Over the last decade, a catalogue of criminal organizations has spread its tentacles across the Amazon, polluting the environment and abusing local communities. The result? More than 65 per cent of the planet's most biodiverse area lives trapped between high levels of violence and lack of effective state presence, according to Amazon Underworld, an investigative project that visited every corner of the forest.

Words: Josefina Salomon / Editing: Ronna Rísquez


  • The Amazon is the most biodiverse ecosystem on the planet, it plays an essential role in regulating the world’s climate.
  • Amazon Underworld researchers found that criminal organizations control 65 percent of the Amazon.
  • Powerful criminal groups in Brazil and Colombia control the production and trafficking of cocaine and gold, polluting the environment and subjugating local communities.
  • Rising prices and demand for cocaine and gold, coupled with a lack of effective state presence, have created a “perfect storm”.
  • Authorities in Brazil and Colombia are leading a efforts to address the crisis. A regional approach is key to the solution, says Amazon Underworld.



1. Amazonia. It is the world’s main tropical forest and connects nine South American countries. Its seven million square kilometres are home to the most diverse ecosystem on the planet, with the largest number of species of plants, birds, animals, insects and the widest river. It is also home to the largest number of “uncontacted” indigenous communities. Its unique ecosystem functions as a carbon reservoir that helps regulate the global climate.

2. 65 percent. That is how much of this rainforest’s territory Amazon Underworld estimates is under the control of criminal organizations. According to the research, these groups came to the area to dominate lucrative cocaine trafficking routes (after all, the two main producing countries are there) and to take over illegal gold mining, currently one of the most profitable illicit markets in the world. Difficult access makes it a perfect place for crime.

3. Cocaine and Gold. These illegal economies go hand in hand in the Amazon. Coca cultivation and cocaine production has been on the rise in recent years and transformed the area into a global production and transport hub. Illegal gold, on the other hand, is attractive to traffickers because it facilitates the laundering of drug profits, is easy to transport, and maintains its value, even in times of high uncertainty. Moreover, its trafficking carries lower penalties than the marketing of illicit drugs.

4. Environment. There are many ways in which criminal organizations destroy the environment. Cocaine production requires land for the cultivation of its main ingredient, the coca leaf, but also uses extremely toxic chemicals. The same is true of illegal mining, which uses mercury, a toxic chemical that affects flora and fauna and local communities. That is not all. Criminal groups invest their profits in businesses that contribute to the destruction of the environment, including the agricultural sector and cattle ranching, according to a recent report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

5. What about the state? Experts agree that the limited, or non-existent, state presence in the most remote and strategic areas of the Amazon opens the door for criminal organizations to take over. The lack of resources also plays a role. “The criminal cross-border governance by armed groups in the Amazon generates so much profit that they have an annual budget many, many times larger than state budgets to fight them,” Bram Ebus of Amazon Underworld told In.Visibles.


1. Brazil. It is the country with the largest land area within the Amazon. In recent years, powerful criminal organisations from Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo – the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) and the Red Command (Comando Vermelho – CV) – have advanced in the region, clashing to compete for strategic territories with little state presence. The violence has been tragic for local communities. In 2020, for example, Brazil’s Amazon recorded the highest homicide rate in the country (29.6 per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to the national average of 23.9 per 100,000 inhabitants), according to data from Info Amazonía. The highest rates correspond to municipalities with the highest levels of deforestation.

2. Colombia. The situation in Colombia, the world’s leading producer of coca leaf and cocaine, changed in 2016, when the government signed a peace deal with what was then the region’s most powerful guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). The group controlled the country’s Amazon and when 13,000 of its fighters laid down their arms, it created a power vacuum for which a number of groups now compete, violently.

3. Peru. The increase in coca cultivation in the world’s second largest coca-producing country has impacted on local criminal dynamics, particularly affecting indigenous communities living in cultivation, production and trafficking areas, an Amazon Underworld report revealed.

4. Venezuela. Illegal gold mining is the star of the country’s criminal map, with most of the mines in the Amazon region controlled by Colombian guerrilla organizations, including the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN). These organizations take advantage of the perfect storm created by the combination of state corruption and a deep humanitarian crisis that leaves millions of people in desperate need.


1. Criminal Groups. The map of criminal actors in the Amazon is broad and complex. Organizations with long criminal histories in their own countries – including Brazil’s PCC and CV, Colombia’s ELN – fight each other and smaller syndicates to control strategic sectors of the Amazon. While larger groups manage to generate dynamics of control in communities, the production and distribution chain is highly fragmented. Organizations operate like companies, with each actor in charge of one aspect of the business. This makes them more effective and resilient: if one part of the chain falls apart, there is another ready to replace it.

2. In.Visible. The Amazon exists in the heart of the most unequal region on the planet. It should come as no surprise, then, that criminal organizations have a seemingly endless supply of cheap labour. Peasants and indigenous communities are caught up between violence and the lack of social policies, working as growers, producers, and transporters. “The question is: if they don’t do this, what could they do? It is a complex analysis that defines a complex reality but which shows that organized crime takes advantage of these scenarios where the state does not want to act or does not want to be present,” said Pamela Huerta, one of Amazon Underworld’s journalists in Peru. Forced recruitment has also been common, as well as violence against those who raise their voices against criminal organizations.

3. A perfect storm? Some of the leaders in the region are joining growing international interest in the Amazon. In particular, the presidents of Brazil and Colombia, the two countries with the largest economies in the region, are at the forefront of a new attempt to save the Amazon. At the last meeting of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization they made a series of commitments to advance this agenda. The challenge, experts say, will be to implement strategies that can compete with the innovative spirit of criminal organizations.