Brazilian authorities have launched a series of operations targeting illegal sand extraction as part of a renewed commitment to fighting environmental crimes. But much more may be required to tackle what is now a multi-billion dollar criminal enterprise. 

Illegally extracted sand is primarily used in construction to make concrete, masonry, and fill for excavation sites, among other uses. Unscrupulous contractors favor it over legal sand for its lower cost.

In October 2023, police have arrested dozens of people suspected of illegally extracting sand worth millions of dollars during an ongoing series of raids along the Preto River in São Paulo state. Similar operations in the northeastern states of Bahia and Paraiba have also recently brought down sand trafficking gangs.

But are these just drops in the ocean? For Luis Fernando Ramadon, a federal police officer specializing in illegal sand extraction with a Master’s in water resources management from the State University in Rio de Janeiro, the situation is dire. According to his research, in 2021, illegal sand trafficking in Brazil was worth an estimated 20 billion reais ($4 billion) and left swathes of environmental devastation.

InSight Crime sat down with Ramadon to discuss his research, how sand trafficking has remained below the radar, and how it became so profitable.

InSight Crime (IC): You recently stated that almost 60 percent of the sand used in construction in Brazil was obtained illegally. How did the situation get this serious?

Luis Fernando Ramadon (LFR): Unlike drugs trafficked from producer countries to consumers in Brazil and Europe, sand is anywhere and can be illegally mined in a number of ways with virtual impunity. Sand can be mined from the minute a truck arrives at an open sand deposit. This is what’s been happening in Camaçari, Bahia [a large area of sand dunes in northeast Brazil and hotspot for sand trafficking] where they arrive at the site and grab whatever they can before authorities arrive. Or they place a dredger in the river and suck sand up through a hose to the riverbank, and then transport the sand to its destination.

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Illegal sand extraction also happens on legal mining concessions but outside the area approved for extraction. Due to a lack of supervision on such concessions, illegal extraction can take place over a long time. It was estimated that illegal sand trafficking in Brazil in 2021 was worth around 20 billion reais ($4 billion).

IC: Which areas of Brazil see the most sand trafficking?

LFR: The problem is particularly severe in northeast and southeast Brazil. In 2021, 86% of all sand sold in northeast Brazil was extracted illegally, or around 48,757 tons. Around 13,000 tons of illegal sand was sold in the state of Bahia, 7,500 tons in Ceará, and over 7,000 tons in Pernambuco.

Southeast Brazil, especially around Rio de Janeiro, sees more illegal sand extracted at around 64,000 tons in 2021, but this made up about 42% of the regional total.

IC: How do construction companies get away with using such massive quantities of illegally extracted sand?

LFR: This process relies on the product invoice, both for public or private works. Illegally extracted sand gets laundered through falsified invoices and delivered to large construction companies as legal sand. The mining company may even have a legal exploration area, but it may extract from an area that is not legal, therefore issuing an invoice that masks the illegality.

IC: How do the groups involved in sand trafficking operate? Given the profits involved, are these groups fully dedicated to this criminal economy or are they part of broader criminal organizations?

LFR: The actors involved in sand trafficking can be anyone with access to sand and who knows who wants to buy it. Some are organized by industry players, such as construction materials stores or large construction companies. Some are real organized crime groups, especially militias [criminal groups who recruit heavily from active and retired police, firefighters, and prison guards], for whom illegal sand extraction is one tentacle of their criminal network.

IC: Are there any particular noteworthy examples of how Brazilian militia groups are involved in sand trafficking?

Militias have a significant track record of blending legal and illegal sand exploration in Rio de Janeiro. For example, one company, named Macla, had two mining concessions granted by Brazil’s National Mining Agency (Agência Nacional de Mineração – ANM) in 2010 and 2011. Macla was owned by Luiz Antônio da Silva Braga, alias “Zinho,” leader of the Justice League (Liga da Justiça) militia group and both concessions were on territory controlled by his own group.

While Macla never extracted anything, these sand trafficking concessions were used to launder tens of millions of reais.

Mining concessions formerly owned by MACLA in western Rio de Janeiro. Source: Luis Fernando Ramadon and SIGMINE ANM – October 2023.

An April 2023 investigation by news magazine Veja also showed how the Justice League controlled 90 percent of sand trafficking in the municipalities of Seropédica and Itaguaí, close to where Macla’s concessions were located.

IC: So are militias actively organizing sand extraction, or are they allowing other players to do it and charging them for the privilege?

LFR: They mainly charge those who extract sand in their territories and participate actively in illegal construction. There are over 100 companies exploring sand exploration areas in Seropédica and Itaguaí. A different militia boss and enemy of Zinho, Danilo Dias Lima, alias “Tandera,” allegedly makes $60,000 a month from taxing illegal sand cargo in these municipalities, according to Veja.

IC: What efforts are being made by authorities to fight back?

LFR: There are operations from time to time in sand trafficking hotspots, such as Rio de Janeiro or Camaçari, Bahia, carried out by police and environmental authorities. There are even inspections by the ANM. But there is a lack of real continuity and supervision from these institutions.

IC: What are the risks in allowing illegal sand extraction to proliferate, and how can Brazil begin to rein this in? 

LFR: The illegality of the sand sector is blatant, with economic losses for municipalities, states, and the country, in addition to environmental losses, with a strong impact on rivers and lakes, whether due to extraction or evaporation.

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Combating the problems caused by this activity must be carried out in two distinct and complementary ways. The first is a focus on legal extraction with effective supervision, and the second is through police intelligence, identifying areas in which illegal extraction is happening and those responsible for the crimes. 

IC: Finally, what are your policy recommendations to combat sand trafficking?

LFR: We need resources dedicated to fighting sand trafficking. The agencies involved need a task force, which would take on efficient supervision of the sand industry, allow authorities to improve their environmental education, and attack the sand trafficking profit chain.

The ANM’s annual mining data should be enhanced through increased inspection of companies involved in sand extraction and by cross-sharing data with federal and state tax authorities.

Environmental Conduct Adjustment Terms (Termos de Ajustamento de Conduta Ambiental), a legal tool which allows public agencies to demand companies change environmentally damaging behavior, should be specifically implemented for sand extraction activities.

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