From unchecked agricultural development to wildlife trafficking, corruption greases the wheels of every environmental crime in the Peruvian Amazon. Bureaucrats, security forces, prosecutors, regulators and regional politicians all act as facilitators to allow land trafficking, deforestation and the illegal extraction, transport, process or sale of timber, gold and fauna.
Agribusiness starts with the control of land, and land in the Peruvian Amazon is controlled by the Regional Agricultural Directorates (Direcciones Regionales Agrarias - DRAs). Specifically, the DRAs have the power to grant property titles, which makes them the principal targets of corruption as it relates to agricultural development projects. Officials at the DRAs are often part of land-trafficking schemes, where they issue land ownership titles to front men or agricultural associations, who then sell the lands to agribusinesses that drive deforestation.
“The regional government is finally the one that gives the go-ahead [the land title] and that's where all the mafias and all the corruption are,” says Ricardo Fort, an investigator for GRADE, a think tank that studies environmental, economic and social issues in Latin America.
The Cocha Anía case exemplifies this process. Multiple media reported the then-director of the DRA of Ucayali worked with two former directors of sanitation and land titling in charge of the registry of state lands to title 128 properties in the name of 121 people who were friends and relatives of workers of the DRA of Ucayali. These plots were to be sold to palm oil companies, including the Melka Group. But the deal did not go through and the DRA director was arrested.
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Corruption occurs at all stages of the timber supply chain. At the lowest levels, there is petty corruption. At checkpoints, for instance, police officers and officials from the Technical Forestry and Wildlife Administrations (Administraciones Técnicas Forestales y de Fauna Silvestre – ATFFS), often turn a blind eye to illegally-sourced timber after collecting a bribe.
Corruption becomes more systemic when regulators sell transit stamps to timber traffickers who need to demonstrate their timber was transported via a certain route. This practice was illustrated in a recent case chronicled by InSight Crime. Timber trafficking networks had different transport permits (Guía de Transporte Forestal - GTF) stamped by an ATFFS official. This gave them cover as they could show their illegally-sourced timber was extracted from an Indigenous territory, which had permission to fell the wood.
Further up the ATFFS chain, the focus shifts to forest regents, who have the power to authorize and approve operational plans (Planes Operativos Anuales - POAs) and GTFs. One expert from Peru's forestry sector, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, explained that many forest regents offer legitimate POAs and GTFs with false information after charging a bribe.
“The problem is that the GTFs are not fake. These are official documents issued by the forestry authority, but they contain false information,” said the forestry expert. “This is how easy it is to ‘legalize’ wood of illegal origin.”
Judicial authorities are also often corrupt. Different experts in the forestry sector allege prosecutors rig or archive timber trafficking investigations in return for bribes.
Politicians are also involved in systemic corruption. They weaken regulatory efforts or provide protection for criminal schemes. In recent years, political figures that directly benefit from timber trafficking have exerted pressure to weaken regulatory controls over the country's timber sector, according to different experts on timber trafficking in Peru. Since the emblematic case of Yacu Kallpa, for example, the Agency for the Supervision of Forest Resources (Organismo de Supervisión de los Recursos Forestales – OSINFOR) has been defunded and strident investigators like Rolando Navarro, the agency's former director, have been removed. In 2018, the government moved OSINFOR from the Presidency of the Council of Ministers (Presidencia de Consejo de Ministros – PCM) to the Ministry of Environment (Ministerio de Ambiente - MINAM), cutting its ability to independently investigate timber trafficking. Civil Society organizations like Global Witness, EIA, and others campaigned for this decision to be reversed, and it was. However, many OSINFOR officials resigned along the way.
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To operate effectively, illegal mining requires the complicity, and, at times, the outright collaboration of public officials. In the Peruvian Amazon, this corruption runs from everyday police officers to regional governors providing the necessary equipment, paperwork and political backing for the extractive processes.
Lower-tier officials have been implicated in aiding illegal mining. In 2018, two Navy officers were sentenced to six years in prison for accepting bribes from traffickers delivering fuel to informal mining sites. According to the media outlet Inforegión, they were paid over $9,000 to allow 26 boats to smuggle gasoline to miners in Madre de Dios. The magnitude of this case was unique, but the basic facts were not. Bribing police officers along the Interoceanic Highway, a road cutting through the Madre de Dios mining region, is a common practice for smugglers carrying mercury, gasoline and illegal gold.
Another emblematic case within Madre de Dios was the arrest of six officials of the Regional Directorate of Energy, Mines and Hydrocarbons. According to the Public Ministry, the officials were accused of accepting bribes from illegal miners in exchange for giving them permission to mine.
Within the criminal justice system as well, there are cases of public officials favoring illegal miners. Ojo Público reported on a case involving two former officials within the Specialized Environmental Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía Especializada en Materia Ambiental - FEMA) being investigated for malfeasance in 2018. The prosecutors allegedly encountered five miners illegally extracting gold. However, they submitted a report charging them with only attempted illegal mining, a lesser crime that led to a lower sentence. According to Ojo Público, this type of corruption is common.
From customs officials to those who patrol the markets at the Regional Production Directorates (Direcciones Regionales de Producción – Direpro), there is widespread corruption connected to wildlife trafficking. Bribes are commonplace, according to journalist Eduardo Franco Berton. And former Direpro official Carlos Perea said that officials responsible for inspections in extraction zones at Direpro often get their jobs because of their personal connections, not because of their career experience or knowledge. In many cases, their main interest is profiting off bribes rather than regulating the wildlife trade.
“Unfortunately, a lot of people arrive at these public sector positions not to do their work as a public servant but to make money for themselves,” Perea said.
Broadly speaking, there are few legal repercussions for corrupt officials. A wildlife trafficking expert said that Direpro and ATFFS officials are fired if they are found to be corrupt, but few are prosecuted. Sometimes, the expert added, the investigations are dismissed and the officials rehired.
The same is true for companies caught exporting illegally-sourced wildlife. An InSight Crime investigation found that while two cases have been passed to prosecutors in the last two years, accused companies have only had to pay a fine, and no charges have been levied against them. Exporters of fish and turtles linked to wildlife trafficking also enjoy political protection. Officials responsible for monitoring exports said they had been pressured by a Loreto congressman to "ease off" on investigating the wildlife trade.
*InSight Crime has partnered with the Igarapé Institute – an independent think tank headquartered in Brazil, that focuses on emerging development, security and climate issues – to trace the environmental crimes and criminal actors driving deforestation in Peru's Amazon. See the entire six-part series here.