Brazil’s largest narcotrafficking faction, the First Capital Command (PCC, in Portuguese) has been increasingly infiltrating illegal mining in the Brazilian Amazon. “In addition to narcotrafficking, the organization exploits prostitution, the sale of gasoline, food, beverages, and private security,” the Brazilian news site UOL reported in early February 2022, based on information from Brazilian public security authorities. According to the report, these activities are mainly carried out in the state of Roraima, where members of the criminal faction control areas of Yanomami indigenous land.
Illegal miners who spoke with UOL said that today no one can mine gold in the region without the PCC’s authorization. “The PCC even controls river crossings by charging tolls. There are too many criminals,” said a miner on condition of anonymity to Brazilian investigative journalism organization Amazônia Real.
Although the number of PCC members involved in illegal mining in Roraima is unknown, according to Deputy Warden Roney Cruz, head of Intelligence and Capture Division of the Roraima prison system, about 25 fugitives from the state penitentiary linked to the PCC are in mines along the Uraricoera River, which runs north toward the Venezuelan border.
Expansion into mining areas
The involvement of the criminal faction with illegal mining became more evident in 2018, when a series of riots led by the PCC inside Roraima jails resulted in the escape of dozens of prisoners who sought refuge in illegal mines, several local news sites reported. According to Amazônia Real, wiretaps used during the Brazilian Federal Police’s (PF, in Portuguese) Operation Érebo in 2018 captured conversations from a member of the PCC who described the criminal organization’s expansion into mining areas.
“According to criminals, illegal gold is the best way to launder money in Brazil,” Federal Prosecutor Paulo de Tarso Moreira Oliveira told Brazilian newspaper O Globo. “The fact that the PCC is operating in mines is a natural process, not limited to the PCC, but inclusive of any organization that handles illegal money.”
In addition, the rising price of gold has become an attraction. In 2000, one ounce of gold cost $400 and went up to $1,800 in 2022. Today, Brazil is one of the top 10 gold exporters worldwide, says the environmental news site Mongabay, but part of this mineral comes from the more than 320 illegal mines operating in the country, where organized crime is infiltrated.
According to Brazilian nongovernmental organization Socio-environmental Institute (ISA, in Portuguese), which aims to defend indigenous and environmental rights, in 2020, about 2,400 hectares of forest in the Yanomami indigenous land, an area equivalent to 500 soccer fields, were destroyed by illegal mining. Gold mining not only accelerates deforestation, but also fuels violence.
“The Yanomami suffer daily intimidation. There is a lot of harassment, such as death threats, shouting, showing weapons, and bomb explosions,” Dário Kopenawa, a Yanomami representative, told ISA. In May 2021, for instance, illegal miners believed to be linked to criminal organizations opened fire on a Yanomami indigenous community using automatic weapons, local leaders told the BBC.
New measures are being put into place to combat illegal mining. In addition to the PF’s relentless investigative operations to shut down illegal sites, in 2020, the Attorney General’s Office recommended a series of measures to law enforcement agencies to create a certification system and increase traceability for Brazilian gold.