For some time now, research has highlighted the significant volume of illegal logging in the Brazilian timber market and its relationship to deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.

According to a study carried out in 2020 by the NGO Imazon, close to 70 percent of logging in the northern state of Pará between August 2017 and July 2018 came from illegal sources — taken from areas without State authorization for logging activities.

What’s new, however, is the growing overlap between the routes used by drug trafficking groups and illegal logging groups. Environmental crime could be serving as a new means of income for drug traffickers, with evidence pointing to cargo shipments coming from the rainforest being used to conceal the smuggling of drugs to foreign markets.

*This article was originally published by Agência Pública. It was translated and edited for clarity and reproduced with permission, but it does not necessarily represent the opinions of InSight Crime. Read the original article in Portuguese here.

The situation has been highlighted by sources close to the Federal Police (PF) and researchers in the area of public security who were interviewed by Agência Pública. “The main product from the rainforest used to conceal the export of drugs to Europe is timber,” stated Aiala Couto, a geographer at the State University of Pará (UEPA) and a researcher involved with the Brazilian Forum of Public Security (FBSP) and the Institute for Climate and Society (ICS). Couto has been researching the geographic scope of organized crime in the Amazon and its relationship with environmental crimes.

An investigation carried out by Agência Pública, based on news published both in the press and on official government websites, has identified at least 16 instances of major seizures of cocaine between 2017 and 2021 where the drugs were concealed within shipments of timber destined for export by sea. In total, the seizures amounted to nearly nine tons of drugs, destined to countries across Europe, such as Spain, Belgium, France, Germany, Portugal, Italy and Slovenia. Seizures took place more frequently in port cities in the south and southeast of Brazil, in timber shipments of logs, wooden beams, pallets and laminate.

Photos displaying cocaine concealed within shipments of wood seized in port cities in the states of Rio de Janeiro, Santa Catarina and Paraná between 2019 and 2021.

Couto’s research shows how, between 2017 and 2020, nearly nine tons of drugs – mainly cocaine and marijuana – coming from Suriname, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela and Peru were seized across Brazil’s Amazonian region. The information suggested an overlap in areas where resources from illegal logging and mining were seized and where drug seizures took place.

According to government data passed to Agência Pública, in São Paulo’s port city of Santos alone, more than two tons of narcotics concealed within such goods were seized by authorities between 2019 and 2021.

Drugs were also discovered in shipments of wooden pallets, asbestos fibers, graphite, microsilica and corundum.

According to Victor Mota, federal police chief for drug prevention and repression in the state of Amazonas, it is well-known that timber shipments are those most commonly used by drug traffickers. “We did a survey on drug exports to Europe, and wood shipments were the main type of freight used to hide drugs,” Mota said in an interview with Agência Pública.

This information was detailed in an internal report carried out by the Federal Police, according to Mota, but a request to access this document was denied.

Mota was in charge of one of the most recent operations to connect environmental crimes with drug trafficking. Launched in July 2020, Operation Schelde sought to investigate who was behind a 2019 shipment of 250 kilograms of cocaine sent to Belgium and concealed within a shipment of illegal timber.

Weak Environmental Legislation Attracts Gangs

“There is a crossover between drug trafficking and environmental crimes. This means we can draw links between how the government approaches environmental issues and how environmental crimes have proliferated. This has allowed organized criminal gangs to recognize the possibilities in this kind of criminal activity as a new means for income growth within their field of operations,” Couto explained.

There have been recorded instances of criminal gangs illegally buying land in the rainforest in order to profit from illegal logging and even to set up marijuana plantations, as has been the case in the so-called “Marijuana Polygon” in the northeast of the state of Pará.

Over the course of his research, Couto has recorded the seizure of more than two million marijuana plants between 2015 and 2020 across the Amazon region, with Pará accounting for 55 percent of all seizures, mainly in the Marijuana Polygon.

In August 2020, Operation Damned Harvest seized close to 200 tons (or more than 400,000 plants) of marijuana in the northeast of Pará. According to the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT), conflicts between drug traffickers and traditional communities have already been registered, such as clashes in the Itamimbuca community, located in the Igarapé-Miri municipality of Pará in January 2021.

An August 2020 operation destroyed thousands of marijuana plants in the northeast of the state of Pará, in the area known as the “Marijuana Polygon”.

“There are reports of people involved in conflicts over land that have links [to these criminal gangs],” said Ione Nakamura, a prosecutor at Pará’s Center for Agrarian and Land Issues. However, Nakamura added that no investigations have taken place regarding this matter as such clashes are a relatively new occurrence.

Criminal gangs are also understood to have links with companies actively engaged in illegal mining in the Amazon. One such case, revealed by the agency Amazônia Real, exposed illegal mining camps located on indigenous Yanomami lands in the state of Roraima.

More than the mere sharing of trade routes, Couto sees drug trafficking and environmental crimes becoming ever more intertwined, with the issue worsening since he began monitoring the main trafficking routes in the Amazon. Despite this, efforts to tackle crime in the Amazon often neglect these links.

“We have a government that was elected on a platform of improving public security, but it is unable to see the links between public security and the environment. This whole narrative, the discourse and the actions of the government have allowed organized crime to grow in the Amazon region,” said Couto.

“Things have only got worse since the government of President Bolsonaro came in to power. Organized crime has to be understood as more than just the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) or the Red Command (Comando Vermelho – CV), the two biggest organized crime groups in Brazil. There are groups involved in illegal mining, land grabbing, illegal logging, the illicit gold trade and in the invasion of indigenous lands. These groups build up businesses, launder money, and engage in smuggling, drugs trafficking and arms trafficking. The relations between these groups are vast and complex”, Aiala warned.

For Alexandre Saraiva, former superintendent for the Federal Police in the state of Amazonas, the soft existing penalties for environmental crimes and the opportunity for vast profits attract an ever-growing number of organized criminal gangs to the world of environmental crime.

“The criminals engage in a simple risk analysis. They take a look at the environmental legislation and see that, if they only risk being charged according to that extremely limited piece of legislation, then they don’t need to worry too much,” said Saraiva, who led one of Brazil’s biggest-ever operations against the illegal wood trade, Operation Archimedes.

For the police chief, Victor Mota, weak environmental legislation is actually allowing international drug trafficking to flourish. One recent example was ruling 7036900, published in February 2020, which stripped the country’s environment protection agency (Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis — Ibama) from approving timber exports.

The ruling, which was suspended by the Supreme Court in May 2021, has become a political firestorm with police investigating Ibama’s former president, Eduardo Bim, and the former environment minister, Ricardo Salles.

*This article was originally published by Agência Pública. It was translated and edited for clarity and reproduced with permission, but it does not necessarily represent the opinions of InSight Crime. Read the original article in Portuguese here.