Brazil’s largest criminal groups, the First Command of the Capital (PCC) and the Red Command (CV), have been working together with illegal miners in the Amazon, hampering government efforts to eradicate mining and contributing to increased violence in Brazil’s Yanomami reservation, the largest indigenous territory in the world and home to approximately 30,000 indigenous people.
The criminals provide heavy machinery and weapons to miners, acting as security guards at certain sites, and helping to transport mined gold out of the Amazon. They also run prostitution and narcotrafficking rings on Yanomami land.
“Why has the protection of Yanomami territory gone on without any deaths for months and during the last few weeks there have been armed clashes? Because these exact sectors that remain in the territory are linked to criminal groups,” Brazil’s Minister of Justice Flávio Dino, told the press on May 18.
In late April, illegal miners shot at teams from the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) and agents of the Federal Highway Police as they carried out an inspection in an illegal mining area on Yanomami land. The confrontation resulted in the death of four illegal miners; one of them Sandro Moraes de Carvalho, known as Presidente, was the alleged commander of the PCC in Roraima.
“Many of the largest and most mature drug trafficking organizations — including Brazil’s PCC and CV, and remnants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — have influence in most of the countries and territories that make up the Amazon Basin,” Robert Muggah, co-founder and director of the Igarapé Institute, who contributed to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) World Drug Report 2023 released in June, told Diálogo.
“Narcotrafficking and sexual exploitation are also increasingly common, with the PCC seen as a key player. The PCC is suspected of being involved in providing protection, financing gold extraction, and using the mines to launder trafficking profits. The Urariocera River is a key corridor through Yanomami territory that facilitates illegal mining with organized criminal groups collecting illegal taxes from prospectors, shopkeepers, and local residents,” Muggah added.
The alliances and overlap of organized crime with environmental crimes are at the center of the studies of Aiala Colares, a professor and researcher at the State University of Pará (UEPA), one of the coordinators of the project Cartography of Violence in the Amazon Region of the Brazilian Public Security Forum.
According to the study, the strong presence of organized crime groups in the northern region contributes to the increase in homicide rates/intentional violent deaths in the area. The average rate of lethal violence in the region is 40.8 percent higher than in other Brazilian municipalities. In 2021, Brazil showed a 6 percent drop in violent deaths, a trend observed since 2018. The northern region, however, was the only one in which the rate grew — an increase of 9 percent — reaching a rate of 33.3 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, against 22.3 in the country as a whole.
“The facts are that there is evidence of the PCC operating in some mining areas in the state of Roraima, in Yanomami territory. It’s a group that took refuge there from the prison system and went to the mining area, which is difficult to access, and then they started to set up bases, install their activities, and take on the mining structure, whether it’s prostitution houses, gold extraction, arms trafficking, and even drug trade, within the mining region,” Colares told Diálogo.
According to the researcher, in Pará, in addition to the PCC, the CV operates in municipalities that have a direct relationship with gold mines. But local criminal groups have also expanded, such as the Comando Classe A, the Cartel do Norte, the Crias, on the border with Peru, and others, such as the Família Terror do Amapá and the Unidade Criminosa Mapaense. In some places, such as in the municipalities of Jacareacanga and Itaituba, the PCC is linked to the entire mining business structure.
“Also because gold ends up being used as a strategic activity to launder money from drug trafficking,” Colares said.
In late June, Brazil’s Ministry of Defense launched Agate Northern Border (Ágata Fronteira Norte), an Armed Forces-led operation against illegal mining and in defense of indigenous people in the Yanomami Territory. The operation strengthens preventive and repressive actions against cross-border and environmental crimes in the northern region of the country, promoting patrols and controls of people, vehicles, vessels, and aircraft, as well as arrests in flagrante. Agate has about 1,320 service members.