Lessons from the Brazilian Amazon


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GLOBALIZATION and its many manifestations implies that borders of all sorts are becoming increasingly difficult for governments to define, let alone maintain. The entanglement between drugs and the legal economy provides the general framework for the worldwide debate on corruption and money laundering. The debate on good governance as indicator of potential for development (UNDP) in a world of institutional transition reflects the uneasiness about well organised private interests taking over social spaces and substituting state regulation. In Brazil too, public discussion focuses on corruption cases as obstacles to national development.

An understanding of the national concept of corruption within the context of the respective mechanisms of social reproduction reveals the margin of social acceptance of illegal activities. How the interfaces between trafficking of influence and of drugs could be seized theoretically, is an important step in identifying starting-points for regulation of organised crime from a local and national perspective. If we proceed from the idea that the trafficking of influence is intrinsic to Brazilian society, the key-question is, why certain ‘cases’ are denounced and others not – or, how the borderline for social acceptance is defined and under which circumstances it is transformed.

In Brazil, the organisation of distribution, redistribution and exchange is performed within formal and informal institutions which are dominated more by private and personal than by abstract and impersonal norms. The interactions between public institutions and private networks are far-reaching and permissive until vital and well organised interests are violated – then, there emerges a new ‘case’ of corruption or of organised crime. Yet, a closer local look reveals that nobody is surprised, that almost everybody knows about the practices and the actors.

How do those rules change with the entry of illicit products like cocaine and weapons? Do they change, and if so, why? This is one set of questions which guided our field research. Another is: Which tendencies of social transformation in the Amazon (regions of traditional occupation and regions of recent occupation) interact with illegal activities? What kind of structures and processes are especially receptive for integrating new criminal activities such as drug trafficking?



Concerning the national impact of the international, ‘war on drugs’ politics, the promises of the Brazilian President, Fernando Henrique Cardoso at the International UN Drugs Conference in New York in July 1998, led to the creation of a new public institution called SENAD (National Anti-Drugs Secretary) with mainly declamatory functions (without budget or investigative competencies) and an extensive debate on whether the Brazilian military should or should not cooperate with federal police and/or foreign military to keep common borders drug-free.

Budgets of the competent department (DRE) of Federal Police have not been raised and even the budget of the programme, PROAMAZONIA which was already sanctioned in 1997, has not yet been released. In late September (1999), the control base ANZOL at the middle Amazon, near Oriximina was inaugurated, an act which can be regarded as mainly symbolic since it had already been functioning for several years. Another national hope which is being discussed broadly in the media is the implantation of SIVAM, a geographic information system (GIS) to control the entire Amazon region by satellite. This poses three problems:

* the installation of the ground stations on a municipal level will take years since many of the assigned localities are not even electrified;

* within the methodology of data-collection the specific demands of federal police are not included; they will have to do with side-products, not even receiving the data for example on illegal movements of planes.

* Federal police will have no additional means (planes, jeeps, staff) or budget to make use of such information by practical investigation activities. Summing up, the Brazilian commitment to combat drug-trafficking in the Amazon is merely rhetorical.

The real impact of international processes is reflected in the increase of tolls and tributes demanded by the Columbian FARC for the utilisation of their infrastructure and passage through their territory. According to federal police circles, growing incidence of weapon versus cocaine-deals as well as first cocaine laboratories on Brazilian grounds can be attributed to such price rises. Massive control activities of ‘traditional’ routes to the U.S. via Venezuela and Mexico changed the route of international cocaine trafficking towards the Caribbean and Europe via the Brazilian Amazon and re-exporting to the U.S. via Europe (balloon effect).



In regions exposed to fast processes of social transformation, spaces arise with weak or no state or social regulation. In the Brazilian Amazon during the past 30 years such has been the case in regions of traditional occupation as well as in regions of intense migration. The respective local construction or/and reconstruction of social patterns, power relations, institutions and redistribution networks governs the ground for new criminal activities such as cocaine trafficking. In the following case study, I try to point out the major contributing factors for an environment favourable for organised crime.



Operation ‘Holanda’ was conducted by Brazilian federal police in conjunction with more than 20 persons from 5 countries (Brazil, Colombia, Paraguay, Guiana and Canada) on 22 June 1999. A multinational gang with multinational contacts and enterprises was caught at a remote ranch, ‘Fazenda Panorama’, 79 km from Rendencao on the way to Santana do Araguaia in Southern Para where they had installed a cocaine laboratory with a distillation capacity of 15 tons per month.

In March 1998 the Amazonian federal police seized a small plane which was parked in Parintins (middle Amazon) with seven tons of cocaine on board. The plane had been abandoned and the tank was manipulated to take in more petrol than registered. When the black box was read its route was traced to a certain clandestine airport in Colombia near Barranco Mina which led to the imprisonment of several Columbians by the Columbian police and, at the same time opened the possibility of tracing those involved in the present case.

The head of the criminal organisation, Luis Carlos Maya came to Brazil in spring 1998 from Germany where he visited friends after seven years imprisonment in Suriname on drug-charges. Obviously alerted by the seizure of the plane and the Columbian prison-mandate against him, he decided to set up a cocaine laboratory in the Brazilian Amazon to transport ‘pasta-base’ directly from Peru, avoiding Columbia. This decision was also due to the extreme elevation of tolls by the Columbian FARC. Partly relying on old friends and partners and partly on new acquaintances, Maya managed to found three enterprises – in Tabatinga, Manaus and Georgetown (Guyana) – to organise the purchase of chemicals and other devices from Sao Paulo, their transport to Southern Para and the purchase of a ranch in Southern Para.

Between March 1998 and June 1999 his activities were closely observed and documented by federal police agents and constitute the accusation material at the federal court of Maraba. The biographies of the 14 accused reveal that the majority have been involved in drug-trafficking before. For instance, the owner of the fazenda had served a five-year sentence in Rondonia in connection with the murder of the Rondonian Senator, Olavo Pires, in 1996.



What is so special about the Luis-Carlos Maya case? Reading piles of process documents and police reports, talking to federal police in Maraba, Manaus and Belem, to federal judges, ministerio publico prosecutors and different members of the Maraba society, it appears that the case offers one model for the integration of the individual elements that appear in other cases, such as the foundation of Brazilian/Colombian joint ventures (import-export) in Tabatinga and Manaus with professional consultancy – even laying claim on SUFRAMA (free trade zone)-subsidies, the robbery of small planes and the involvement of goldfield pilots, the foundation of enterprises in Guyana and Suriname, contact with transportation networks from Sao Paulo, the purchase of chemicals in Sao Paulo and the utilisation of localities within a supposedly ‘safe’ political context.

Operation ‘Holanda’ was carried out without any involvement of the federal police of Maraba until the day of arrest because the superintendent was on leave for corruption charges and the institution is believed to be ‘assimilated to local rules.’

In Maraba, the police, judges, prosecutors and members of the local society did not demonstrate any surprise concerning the dimensions of the case. On the contrary, they came up with innumerable examples of well embedded criminal activities in the region and pointed out who was doing the money laundering. In September, 1999, a French citizen, Serge Fabre was arrested in Mosqueiro on the charge of cocaine trafficking to France. He was the last of a gang composed of Jose Laurindo Filho and Andre Baez who got caught in 1994 for cocaine-trafficking to France, exporting black pepper directly and via Suriname. Serge Fabre is a share holder of the pharmacy chain ‘Big Ben’ which is suspected of money laundering. The extent of involvement of the defence advocates in local corruption cases indicates high probability of the gang escaping from the Maraba prison before the case comes to trial.



Regions of traditional occupation affected by social disintegration and economic decadence and ‘out-of-law’ regions affected by rapid transformation present distinct patterns of integration of criminal activities and actors. The former suffers secondary effects of national integration politics; the latter is the real scene of action of the same. In traditional regions of the Amazon, inadequate federal legislation (labour/taxes/environment), the presence of rival business from southern Brazil due to new national roads, the construction of big, badly embedded projects (hydroelectric plants, mines etc.) have resulted in economic disintegration and decadence. Since an informal economy is the norm in such locations, illegal activities expand according to economic necessities and the decadence of informal but legal opportunities of survival.



In the beginning of the ’90s cocaine smuggling found its way to many riverine villages and was neatly integrated into the existing trading networks. Often, cocaine trafficking remained integrated in traditional illicit smuggling activities, activities entirely under the control of traditional trader families whose social integration was guaranteed given the long lasting patron-client relationships. In such situations increasing repression can result in increasing professionalism of drug-trafficking; a tendency which may have significant long term consequences.

In southern Para (Maraba) impunity has become institutionalised over the past 10-15 years. The initial pioneer inspired constitution of the local society has been predicated upon a short term extractive logic of a few powerful elites, both traditional and new, who occupy municipal or federal public organs. After the end phase of the Serra Pelada gold rush in the late 1980s, life got more settled. Therefore, it is not surprising that the same names reappear in cases dealing with illegal gold, timber, subsidy-fraud or cocaine. ‘Strange elements’, like federal police agents, federal judges and public prosecutors are either being incorporated or threatened away; impunity and corruption are so generalised and embedded within private and public life that the aggregation of new criminal activities appears almost natural.

The institutional and political limitations of combat strategies are manifold. Nationally, three police forces are involved – the federal police, the civil police and the military police. More than cooperate, they live in competition regarding competencies and access to resources. The federal police, the organ responsible for international drug trafficking, is relatively independent and relatively incorrupt, although quite fragmented and with few regular opportunities to obtain adequate funds to fulfil its mission. Within the federal police, there do exist networks with far-reaching national and international contacts who achieve quite a lot – nevertheless beyond any democratic control or accountability.



The civil police responds to the state governments and is to a large extent corrupt. (During an interview in 1997, the Secretary of Para for Security estimated that about 80% of his men were involved in active or passive corruption.) Salaries are extremely low (about US$ 200 for an investigator, about US$ 1000, a commissioner) and the qualification for an investigator is 20 days training in a police-academy. The monthly budget of a police station is so low that regular and legal work is impossible. (The allocation for gasoline is USD 150. They have one car but no boat in Abaetetuba although it is a major water route for cocaine to Suriname and Europe. Abaetetuba is an island two hours from Belem, the capital of Para).

In Para, the civil police is involved in all sorts of criminal activities, particularly robbery of seizures, selling stolen goods, blackmailing and piracy. Nevertheless the security secretary of Para is well aware of the situation and is trying to promote innovative solutions like interactive security councils (a partnership of police officers, firemen, community centres, NGOs, municipal deputies and the media to promote security). Despite the appointment of an ombudswoman and support of progressive elements within the corporation, there are no realistic options for improvement in view.

The military police responds to the state governments and the ‘munipios‘, their staff are less qualified, they receive lower salaries (US$ 70), their budget is lower than that of the civil police. Normally, the military police is inserted into local cliental networks. However, their institution is heterogeneous. There are a few positive experiences with human rights courses, environmental units and contributions to the work of the cited interactive community councils (CISJU’s).

Consistent support (staff, qualification, funds, technical assistance to elaborate necessary law-adaptations etc.) to the democratic and professional elements within the different police forces as well as a better inter-institutional communication and accountability system are necessary prerequisites to combat drug trafficking in the Amazon. Externally induced combat and repression strategies can turn out to be quite problematic. Tending to operate on a basis of limited knowledge of local structures like power relations and distributive mechanisms, their effects might contradict their intentions.



For example, federal police repression in Abaetetuba intended to hit cocaine trafficking in Suriname; since the funds were insufficient, activities remained sporadic and inconsistent and affected mainly the cigarette smuggling activity. This had the following results: shifting of the cigarette business to nearby fishery towns, rising criminality rates in Abaetetuba, especially among addicted teenagers, professionalization of drug trafficking and rising piracy activities mainly by the now marginalised small scale smugglers.

The identification of modernising factors within processes of social transformation offer starting points for new strategies of social regulation. In the present case, the following tendencies are worth mentioning: modern communication technologies make it possible to obtain and exchange information as well as maintain regional, national and international contacts even within as remote and extensive an environment as the Amazon region. These new possibilities result in a qualitative change of the significance of time and space, may support democratisation, but at the same time are equally useful to the enterprises of organised crime.



The existence of international law, international conventions and institutions is supportive to anybody who needs reference points to legitimise legal proceedings within his institution or press for state action from outside. Unfortunately, the information about such possibilities is still quite low; for example, UNDCP-Brasilia is completely unknown to the relevant institutions in the Brazilian Amazon.

At the national and state level, the Ministerio Publico (federal or regional), a kind of public attorneyship, fulfils the role of a mediator between society, state institutions and the judiciary in respect of the application of the law, quite often referring to conventions of international law.

At a regional level, there is the beginnings of the constitution of new security partnerships – Interactive Security Councils – as also the initiative of the human rights organization, SPDDH to install a programme of witness protection. Finally, fighting state embedded corruption, or to state it more positively, the promotion of transparency and accountability of public institutions are long term goals and prerequisites to contest the further extension of organised crime.