In the last decade, organized crime has taken over the Amazon, now a key point for cocaine production and transport and a hub for illegal gold mining, two of the most lucrative illicit markets. Meanwhile, local communities are caught between violent groups and the absence of the state. We spoke with Bram Ebus, journalist and leader of Amazon Underworld, an investigative project that explores the criminal dynamics in the area, as well as their impact on the environment and its inhabitants.

Text: Josefina Salomón / Illustration: Sergio Ortiz Borbolla

In.Visibles (IV): You have been travelling to some of the most remote areas of the Amazon, studying its criminal ecosystems. What did you find?

Bram Ebus (BE): Organized crime uses borders areas high in lucrative natural resources to hide, expand and set up their economies, because these are areas where it is possible to evade national laws, as well as having very little state presence.

We visited areas of Colombia that border Peru, Brazil and Venezuela, but also border areas within Peru, coca-growing areas that are also drug trafficking routes. In Brazil, we visited areas infested by mining dredgers and we also went to the border between Brazil and Venezuela where we saw how criminal organizations abuse migrants, and in the south of Venezuela where we were able to explore the clashes between indigenous communities and the arrival of mining interests.

IV: In your research you mention the lack of state presence in these areas. How does this affect local populations?

BE: State abandonment is not the right term because in the depths of the Amazon the state often never has had a presence and all the communities have always coexisted with nature in a much more harmonious way. This state absence also allowed other actors who wanted to exercise a role of authority to enter and exploit the enormous riches of the Amazon, such as gold, timber, wildlife, and also to cut down forests to grow crops, including illicit ones.

These economies and activities have a very strong impact on the local populations. These criminal groups force them to participate in these economies, threaten them when they want to curb their economic interests, and as there is no state present, there was no one to protect either the populations or the Amazon. This absence has also left room for organizations to establish forms of criminal governance and to decide on all aspects of daily life in the Amazon with a single objective, to make as much profit as possible.

La minería ilegal de oro es una de las principales economías ilegales en la Amazonía. Foto: Bram Ebus
Illegal gold mining is one of the main ilicit economies in the Amazon. Photo: Bram Ebus

IV: For many local communities, coca cultivation or illegal mining have become subsistence economies, a way of life.

BE: For thousands of years, local communities have coexisted with the environment, using only what they need to live. But this balance was broken when both legal and illegal economies arrived in some areas and started destroying the forest.

These actors sometimes force local populations to participate in these economies, whether illegal or legal. In our investigation, we looked into how indigenous communities, out of necessity or obligation, participate in illegal mining, drug trafficking, cultivation of illicit crops, which are often economies that further destroy their territories. But when you have to choose between cutting down a tree or feeding your child, I think all families would make the same decision.

IV: What the stories have had the greater impact on you?

BE: There are many stories that have impacted me. It is hard to see how indigenous people often lose their relationship with the environment and the change of culture because of the spread of the use of alcohol, drugs and money, and how all this generates violence. We have seen very marginalized people in highly vulnerable situations.

But we also see people with immense wealth in the Amazon. For example, in the mining dredgers, which are these boats that have the capacity to move tons of earth that they suck out of the riverbeds and process with mercury to obtain gold. When you see these mining dredges, after spending days on a boat without coming across villages with electricity, suddenly you arrive at a place where there are satellite dishes, internet, flat screen televisions showing Netflix, people with cats and dogs, all inside illegal mining projects and they even have vegetable gardens and chickens to eat. So, there are these communities within the illegal economy in the middle of the jungle, where there is a microcosm that we don’t usually see.

"There is criminal cross-border governance by armed groups in the Amazon that generates so much profit that their annual budgets are often many times larger than the budgets states have to combat them. ."

IV: I understand that the current situation is the result of a process that has been going on for years. What was the turning point?

BE: There are unique dynamics and reasons behind the large scale environmental destruction that is taking place in each country of the Amazon. Overall criminal dynamics accelerated since 2016 when the Colombian government signed a peace agreement with what used to be the largest guerrilla group on the continent, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), who had a large control of the Amazon. When they left and demobilized, the state did not arrive to fill the power vacuum that emerged, so dissident groups from the former FARC and other armed groups arrived and quickly filled the space. But, as there was no longer a single actor controlling a large part of the Colombian Amazon, the territorial disputes that followed generated the high levels of violence we are still seeing today.

In the same year, in Venezuela, the government of Nicolás Maduro signed a decree called the “Orinoco Mining Arc”, trying to adopt a mining model in an apparent bid to compensate for the decline of the oil sector, the backbone of the Venezuelan economy. But they were unable to get private or state-owned companies to capitalize on this, so many armed groups arrived and began to control a large number of territories rich in natural resources such as gold and coltan. In order to control these territories, they applied a very violent, heavy-handed policy to repress populations and also to protect the territory from competition.

The largest country in the Amazon, Brazil, also experienced changes since 2016, when the non-aggression pacts that crime organizations from Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo agreed on when they started increasing their presence in the Amazon, broke down. This was the start of a war for access and control over the Brazilian Amazon.

These three different dynamics began to cross borders, to intermingle and generate a new criminal ecosystem in the Amazon. The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated these dynamics.

IV: In the research analysis, you mention that the armed groups landed in the Amazon for the cocaine and stayed for the gold. How are these two criminal economies related and how do they complement each other?

BE: The drug traffickers often don’t feel like hauling huge suitcases full of cash through the Amazon, because the money can be seized, lost, ruined, and it is difficult to hide. So, we know that many drug traffickers, when selling cocaine or marijuana, increasingly prefer payment in gold or weapons.

We also know that the gold mining sector is very suitable for laundering the illicit profits of drug trafficking, because of the difficult traceability of the gold itself. Also, many drug traffickers invest in mining machinery, control mines or collect taxes in gold.

In addition, we know that they often reinvest the profits generated by drug trafficking in other activities, legal or illegal, such as cattle ranching, land grabbing, timber trafficking or industrial agriculture.

IV: What is the main impact of these illicit activities on the environment?

BE: The environmental impacts of illicit activities vary a lot. Deforestation is often talked about, although it is large driven by legal economies, such as cattle ranching and industrial agriculture. That blurs some of the lines between what can be considered legal and illegal.

But when we talk about land degradation, loss of biodiversity or water and soil pollution, we can also talk about the role these economies play in that.

Let’s take drug trafficking, for example. In order to grow coca, some forest is cut down, but then in the laboratories where cocaine is manufactured, a large amount of fuels and chemicals are used, which are then disposed of in the environment. Illegal gold mining also uses a very toxic substance, mercury, which is also very difficult to wash or remove from the soil. And this impacts the wildlife and the indigenous communities that live in the Amazon and consume the fish, which often have mercury in their fibres.

IV: You mentioned the lack of state presence in many areas of the Amazon. How would you evaluate government policies in the face of the problems that you know exist?

BE: There is criminal cross-border governance by armed groups in the Amazon that generates so much profit that their annual budgets are often many times larger than the budgets states have to combat them.

We have reached a point where being able to govern the Amazon again seems very complicated unless states collaborate and there is external investment to strengthen security in the area.

But we also know that the armed forces in these countries have a very dubious reputation and therefore rural communities often do not trust them. So, I believe that states first have to build trust and re-establish their presence in the Amazon, not necessarily through the armed forces, but also with other agencies, those dedicated to education, public health, rural development. The state’s response has to be comprehensive and not only coordinated by the defence ministries.

We believe that there is a very opportune moment in the Amazon to rethink a security strategy from the perspective of human security. People who live in the Amazon must also be involved, because they know what is happening in their territories, what needs to be done and how to monitor it. In some cases, training will be needed, to facilitate coordination with government and international agencies, and to define the role that technology such as drones or GPS can play in helping communities better monitor their territories.

IV: Getting those who subsist through illegal economies to switch to legal ones is a complex transition that requires a lot of resources and political will. How can this be achieved?

BE: We are in a race against time because, according to scientists, there is very little time to rescue the Amazon. But it is also true that short-term solutions have not worked. So, while we focus on urgent security issues, it is also very important to start working on the root causes of forest degradation and expansion of organized crime in the Amazon. These structural causes have to do with development issues, with the lack of rural economies that could provide an alternative for local populations. We have to work on all these issues at the same time. It is a huge and complex task that can only be achieved with a coordinated response.

Amazon Underworld found the presence of crime organizations in 70 percent of the Amazon.

IV: It is clear that there is international interest in the future of the Amazon. What role do other governments play in what is happening?

BE: Because of its importance in mitigating the effect of climate change, the Amazon has become an issue of international concern. We see that there is a lot of interest in preserving it and therefore a lot of funds available as well. But I think that if governments don’t learn to work together to conserve the Amazon, money will be wasted.

International donors have to take a closer look at the relationship between the illegal markets in their continents and the destruction of the Amazon. And that requires more investment in value chains, traceability and also to block products that come from territories, for example, in the Amazon, to prevent those products from entering the legal markets of countries in other continents.

IV: Finally, what is your outlook for the future?

BE: My outlook for the future is that we have the two presidents of the two economically strongest countries in the Amazon, Colombia and Brazil, promoting a conservation agenda. If they managed to push a joint agenda with very concrete proposals that can be financed by the international community to rescue what is left of the Amazon, there is a future where there will be an Amazon.

But I believe that if we miss this very small window of opportunity, if there is no concrete, financed plan to quickly implement a plan to rescue the Amazon, we have to prepare for a future without the Amazon, a future of a region of almost 50 million people, with many challenges that could generate another migration crisis and with a dynamic of very accelerated climate change. I believe that the world also has to prepare for this scenario.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

You can access the full investigation on