Sam Cowie and David Biller
BOA VISTA, Brazil — The scorching Amazon sun beats down as a group of agents inspect the body of a black helicopter. Nearby, in the backyard of the federal police headquarters in the city of Boa Vista, sit more than twenty aircraft — all seized.
Some bear signs of violent crashes: caved-in cockpits with wings broken off. Others feature interiors with stripped-out passenger seats in order to load up with more men and women, plus additional motors, fuel, food, and other cargo. Before they were confiscated, the aircraft were allegedly used for flying in and out of illegal gold mining sites.
Here in Roraima state, where all gold mining is illegal, they are essential for transporting prospectors and equipment to far-flung Indigenous reserves, including Brazil’s largest, Yanomami. Environmental and Indigenous rights groups estimate some 20,000 illegal miners are present on the reserve that is roughly the same size as Portugal. Government officials, including Brazil’s Vice President Hamilton Mourão, put the number closer to 3,500.
“Our focus over this last year has been to go after the logistics of illegal mining,” José Roberto Peres, the police superintendent for the state, told the Associated Press during an interview in November. “These are expensive machines; we can deduce that there is a lot of money involved.”
Police have intensified their efforts to identify and capture aircraft supporting illegal mining, but tracking down planes’ owners is stymied by the fact they’re usually registered to fronts – relatives, workers, or spouses who refuse to name names. Still, police said they have identified the true owners of most of the planes they've seized, and keep them as evidence while the investigations advance. Generally, the illegal aircraft owners are local elites who launder their money in Boa Vista hotels, restaurants, gyms, and gasoline stations, according to police officials, who declined to disclose names.
Drawn by high gold prices, reduced state and federal oversight, and outdated mining legislation, plus pro-mining rhetoric and proposed legislation from far-right President Jair Bolsonaro that would make it legal to mine on reserves, thousands of miners have flocked to the Yanomami reserve in search of the precious metal, exacerbating a longstanding problem that has only grown worse in recent years.
An Associated Press investigation, which includes interviews with prosecutors, federal law enforcement agents, miners, and industry insiders, shows that the unauthorized aircraft — and the countless liters of fuel needed to power them and other mining equipment — form the backbone of the shadowy economy of illicit mining here in Roraima state. Without that network functioning smoothly, law enforcement officials and environmental experts say illegal mining operations would collapse.
But attempts to disrupt the illicit operations have been met with just as many countermeasures to subvert the authorities.
Dozens of pilots arrived recently in Boa Vista from other states looking for work during Brazil’s economic downturn, a time that coincided with high gold prices and a drop in inspections due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Potential rewards for the pilots outweigh the risks which include possible arrest by police or getting lost in the vast, pristine expanse of the Amazon. Last year, one pilot crash-landed in the jungle and survived on his own for five weeks, losing 57 pounds in the process. Another vanished flying between two regions of Yanomami territory known for illegal mining. Local media reports have documented numerous lost and missing pilots.
Small aircraft frequently make trips carrying supplies to and illegally mined gold from the Yanomami reserve, which borders Venezuela. Nimbler helicopters used for internal logistics, moving from one mining site to another within the reserve, can quickly hop the border beyond Brazilian authorities’ reach.
Adding to law enforcement’s difficulties, illegal mining pilots fly low to avoid radar detection, according to Superintendent Peres. In addition, identifying tail numbers on the planes are often altered or removed to make them harder to trace.
A former illegal miner who said he used to operate on the reserve until he was indicted, and spoke with the AP on condition of anonymity, said aircraft serving illegal sites are usually kept in one location, loaded with supplies in another, and then flown to the Yanomami reserve. Locations are constantly switched up to try and avoid seizures, he said in an interview at a riverside public square in Boa Vista.
It is possible to reach parts of Yanomami reserve by boat. But rivers are difficult to navigate and the trip can take several days, making it an inefficient option to rely solely upon. So smugglers depend heavily on aircraft.
The former prospector and a federal police spokesperson told the AP said that the average cost to reach Yanomami land by plane is 10 grams of gold, worth more than $500 at black market prices.
The rush for gold and the building of illegal airstrips have created frictions with Indigenous groups and have led to a reported uptick in violence. Last year, miners gunned down two young Yanomami men that were hunting near a clandestine helicopter landing spot.
Months later, according to a federal police statement at the time, when they raided the properties searching for one of the suspects, police found guns, cash, and gold – but the suspects were long gone.
‘THEY’VE TAKEN IT OVER’
Those involved in the illegal gold trade represent a cross-section of individuals and companies ranging from shady fly-by-night operators to legitimate businesses. And a variety of federal agencies have been clamping down on criminal enterprises that profit from illegal mining in protected areas.
Brazil’s civil aviation agency is investigating an air taxi company, Icaraí Turismo Táxi Aéreo, that was awarded government contracts by the country's health ministry to transport Indigenous people and medical equipment. The agency has said it was probing whether the company was also using its planes to bring in prospectors and supplies for illegal mining. The company didn’t respond to requests for comment from the AP.
Federal police also froze 9.5 million reais ($1.7 million) in assets from a group thought to be operating illegal aerial logistics on the Yanomami reserve. Investigations suggest that the group had transactions totaling 425 million reais ($75 million) over a two-year period. But reports from Brazil’s Council for Financial Activities Control indicated the amount of money was beyond the individuals' means, suggesting possible money laundering, the police said.
Police investigators found that the main suspect, who wasn't named, had leased land bordering a protected forest and installed an aviation fuel storage tank. He had permission from the state environmental agency, despite it being illegal, according to the federal police. Investigations said the man used his air taxi company in order to supply wildcat mining operations. Police said those involved include his two children, three others, and frontmen.
Brazil’s environmental regulator, Ibama, has also ramped up its efforts against illegal gold mining operations. Last September, the agency closed 59 clandestine airstrips, five helicopter pads, and three river ports within the Yanomami reserve. Agents also seized 11 aircraft, eight vehicles, and three tractors.
More than 300 mostly short videos filmed by agents — part of a report obtained by the AP — show planes hidden with brush and tarps, plus stockpiles of fuel under the forest canopy, sometimes after agents have set them ablaze. Videos shot by agents from helicopters often show people on the ground fleeing the scene — by car, motorcycle, or small boat. Three videos show helicopters taking off just as the agents’ aircraft draws close.
In his office in Boa Vista, Roraima state, Alisson Marugal, a federal prosecutor, stood beside a map of the Yanomami reserve and pointed to its outside border. There, he said, are “many more” illegal airstrips, mostly on private properties like farms.
“There is a huge demand inside (coming from the wildcat mines on the reserve),” said Marugal. “For food, for fuel… And if this demand is not met, they (the miners) will leave.”
“At the same time, such huge demand always guarantees that there are willing suppliers,” he said.
According to data provided exclusively to the AP by MapBiomas, a network of nonprofits, universities, and technology companies that study Brazilian land use, there are at least 40 landing strips within the Yanomami reserve, most of them illegal.
Even airstrips that are supposed to be used by the government to send doctors and medical supplies for the Indigenous people are used by illegal miners, according to Marugal.
Last year, a young Yanomami tribesman was killed when struck by a plane piloted by illegal miners.
“It is supposed to be a landing strip for us, but they’ve taken it over,” Junior Hekurari Yanomami, president of the Yanomami and Ye’kwana Indigenous Health Council, said angrily in an interview in his office.
Superintendent Peres, of the federal police, said despite the beefed-up efforts to go after illegal gold mining and clandestine airstrips in Roraima state, cracking down remains a challenge.
“It’s very easy to make a landing strip,” he said.
Brazil’s Amazon gold prospecting is a far cry from the folkloric image of a man with a pan and a dream wading into the river. Nor does it resemble the low-tech operations of massive pits filled with thousands of men carrying sacks of dirt, immortalized in pictures by Brazil’s famous photographer Sebastião Salgado.
Instead, it has become increasingly mechanized. High-powered backhoes manufactured by international brands like Hyundai and Caterpillar are capable of tearing up immense trenches of earth and trees. Prospecting sites in the upper Tapajos River basin, where the Munduruku ethnic group lives, look as though a bomb laid waste to the forest, leaving behind toxic pools.
Authorities earlier last year raided a huge illegal mining camp on the Munduruku Indigenous territory, destroying multiple backhoes.
The prospectors are invaders “who want to destroy, who are sick with hatred,” Maria Leusa Munduruku, president of the Munduruku Womens’ Association, whose house was burned to the ground by the miners in retaliation, said during a panel discussion last October.
“People who are sick wanting to exploit us, take the gold. We can’t eat gold. Gold isn’t worth anything to us. What’s valuable to us is the water, the river and the forest.”
Prospecting on the Yanomami Indigenous land mostly takes two forms: dredging of waterways with barges and surface mining. In the latter, prospectors dig pits and blast away sediment with powerful hoses, from which they separate the water then use mercury to extract the gold.
Due to illegal satellite internet networks that are ubiquitous on Yanomami land, miners are alerted when law enforcement operations begin, giving them time to hide themselves and their valuable equipment.
“When an operation begins, people there are already talking about it,” said Superintendent Peres. “They hide machinery in the forest and even sink their dredger barges into the rivers. After they retrieve them, they still work.”
The spread of clandestine communications networks on Yanomami land is one of the many new challenges authorities are scrambling to adapt to in Roraima’s modern-day gold rush.
Authorities have long considered seizing or destroying costly planes, helicopters, excavators, and dredging barges an effective means of kneecapping the investors financing the illegal mining.
“Investigations into individuals are slow and take time, proof is difficult to acquire,” said Marugal, the federal prosecutor in Roraima state.
But they told the AP they are targeting a new flank in their fight: fuel. Huge amounts of diesel are needed to keep mining machines running and highway police regularly seize large quantities they believe are being supplied to illegal mining operators.
The former prospector, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, said that illegal mining fuel providers constantly switch up which gas stations they use to avoid detection.
Superintendent Peres confirmed the federal police are also investigating the source of fuel used in aircraft engaged in illegal mining operations.
“It is a concern of ours to identify where this fuel is coming from,” Peres said, declining to provide details on the probe. “It would be very difficult to supply the mining sites without this fuel.”
Last month, Brazil’s environment regulator dismantled a scheme by a company to resell fuel taken from Boa Vista’s airport to clandestine airstrips, according to an agency statement. The company was fined 1.5 million reais. The company, Pioneiro Fuels, faces additional fines of up to 5 million reais from the oil regulator for presenting insufficient documentation of where and how it moved aircraft fuel, the regulator said in an emailed statement. The company and Pioneiro director Lindinalva Lobato declined to comment when reached by the AP.
The internal report from Brazil’s environment regulator obtained by the AP shows a list of Pioneiro’s clients from Jan. to Oct. 2021, and detailed investigator notes that revealed some of the alleged buyers had no planes or activities requiring aircraft fuel. Some 868,000 liters (229,000 gallons) of the fuel had no known destination -- more than half what the company sold in the 10-month period, according to the report.
In addition, the report said Pioneiro supplied fuel to illegal airfields and planes that are unlicensed, grounded for technical reasons or for other violations. The tail numbers of at least two planes seized by authorities on the outskirts of Yanomami territory matched those of planes that were previously found fueling up at an airfield supplied by Pioneiro.
“The direct connection between the airfields supplied irregularly by the Pioneiro company with aircraft used in logistical support for irregular mining operations in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory was clear,” the report said. “As such, there is indisputable evidence of the link between the company and illegal activities in the Indigenous Territory.”
The civil aviation agency, with support from the federal police and environment regulator, last September raided a property where Cataratas Poços Artesianos, a well-drilling contractor, is based. Inside, they found thousands of liters of aviation fuel, mining equipment, and aircraft with illegal modifications – such as stripped interiors.
One of the business partners is Rodrigo Martins de Mello. He is also a partner in the government-contracted air transport company investigated for possibly flying equipment and miners to illegal gold mining sites.
Since 2018, the health ministry has awarded contracts worth a total 26 million reais ($4.6 million) to the air taxi company, according to an AP review on the government's transparency database.
De Mello's lawyer, Ana Paula Cruz, said in a statement to the AP that neither he nor his companies have any involvement in illegal mining on Yanomami territory nor the logistics to support it, and that aircraft were seized while parked on his company's property in Boa Vista, not on Yanomami lands. Cruz said she is prevented from discussing details regarding the investigations because of a court decision placing them under seal.
While De Mello is under criminal investigation, he has not been charged with a crime. He has alleged that the lead police detective and some agents of the environment regulator and aviation agency have committed crimes including abuse of authority and producing evidence illegally, Cruz said.
A judge found those arguments partially convincing and last month ruled that half of De Mello's seized assets must be released. The ruling hasn't yet been carried out; for now, his aircraft remain parked behind the federal police headquarters in Boa Vista.
‘CAT AND MOUSE’
Attempts to crack down on illegal mining in Roraima state face fierce local resistance, despite the fact all mining in the state is illegal. Mining has long been a fixture in the region and deeply ingrained in its history.
In downtown Boa Vista, there is a seven-meter statue adorned with the names of prominent past miners. The monument stands adjacent to the state’s legislative assembly.
There, on a recent Thursday morning, members of the Association of Independent Prospectors of Roraima gathered for a public hearing to protest recent operations by environmental agency Ibama and federal police that destroyed mining equipment, during which a miner was shot and killed.
Dozens of them, donning yellow T-shirts emblazoned with a print of the Boa Vista miner’s monument and the words “The Prospector is a Worker,” sang Brazil’s national anthem.
“We are the founders of the state,” said Isa Carine Farias, the association’s president, and who told the AP she previously worked with illegal mining. “They take an Indigenous person to the United Nations (climate summit); why not take a miner, too?”
Earlier last year, the vast majority of state legislators voted to pass a law allowing gold mining in the state as long as it wasn’t on Indigenous lands. The measure was later struck down by the Supreme Court, which deemed it unconstitutional.
Critics feared the law could have allowed the gold mined on Indigenous lands to be fraudulently passed off as gold mined elsewhere, which has occurred in other Brazilian states.
Meanwhile, Sen. Telmário Motta, who represents Roraima state, has proposed legislation to prevent the destruction of mining equipment by federal officials. By law in Brazil, agents are permitted to destroy equipment that cannot be seized and auctioned because it is too costly or difficult to move, which is often the case with mining equipment or aircraft found on far-flung lands.
President Bolsonaro, who is popular in Roraima state, has also repeatedly spoken out against the destruction of equipment.
But the biggest legislative flashpoint is a bill presented by Bolsonaro’s mining minister, which would regulate mining on Indigenous territories nationwide. Bolsonaro has pressured lawmakers to bring it to a vote, even as federal prosecutors have called it unconstitutional and activists warn it would wreak vast social and environmental damages.
Vice President Mourão, who oversees the government’s Amazon Council, said in response to an AP question during a meeting with the foreign press that authorities face great challenges in combating mining on Indigenous lands.
“This is a game of cat and mouse,” Mourão said on Oct. 25. “It will end in one of two ways: either the community approves legal production, and that would be considering all environmental norms, or else we will have to keep soldiers all over that whole jungle area.”
But while soldiers can provide an additional show of force to aid law enforcement operations, they do little to help the investigations by understaffed environmental agencies, police, and prosecutors working to disrupt a sprawling illicit network bent on outfoxing them.
“If a big figure is arrested, another simply steps in… There is no big boss; there are too many,” said Marugal, the federal prosecutor in Roraima state.
He added that the time between enforcement operations by federal police and environmental agencies is often too long, allowing the miners to reorganize quickly and resume their mining of Yanomami lands.
“In certain regions (of the territory), even after operations this year, with equipment seized and destroyed, wildcat mining grew,” he said.