Textiles, gasoline, drugs, weapons, even people – how did the Brazilian town of Corumbá, nestled close to the border with Bolivia, become a hub for cross-border smuggling?
The latest example of Corumbá’s importance as a criminal hub was when, after six months of intelligence-gathering, Brazilian police dismantled a human smuggling ring on August 31, according to a Ministry of Justice press release. At least one man was arrested in Corumbá while other raids happened in Brasilia, Minas Gerais, and São Paulo.
Police intelligence showed that a clandestine network of smugglers, transport business owners, and factory workers cooperated in moving migrants from Corumbá to other parts of Brazil. Most travelled by bus to São Paulo where they were put to work in textile factories, often in degrading conditions. This is not a new situation. A decade ago, Bolivia’s then-ambassador to Brazil estimated that over 50,000 Bolivians were employed in appalling conditions in the Brazilian textile industry.
Others allegedly ended up being recruited as drug couriers who would then move drugs into Brazil from Bolivia, before returning to Bolivia with cash.
And Corumbá hosts a range of other cross-border smuggling opportunities. The same day as the human smuggling raid, federal police instigated Operation Mad Max III, an investigation into fuel smuggling through the town. According to police reports, Brazilian and Bolivian citizens purchase gasoline just over the border in Bolivia and sell it on the black market in Brazil, where legal prices are much higher.
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Despite being a town of just over 100,000 people, Corumbá’s strategic location along the Paraguay River has meant that repeated police actions have had little impact against cross-border smuggling.
Yet the list of police interdictions in Corumbá is startling. In just the last few months, Brazilian police forces have carried out operations against alleged transnational cocaine trafficking, arms trafficking, and cattle smuggling. In 2009, Reuters published an investigation into a similar case of Bolivian migrants into Brazil being forced to work as drug couriers.
And the smuggling goes both ways. Puerto Quijarro, just 10 kilometers across the border, is Bolivia’s premier port for the arrival of contraband beer, some of which is purchased in Corumbá, according to an April 2022 report by Bolivian newspaper La Razón.
The state of Mato Grosso do Sul, in which Corumbá is located, is also vital to transnational criminal enterprise, with its networks of rivers and heavily forested landscape providing the perfect cover for the movement of people, animals, weapons, and drugs. The border region also serves as the primary access point to cocaine from Bolivia for the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), Brazil’s most prominent criminal gang.
Similarly, the high production of cocaine during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic in Bolivia, the world’s third-largest cocaine producer, combined with steady production ever since, means the drug will continue to flow out of the country.
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