by drug trafficking. “We have already made a study of drug trafficking exports to Europe, and the first cargo seizure [donde se esconde la droga] it is wood. Either in the form of furniture, either in the form of beams, or in other forms, “said the delegate, in an interview with the Public Agency. According to Mota, this information is contained in an internal survey already prepared by the PF, but the The institution denied the request for access to the document.
The delegate was responsible for one of the most recent operations on the links of environmental crimes with people associated with drug trafficking. Deflamed in July 2020, Operation Schelde investigated who was behind the shipment of 250 kg of cocaine to Belgium in a shipment of wooden beams of illicit origin in 2019. The investigation was recently concluded by the PF and shows the participation of people with past ties to criminal factions in the scheme.
Weak environmental legislation
“The routes that are used for drug trafficking are also used for timber smuggling, and some are close to mineral smuggling areas, especially in illegal gold mining,” says researcher Aiala Couto. “There is a mixture in these relationships [entre el narcotráfico y los delitos medioambientales]. And this allows us to associate the government’s discourse in relation to the environmental issue with this strengthening of the actions of these criminal activities that concern the environment. This made it possible for organized criminal groups to see these crimes as a possibility within their scope of action to accumulate capital, “he argues.
Couto points out that there are already records of criminal factions that illegally buy forest areas to benefit from illegal logging and even to establish areas for the production of marijuana, as has been happening in the so-called “polygon of marijuana” or “polygon of the grass “, located in the northeast of Pará.
Couto’s investigation records the seizure of more than two million marijuana plants in the Brazilian Amazon region between 2015 and 2020, 55% of the total seized in the state of Pará, with great emphasis on the municipalities of the polygon. In August 2020, the Operation Cursed Harvest, launched jointly by the Federal Police and the Civil Police of Pará, seized about 200 tons of marijuana in the northeast of Pará (more than 400,000 plants).
According to the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), there are already records of conflicts between traffickers and traditional communities, such as the case of pirate attacks on the riverside community of Itamimbuca, in the municipality of Igarapé-Miri, happened in january.
“There are complaints of people involved in agrarian conflicts with this issue [de las organizaciones criminales]”, says the coordinator of the Land and Agrarian Affairs Nucleus of the Public Ministry of the State of Pará (MP-PA), Ione Nakamura. The prosecutor, however, says that the issue is still incipient in the MP and that it has never been investigated by the Agrarian Prosecutor’s Office.
Criminal groups are associated with economic groups that already actively exploit illegal mining in the Amazon, such as revealed the Amazônia Real news agency in the case of clandestine mining in the areas of the Yanomami Indians in Roraima.
More than the mere distribution of routes, Couto sees a growing overlap between drug trafficking and environmental crimes, which has accelerated after the dispute between criminal groups over the main routes of the Amazon, which tend to coincide with those of environmental crimes. Despite this, the fight against crime in the Amazon sometimes ignores this connection and this ends up strengthening the factions.
“There are several areas of the Amazon where these criminal activities overlap, such as illegal mining, illegal logging and drug trafficking,” argues Aiala. “We have a government that was elected under the banner of public safety, but that cannot see that there is this relationship between public safety and the environment. And all the narrative, the speech and the action [del gobierno] has fueled the growth of organized crime in the Amazon today. The numbers have escalated since the Bolsonaro government. Organized crime must be understood beyond the acronym PCC [Primer Comando Capital, la mayor organización criminal de Brasil] and Comando Vermelho. For example, there are groups that engage in illegal mining, land grabbing, illegal logging, gold smuggling, and invasion of indigenous lands. These groups create companies, launder money, participate in smuggling, drug trafficking and arms trafficking. The relationship is broad and complex, “he warns.
For the former superintendent of the PF in the Amazon, delegate Alexandre Saraiva, the light penalties for environmental crimes in the legislation and the possibility of profits increasingly attract criminal organizations towards environmental crime.
“There is a simple risk analysis on the part of the criminal. You look there in the environmental legislation and you see that, if only environmental legislation applies, it is extremely limited. You don’t need to think much. You can see people linked to criminal organizations working in the illegal timber trade, “says Saraiva, who commanded one of the largest operations against illegal timber in the country’s history, Operation Archimedes.
For the police chief, Víctor Mota, the weakness of the environmental legislation may end up contributing to the growth of other crimes, such as the export of drugs. An example is order 7036900, of February 2020, published by the former president of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama) Eduardo Bim, who was dismissed by court order. The shipment prompted the investigations that culminated in the operation which has as investigated the former Minister of the Environment Ricardo Salles and Bim.
The document dispensed with the Ibama authorization for the export of wood, but was suspended by a decision of the Supreme Court Minister Alexandre de Moraes in May of this year. “This facilitates [el envío de drogas al extranjero]. It is one thing that ends up pulling the other. If it is not inspected what type of wood there is, how much wood is transported, if this wood can be exported, where did it come from. If you don’t have this initial suspicion about the material, how can you tell whether or not it contains narcotics? If you start to turn a blind eye to this material, kids will increasingly use it as a hiding place, “he says.