Corruption facilitates environmental crime across Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Guyana, and Suriname. Entrepreneurial criminal networks are propped up by legal actors, including security forces, regulators, authorities, and legally registered enterprises that facilitate land grabbing, illegal logging, illegal mining, and wildlife trafficking.
This often occurs on the ground at a lower level via the payment of bribes to corrupt authorities.
In Ecuador, police officers and soldiers have been known to let transporters move illegally sourced timber once they have been paid off, according to journalist Milagros Aguirre Andrade. An environmental crime expert speaking anonymously explained that "through official and non-official ports at the [Ecuador-Peru] border, everything flows," including illegal wood.
In Guyana, police are allegedly paid bribes to turn a blind eye to illegal mining. Some police officers in the nation use payoffs to supplement their low salaries, according to Dr. Samuel Sittlington, former advisor to the Guyanese Special Organized Crime Unit. They may also be paid in gold by local illegal miners. At the Guyana-Venezuela border, it is reportedly commonplace to see officers wearing large gold necklaces and accessories. Sittlington added that corrupt civil servants -- including police, border control, and government officials -- are also involved in smuggling and falsifying export numbers in exchange for bribes.
Some police officers working for environmental regulators on the ground also turn a blind eye to irregularities during inspections. Miners in the town of Mahdia in Guyana’s Potaro-Siparuni region alleged that officers who inspect and administer mines accept payments to overlook breaches in mining regulations.
"When a mining inspector appears, you better start digging into your pocket for a bribe," according to John Palmer, an expert in small-scale mining in Guyana. "There are either none or very, very few cases of prosecutions under the Mining Act." Guyanese journalist Alva Solomon said that environmental officers accept bribes on the ground, instead of reporting illegal smuggling, land encroachments, and illegal mining.
Corruption From Above
Corruption also greases the wheels of environmental crime at a higher level, with networks of corrupt politicians, police officers, and environmental officials involved.
These high-level networks often have different layers. For example, police officers have worked with environmental officials to facilitate timber trafficking in Ecuador. One of the most notable busts linked to the trade occurred in 2017 across the nation’s central Amazonian provinces of Napo and Pastaza. Twenty arrests were made in total. Eleven of those detained were police officers, and three officials working for the Ministry of the Environment were also charged.
Police officers were reportedly paid between $50 and $100 to let vehicles carrying illicit timber pass without inspection. Meanwhile, the environmental officials stamped mobilization guides used to move timber, charging between $150 and $200 per stamp. The corrupt officials also provided falsified documents used to extract and transport timber sourced from the region.
Illegal mining has also been a source of corruption for these authorities. In February 2022, the Amazonian province of Napo saw a large-scale illegal mining operation take place across six of its parishes. The most significant damage was concentrated on the Jatunyaku River community in Yutzupino, in the western part of the country.
The discovery of the entry of heavy machinery and more than 700 illegal miners put mining concessions that were supposedly in the exploration phase under the spotlight. According to Eduardo Vayas, president of the environmental group Napo Ama la Vida, the advance of mining is due to the approval of mayors, as he commented to the newspaper Notimundo.
Vayas said that the mayors of Carlos Julio Arosemena Tola, Tena, and Archidona actively participate in mining. Andrés Bonilla, mayor of the latter municipality, owns one of the mining concessions operating in the area. Under these conditions, the entry of illegal workers and machinery into the mines especially favors these authorities, who reap most of the profits from the concessions.
In Bolivia, members of the MAS political party have allegedly facilitated land grabbing and trafficking in protected areas across Bolivia’s Amazon. Moisés Salces, former mayor of San Ignacio de Velasco, close to the nation’s border with Brazil, revealed members of the party give “partisan offerings by granting land” in protected areas, like the Bajo Paraguá San Ignacio de Velasco Municipal Protected Area.
According to the regional director of the Earth Foundation, Alcides Vadillo, communities that receive land titles create “façade unions” that serve as political branches of the MAS party. These include the National Coordinator for Change (Coordinadora Nacional para el Cambio – Conalcan); the Intercultural Confederation (Confederación de Interculturales); and the Bolivian Peasant Workers' Union Confederation (Confederación Sindical de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia - CSUTCB). Through these entities, communities have received titles to lands in Santa Cruz and the Cochabamba tropics that have been designated protected or for public use.
In addition to this, the Land and Forestry Authority (Autoridad de Bosques y Tierras – ABT) and the National Agrarian Reform Institute (Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria – INRA) appear to tacitly approve of the deforestation this leads to, according to a former journalist from Bolivian media outlet El Deber who has followed the activity closely. Once land is deforested, applications for land titles for agricultural activities in protected and non-protected areas are sent to INRA. As such, both INRA and the ABT have facilitated transactions that result in land grabbing, the journalist added.
In Guyana, mining experts in the country, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity for security reasons, said that Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC) officials allegedly deliberately use inaccurate maps of Amerindian territories to issue permits within those lands, even though this is prohibited under the Mining Law. “The law in Guyana is designed to allow mining and environmental crime to thrive,” said one environmental crime expert in Guyana. “Corrupt GGMC officials hide behind weak titling systems in Guyana to give land to large miners,” he added.
Venezuela is a special case for high-level corruption that facilitates its gold trade. Most criminal groups involved in mining in its Amazon region have direct or indirect ties to the Maduro regime. In Bolívar, mining cooperatives pay bribes to the Maduro regime for permission to extract gold. This dynamic is facilitated by the Ministry for Ecological Mining Development (Ministerio para el Desarrollo Minero Ecológico), according to an expert on environmental crime in southern Venezuela. One of the state’s former governors facilitated pacts between local mining mafias, dividing up territory and profits, to stop disputes over mines, the expert added.
Another interesting corruption case linked to Venezuela’s gold trade is that of Álex Nain Saab Morán, a Colombian businessman known for making shady million-dollar deals with the Venezuelan government. The Colombian government issued an arrest warrant for Saab in 2018. Various other countries are investigating him for money laundering, financing terrorism, and other crimes. He was arrested in Cabo Verde in June 2020 and extradited to the United States in October 2021.
Saab maintained alleged ties to the Venezuelan General Mining Company (CVG Minerven), a state company in charge of mining gold in the nation’s eastern Guayana region. Minerven’s current president, Adrián Antonio Perdomo Mata, is a former employee of Saab. Through his ties to the organization, Saab allegedly participated in the exchange of precious metals for consumer goods between Venezuela and Turkey.
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 across the Amazon. See the investigations.