Destroying illegal supply lines in the Amazon

Brazilian military continues its campaign against illegal gold miners operating in the Amazon


    The Brazilian military has launched their largest border security operation ever – spanning the entire 16,000 kilometres of Brazil’s border with 10 different countries. The operation is called Agata 7, and is intended to crack down on illegal activity on the porous border regions ahead of mega events such as the Confederations Cup this next month, Pope Francis visit to Rio in July, and the World Cup next year. Al Jazeera’s Gabriel Elizondo is spending several days embedded with a military unit in the northern Brazilian state of Roraima, bordering Guyana and Venezuela. This is his third blog post about what he’s seen. The first one can be read here and the second here.

    Surucucu, Brazil – Go to the satellite view on Google Maps and type the words “Surucucu Brazil” into the search box. Then click search. If done correctly, it should drop a pin in an area surrounded by green near the border with Venezuela.

    Zoom out a bit. Keep zooming out.

    Brazil is a country privileged with impossibly remote Amazon villages. But it is likely that no place in this country is more far-flung than here in Surucucu.

    This is federally protected indigenous land, around which there are 6,000 Yanomami people living in the jungle in 300 different communities. They have some, but very little, contact with the white man.

    We’re here with the army to destroy a clandestine landing strip in the forest used by illegal gold miners to bring in men and supplies.

    This is a sensitive mission. There is only one way to disable an illegal landing strip in the jungle: To blow it up.

    That sounds simple, but it’s not, and that is why this operation is being overseen by two-star General, Jose Luiz Jaborandy, who I am sitting next to in a military chopper.

    Armed with GPS coordinates and intel, we’re flying deeper into the jungle looking for the target. The chopper doors open, we’re at low altitude and at times the sensation is so surreal it’s like the underbelly of the chopper is brushing up against the top of the forest canopy.

    Winding rivers whiz by below, the shadow of the chopper passing over the forest. Here, from the air, the Amazon looks like an endless sea of the tops of broccoli for as far as the horizon line.

    It all feels sort of fake, like Avatar in 3D, but it’s not. And neither is this mission. We finally reach the dirt scar in the forest that is the clandestine strip.

    A team of about 10 jungle shock troops with special explosives training were dropped in the night before to secure the area, about 30km from the border with Venezuela.

    They were accompanied by a representative from FUNAI, the government indigenous protection body to oversee it all since it’s on indigenous land. One of the soldiers on this mission is also a Yanomami and speaks their language.

    Great care is taken, as it would be a disaster for any Yanomami to walk mistakenly into the area while the explosives were being set.

    In the chopper, General Jaborandy motions with his hand 5, 4, 3, 2 ….and then the boom of the explosion, followed by a delayed echo, a flash of fire, and a plume of smoke rising from the forest.

    The chopper circles for a bit, and then General Jaborandy orders the pilots to land so he can inspect the damage.

    On the ground, four, giant, muddy craters where the explosives erupted. Nobody in their right mind will try landing anything here for a while, but various sources have told me that illegal miners are now so efficient that they can repair bombed jungle landing strips in a matter of days, filling in the holes with dirt.

    “We’re doing this to cut into the supply lines and reduce the miners’ activity here,” General Jaborandy tells me while inspecting the damage and congratulating the sweaty and muddy soldiers, who are waiting for another chopper to swoop them out.

    He’s pleased with the operation today, and soldiers snap pictures. But the general has also been a military man for 38 years, most of it in the complicated Amazon region, so he’s a realist.

    There are at least another 22 clandestine landing strips in the area, hidden in the forest, and more than 1,200 illegal miners in the surrounding area, I am told, lying low in the forest until the military stands down.

    “We manage to neutralise the activity of criminals when we have intense presence along the borders like right now,” General Jaborandy tells me. “Unfortunately, when we leave, the illegality comes back because criminality pays off for them. We don’t have a way to keep this presence all the time because an operation of this magnitude has a very high cost and that’s why we have to frequently come back again and again.”

    As the helicopter takes off to head back to base, lifting off and thrusting forward over the forest cover, I look back and see the charred earth destruction of what’s left of the landing strip and then glance over at General Jaborandy. He’s expressionless, the constant pragmatist.

    He won’t say it, but I am thinking it: For him - guarding this part of the jungle border that feels like another planet - is his army’s war without end.

    Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel and see more of his photos from the operation.



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