By Jake Spring and Gabriel Stargardter
SAO PAULO (Reuters) – When the presidents of Amazon nations including Brazil, Peru and Colombia meet at a regional summit next week, they will train their sights on a new breed of criminal just as comfortable chopping down the rainforest as shipping drugs overseas.
“Narco-deforestation,” as it was referred to in a United Nations report last month, represents a new target for law enforcement operating in the Amazon rainforest, where the lines between specialist criminal outfits are increasingly blurred.
The eight member countries of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO), who are due to meet in the northeastern Brazilian city of Belem for an Aug. 8-9 summit, are expected to reach an agreement to cooperate on combating such crimes, said Carlos Lazary, the organization’s executive director.
“We’re worried about the Amazon,” Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who proposed the summit on the campaign trail, said in a speech last month. “It’s there that organized crime, drug trafficking and everything illegal is fomented.”
Boosted by bumper Andean coca harvests and record-breaking cocaine demand in Europe, the Amazon has in recent years become a drug-trafficking thoroughfare. Illicit cargos easily pass through the vast, sparsely populated and thinly policed region on boats, planes or even submarines on their way to the Atlantic Ocean.
With booming profits, many of the drug gangs in the Amazon are now laundering the money through illegal land speculation, logging, mining and other means, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime warned in its annual World Drug Report.
Charles Nascimento, a Brazilian Federal Police officer and veteran of the Amazon drugs beat, said criminal groups often use existing drug routes to get illegally harvested gold and wood to market.
“Many people who work in wildcat mines also work as traffickers and vice versa,” he said. “It’s like they feed off of each other.”
This increasing criminal cross-pollination has prompted police to expand a recurring Amazon anti-narcotics operation between Peru and Brazil, scheduled for later this year, to also target environmental crimes, Nascimento said.
The 2022 murders of indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips, allegedly at the hands of a poaching ring with organized crime connections, prompted Lula to increase policing in remote areas, Nascimento said.
Lula – who has staked his international reputation on ending the rampant deforestation that surged under his far-right predecessor Jair Bolsonaro – has reeled off a flurry of measures to combat environmental crime since taking office on Jan. 1.
The most important has been the creation of a specialized Federal Police directorate focused on the Amazon and environmental crime.
His administration has also proposed a center for international police cooperation in the Amazon’s largest city of Manaus, which may factor into the final agreement at the summit, ACTO’s Lazary said.
Neighboring countries – as well as agencies in developed countries importing illegal wood and gold – will be invited to send permanent representatives to the center to help coordinate investigations, said Valdecy Urquiza, head of the Federal Police’s international cooperation directorate.
At a meeting of international police in Belem a day before next week’s presidential summit, Brazil will also promote plans to share lab technology that can pinpoint whether wood and good is illegally sourced, Urquiza said.
Databases of gold and wood samples taken from around the Amazon – which use molecular analysis to identify the specific locations of the source – can help police determine if seized goods originated in an area where it is illegal to mine, such as in Indigenous reserves, Urquiza said.
Brazil – which will host the global COP30 climate change summit in Belem in 2025 – has begun to train police in Latin America and Europe on these methods.
Past international meetings and agreements have largely failed to generate much cooperation between wary national police forces in the Amazon, said Robert Muggah, lead author of the U.N. report’s chapter on organized crime in the Amazon.
Amazon countries signed a strongly worded commitment to cooperate on environmental crimes in the 2019 Leticia Declaration. But Brazil’s Bolsonaro and former Colombia President Ivan Duque excluded leftist Venezuela, and the signatories failed to follow through with concrete actions, Muggah said. South America’s swing left under Lula and Colombia’s Gustavo Petro may help improve cooperation, he added.
“Crime is among the top, if not the top issue confronting the protection of a standing forest in the Amazon,” he said. “It should be concerning to our decision-makers.”
(Reporting by Jake Spring in Sao Paulo and Gabriel Stargardter in Rio de Janeiro; Editing by Brad Haynes and Rosalba O’Brien)