Illicit Confluences: The Intersection of Cocaine and Illicit Timber in the Amazon
Casey W. Wilander
The Amazon’s cocaine and illicit-timber trade are linked by their profitability, industrial proximity, and smuggling convenience. The lack of regulatory enforcement in the timber industry provides several opportunities for cocaine trafficking enterprises to benefit. The purpose of this essay is to trace the confluence of the illegal cocaine and timber industries from their points of extraction to their various consumers across the Atlantic Ocean. This research seeks to illuminate the smuggling routes of the two illicit products utilized by Latin American criminal groups, while identifying vulnerable areas upon which policymakers and law enforcement agencies may improve.
Sources of the Cocaine and Illicit Timber
Criminal groups in the Andean Range of Latin America produce much of the world’s cocaine[i] with little risk of being arrested by law enforcement.[ii] Cocaine producers protect their product by adapting to increasing law enforcement presence in the region.[iii] Each step in the cocaine production cycle is isolated from the next to maximize the security of the personnel involved, whereby, if law enforcement catches one group, everyone else can continue their operation because of their lack of connection to other groups. Further, the networks of growers and processors feed into a system that operates like a watershed, where systems of small streams feed into a larger river. In the Amazonian cocaine industry, small growing and processing operations feed into the larger flow of cocaine from the region.[iv]
Coca (the plant from which cocaine is derived) growers are committed to one location for two to three years because of the amount of time and effort required to fully mature a coca plant, making them vulnerable to government eradication efforts. However, growers have strategically concentrated their operations in areas like Peru’s Apurimac-Ene River Valley (VRAE) because of its low incidence of eradication efforts. Police that conduct patrols in this region are often bribed to allow growing operations to continue. Although coca cultivation is more prevalent in the VRAE, these operations also are conducted in lower concentrations throughout the Amazon Basin.[v] Additionally, the criminal groups that control coca growers minimize their risk by hosting multiple sites at once, minimizing the impact an eradication effort has on the aggregate cocaine supply.
Once a growing operation reaches the predetermined amount of harvests set by the governing criminal group, the growers shut down the site and move to another location; this usually takes four harvest seasons, but varies depending on whether the coca plants produce viable leaves all year or not.[vi] After the coca leaves are harvested, they are dried to cut their weight by 50%, making it easier to ship large quantities to processing labs.[vii]
Cocaine processing labs extract the narcotic from the coca leaves, converting large volumes of leaf into smaller quantities of cocaine, which is sent further down the supply chain. Like growing operations, criminal groups spread the workload amongst numerous facilities in the Amazon to minimize the risk to the overall cocaine supply. A lab’s level of sophistication depends on the amount of funding made available by the responsible criminal group, whom are more likely to increase the funding for an especially productive site.[viii] However, labs are often rudimentary due to the high risk of being shut down by law enforcement.[ix] Once the cocaine is processed, it can be smuggled down the supply chain, where it uses timber supply lines for safe transport to the Brazilian coast for international distribution.
Illegal logging, like illegal coca cultivation, persists due to insufficient governance of public and indigenous land, and weak regulatory and enforcement institutions. This gives criminal groups more opportunities to illegally extract and launder timber into the legal supply chain; consequently, 54-78% of Amazonian timber is illegally sourced.[x] Unlike cocaine, timber is not inherently illegal, and only becomes so when harvested outside of state regulations. Illegitimate loggers have a low probability of being caught in an illegal operation, and their reward is high; their profit depends on how much they process the timber before a sale.[xi] Unsawn timber sells for $169.5/m3, whereas sawn timber sells for $859/m3, urging groups to increase the sophistication of their operations.[xii]
The methods of extracting timber depend on whether legitimate companies or criminal groups are performing the operation. The two categories of illicit timber extraction are quasi-legitimate and illegitimate logging. Quasi-legitimate logging is most commonly conducted by legitimate companies which distort forestry regulations to launder illicit timber into licit timber.[xiii] Before a company can harvest, it must obtain a permit for an area with a yield-estimate based on the forest-density. Purposeful overestimation of a forest’s yield gives the company more opportunity to launder illicit timber without penalization.[xiv] Although the presence of a forestry inspector could remedy this form of illegal extraction, there are too few resources available to forestry regulatory agencies for this to significantly reduce illegal logging. Further, the corruption of forestry officials has made regulatory enforcement unreliable.[xv]
A second form of quasi-legitimate logging is for a company to buy a permit for a pre-harvested area and pay criminal groups for felled timber, which requires officials in the timber and forestry industries to be corrupted.[xvi] For a company to obtain a permit for a pre-harvested area, a forestry official must review information on the site, and sell the permit knowing there is no legitimate timber to be harvested. Once the permit is obtained, the company acquires timber by colluding with criminal groups[xvii].
Criminal groups often use slaves to fell timber to sell to timber companies. In Brazil, the state gave land management authority to the indigenous people, which incentivizes criminal organizations to force inhabitants into slave labor.[xviii] Since criminal groups do not pay their employees or regulatory fees, their profit per unit of timber is greater than what a legitimate timber company can earn. Once the illegally-harvested trees are felled, the criminals sell the timber to a company which incorporates them into its total yield, which usually has plenty of room due to the forester’s yield overestimation. This process effectively launders the legal and illegal timber together; once the logs are sawn and packaged together, law enforcement cannot distinguish the difference between the two.[xix]
Confluence of the Two Products
Cocaine and illicit timber interact at several stages of production and transport en route to international consumers. Each stage of cocaine production uses the timber industry to its advantage, and this section describes those points of connection.
Coca Growing Operations
Cocaine production requires the clearing of land to grow coca plants and build cocaine processing labs, which provides a lot of illegally harvested timber to sell to timber companies. Each hectare (100 square meters) of land used for cocaine cultivation requires a minimum of two hectares of forest to be cleared to provide enough direct sunlight for the plants to thrive. If growers used one hectare of coca for their operation, they would have up to two hectares worth of timber to sell, which provides growers with an income to sustain their livelihood while they wait for the plants to mature. The growers profit per hectare of timber exceeds that of legitimate loggers because of their ability to clear-cut entire sections of forest, which companies cannot do.[xx]
Smuggling of Cocaine Through Amazonia
Counter-narcotics operations in the Amazon receive significantly more attention than illicit logging, which forces cocaine smugglers to seek safer methods of transporting cocaine to the Brazilian coast. Smugglers use the timber industry to safely take cocaine from the Andean mountain range to the Brazil’s Belem Port. While counter-narcotics agents are looking for vehicles that fit a drug-courier profile, often they overlook heavy timber-transport vehicles discretely carrying large amounts of cocaine.[xxi] Searching timber-transports is generally avoided because of the ambiguous laws on timber operations, making them difficult to enforce. Further, the enormous number of transports operating in the region makes it difficult for law enforcement to successfully identify and search the particular vehicles concealing the cocaine. Lastly, a thorough vehicle search would require a significant amount of time and effort because of the large quantities and significant weight of the timber stored on each vehicle and the numerous hiding spots these afford the smuggler.[xxii] Thus, cocaine can be safely smuggled using existing supply routes and mechanisms for transport.
Low-level smugglers consolidate the cocaine produced in rural Amazonia for high-volume traffickers transporting it to commercial shipping areas in the lower Amazon. Smugglers operate within small geographic areas that slightly overlap with other smugglers. When “Smuggler A” arrives to “Smuggler B’s” area of operation, “Smuggler B” then assumes responsibility for the cocaine. This process continues until the cocaine reaches the Belem International Seaport on the Brazilian coast. It is important for smugglers to transfer their cocaine to predetermined contacts because the regional criminal groups strongly enforce the informal rules and regulations which maintain peace in particular regions.[xxiii] This process ensures that each section of the Amazon does not have an overconcentration of smugglers competing for buyers, which also makes them vulnerable to being arrested all at once.
The safest shipping method utilized by smugglers is to subcontract cocaine smuggling to timber companies which can more easily conceal the cocaine amongst the timber moving across the Amazon. Although timber trucks are generally a safe method of smuggling cocaine, cargo boats can carry larger quantities of cocaine within their hulls, while drawing less attention from law enforcement due to its limited resources for patrolling the rivers.[xxiv] Smugglers in western Brazil strive to move cocaine to the Manaus River port in the central region of the state, which provides them larger cargo vessels to conceal the cocaine more easily. Criminal groups are charged with providing the security required for smugglers to safely transfer mass quantities of cocaine onto the vessels before they move to the Belem seaport.[xxv]
Criminal Groups in the Amazon
Two criminal groups, Familia de Norte (FDN) and the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), control the major flows of cocaine throughout the Amazon.[xxvi] They provide security, and command and control for the mass trafficking of cocaine from Peru to Latin American drug gangs in the major cities along the Atlantic coast.[xxvii] The security of smuggling routes is paramount for the criminal groups, because if their shipments were continually raided by law enforcement, their revenues would fall. Hence, criminal groups bribe or coerce regulators and inspection officials in the timber, shipping, and land management sectors[xxviii].
The FDN and PCC operate out of the Compaj prison in Manaus, which is the control center to orchestrate drug flows throughout the Amazon. The Manaus Port is the convergence point for West-Brazilian smugglers to unload their cargos, and the prison’s central location within Brazil, and the weak monitoring of prisoners allows the criminal groups to operate their enterprise with impunity; the FDN controls the northern cocaine trade, and the PCC controls the south.[xxix] However, recent police raids at the Manaus port uncovered large quantities of cocaine hidden in timber shipments, which spurred a violent intergroup conflict over the territorial control of drug trafficking routes.[xxx]
Land Versus Water Trafficking Routes
Despite being protected by criminal groups, smugglers experience different dangers depending on whether they transport the cocaine and timber over land or river. Transporting cocaine over land increases the smuggler’s safety by concealing the cocaine within shipments of timber traveling onto heavily used logging roads, which may be the only transport method available if there are no rivers nearby. Some Peruvian governors have permitted smugglers to use their roads to traffic illicit timber and cocaine to the Brazilian Amazon.[xxxi] However, a governor’s blessing only extends to logging roads under their authority, as opposed to most Amazonian logging roads that are maintained by logging companies. In the tri-border area of Colombia, Peru, and Brazil, there are several competing criminal groups who frequently rob vehicles, or engage in shoot-outs on these roads because of their isolation and lack of policing. [xxxii] While being comparably less frequent, roadside robberies do occur throughout the Amazon Basin, which is why smugglers prefer to use river routes.
It is significantly safer for smugglers to transport cocaine by river, although it is much slower. In higher elevations where rivers are shallower, smugglers hide packages of cocaine within commonly traded goods such as plantains and other food items[xxxiii]. But once the cocaine is moved into lower lying areas where the water is deeper, the packages of cocaine are loaded onto larger boats moving felled logs to timber processing sites. In many cases, the timber transports moving to the processing sites will carry a mixed load of licit and illicit timber[xxxiv], which will urge the boat captains to act cautiously to avoid being boarded and inspected by law enforcement. If the smugglers are caught with the contraband, they can deny owning or knowing about the cocaine on the vessel, but they will still serve a three to five-year prison sentence. This makes smuggling via larger vessels safer considering that low-level smugglers can serve up to 25 years in prison because they cannot deny knowing cocaine packages were on their small boat.[xxxv] It becomes increasingly difficult for law enforcement to detect illicit timber and cocaine as the boats get closer to the Atlantic Ocean because of the increasing size of the vessels. As these vessels increase the weight of goods they carry, it becomes more difficult to prove the boat captain’s culpability in the matter. However, in many cases, the corruption of key officials will allow contraband to circumvent most -if any- inspections.
Corruption and the Cocaine-Timber Confluence
The corruption of government and industry officials plays a significant role in the trafficking of illicit timber and cocaine because of the large amount of money made in these industries. In the timber industry, the most common form of corruption is bribery, followed by fraud, abuse of office, and extortion.[xxxvi] For much of the Amazon’s illicit timber extraction to occur, a government inspector or land management official is bribed to allow the operations to continue. Truck drivers and boat captains of timber transports are also bribed to allow criminal groups to hide cocaine on their vehicles. In several cases, mayors of timber producing cities have used timber companies to traffic cocaine within shipments of plywood,[xxxvii] which further implicates the mayor’s involvement with organized crime; each time the cocaine is moved from one vehicle to another, the criminal groups pay a bribe to the new captain or driver with money that is tied to the mayor.[xxxviii]
Since the riverine shipping industry is the safest and most utilized method of smuggling cocaine and timber through the Amazon, it is the most vulnerable to corruption. There are several shipping companies that have knowingly loaded illicit timber onto their vessels to move to another Brazilian port, or to international buyers. There have been numerous raids on cargo ships where cocaine was stored in hidden compartments beneath legitimate cargo, or within containers filled with timber products.[xxxix] The ship’s captain and crew are complicit in the storage of the contraband only because it was stored in the hidden cargo-compartments that only they knew existed. However, the willingness of the ship captains to accept bribes is explained by the relatively small likelihood of being caught. Not only are ships maritime inspections rare, but they are carrying so much cargo that it is impossible for a regular boarding party to thoroughly inspect the entire contents of a cargo freighter traveling across the Atlantic Ocean.[xl]
Recent counter-corruption efforts in the Brazilian shipping industry have motivated traffickers to alter their method for concealing on ships. Rather than bribing a ship’s crew to allow cocaine on their vessel, criminal groups bribe port workers to let them perform “Rip-On/Off” operations while the ship’s crew is away.[xli] Rip On/Off operations require criminal groups to open containers aboard ships, and place cocaine amongst, or within, the other contents. The groups record the container-number and position on the ship, then send that information to their counterparts at the receiving port. The criminal groups receiving the contraband bribe the workers at their port to let them retrieve their shipment of cocaine.[xlii] This type of operation has become so prevalent that authorities have begun scanning a higher number of containers moving from Brazil to Europe to search for contraband.[xliii] Criminal groups have found it is better for their business if international ship captains are not implicated and arrested for their involvement in the drug trade. Keeping the ship captains free from arrest makes it easier for them to ignore the illegal activity occurring on the ship, especially if they do not know if contraband is onboard, or where it is stored. Furthermore, the historical lack of security at major ports makes it unlikely that any of the involved groups will be arrested.[xliv]
Trafficking Cocaine and Timber Across the Atlantic
Europe has become the fastest growing importer of cocaine from Latin America.[xlv] It is also the largest importer of Amazonian timber, importing 33% of the regions total timber exports.[xlvi] The increase in European cocaine consumption can be partially attributed to Latin American and European organized crime expanding drug sales into previously untouched markets.[xlvii]
Despite Europe’s attempts to import only legal and certified timber, it is very difficult to prove whether the timber was illegally harvested or not, and whether the certificate proving its authenticity is a forgery; counterfeit certificates became popular once consumers began demanding their presence. US consumers began demanding more stringent policies after the company, Lumber Liquidators, was discovered to be importing and selling illicit Amazonian timber.[xlviii]
European criminal groups buy all the cocaine shipped from Brazil to European ports. Although the financial transactions connecting organized crime to the cocaine are hard to track, the frequency of successful cargo inspections gives law enforcement an indicator of changing patterns in cocaine trafficking routes. One of the primary Amazonian cocaine routes is to move from the Belem Port to Spain or Portugal. However, due to an increase in maritime interdictions, shipments have been diversified to ports in Antwerp Belgium; Hamburg, Germany; Ravenna, Italy; Rotterdam, Netherlands.[xlix] There have also been significant increases in cocaine shipments to the Balkan region, which is attributed to increasing activity from the region’s criminal groups.[l] Balkan organized crime groups have begun embedding their own operatives in Latin America to cut out the middlemen in the operations. One Serbian national who operated in Colombia for years, was caught trying to ship liquefied cocaine stored in wine bottles to the Balkans.[li] Furthermore, Italy’s ‘Ndrangheta has also been working with Amazonian criminal groups to supply the cocaine to Northern Europe’s.[lii] The group is thought to control 40% of the global cocaine trade, with its stakeholders being spread throughout the European Union and Asia.[liii]
Trafficking cocaine directly to Europe has cost saving advantages, but the risk of interdiction has increased as evidenced in the prevalence of cocaine washing up along European shores, indicating that traffickers may be abandoning their cargo at sea, for fear of being boarded by coast guards.[liv] Although this is the most direct method for bringing cocaine and timber to Europe, criminal groups prefer to diversify their trafficking routes to increase the survivability of their shipments, which separates timber from the cocaine.[lv]
Alternate Routes Through Africa
Criminal organizations are diversifying their cocaine trafficking routes to Europe by moving the product through Africa. The timber and cocaine share their journey across the Atlantic Ocean, but separate because of the near non-existent demand for Amazonian timber in Africa.[lvi] The most common point of entry for cocaine into Africa is Guinea-Bissau. In 2015, the UN estimated that 2,200 pounds of cocaine is flown into Guinea-Bissau every night, while larger shipments are brought by sea.[lvii] Brazilian criminal groups sell cocaine to buyers in Guinea-Bissau, who transport the product across Northern Africa until the cocaine can be flown north to Spain, or sailed to Southern Italy, where it is then distributed to regional criminal groups, such as the ‘Ndrangheta, for further distribution across Europe.[lviii]
Diminishing the confluence of cocaine and illicit timber requires the reduction of the global demand for cocaine. A lower global demand for cocaine will reduce its price, which will remove the incentive for criminal groups in the Amazon to produce the drug. Implementing medically-based drug treatment programs within cocaine consuming countries would treat addiction as a psycho-social disease with cognition-based counseling, rather than the more prevalent punitive-model which treats addiction as a criminal offense.[lix] The United States’ reduction of its cocaine consumption can be partially attributed to the modest increase in drug counseling programs throughout the country. However, the declining cocaine market in the US has displaced criminal groups’ cocaine-marketing efforts to Europe; the increase in European consumption can be partially attributed to the psycho-social effects of the economic downturn.[lx] If only developed countries with a current cocaine problem allocate resources in drug treatment programs, then criminal groups can be expected to create or expand markets for cocaine in countries where the drug has been less popular. For this, the international community needs to contribute funds to improve global addiction treatment programs to ensure people get the necessary help. Otherwise, there will always be a large demand for cocaine, which will facilitate its mass production in the Amazon.
Furthermore, reducing illicit timber’s demand will require timber importers to require more assurances from Amazonian timber exporters that they are being sold legitimate products. This will require governments to make significant investments in regulatory agencies to enforce the laws that already exist. Efforts need to encompass every stage of production, from timber extraction to timber exportation. This will not only cut down on industry-related corruption, but it will help governments restore tax revenues that are lost from the black-market sale of timber, while denying criminal organization an easy method of trafficking their products.
The confluence of cocaine and illicit timber in the Amazon are linked by their profitability, industrial proximity, and smuggling convenience. The lack of regulatory enforcement in the timber industry provides opportunities for cocaine to benefit from the Amazon’s timber transports. Amazonian criminal groups undergo much effort to bring their products to their customers in Europe, whom are expected to demand even more of their products in the coming years. Unless efforts are made to curtail the demand for cocaine, there will continue to be a ready supply in the Amazon. While demand for timber is not nefarious, as it is for cocaine, effort does need to be concentrated on enforcing existing laws in the Amazon’s timber producing countries. Until policymakers in the Amazon region recognize how their weak timber regulatory enforcement is aiding the criminal groups, this confluence will persist.
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[iii] Bergenas, Green Terror
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[ix] Van Dunn, Cocaine Flows and the State in Peru’s Amazonian Borderlands
[x] Greenpeace. 2014. The Amazon's Silent Crisis. Sao Paulo: Greenpeace Brazil.
[xi] Williams, Phil. 2015. "Illicit Flows and Networks in the Atlantic Basin." Chap. 4 in Dark Networks in the Atlantic Basin, by Daniel S. Hamilton, 75-99. Washington DC: Center for Transatlantic Relations.
[xii] Greenpeace, The Amazon’s Silent Crisis
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[xiv] Greenpeace, The Amazon’s Silent Crisis
[xv] Contreras-Hermosilla, People, Governance and Forests
[xvii] Greenpeace, The Amazon’s Silent Crisis
[xviii] Bergenas, Green Terror
[xix] Greenpeace, The Amazon’s Silent Crisis
[xx] Contreras-Hermosilla, People, Governance and Forests
[xxi] Miraglia, Drugs and Drug Trafficking in Brazil
[xxii] Van Dunn, Cocaine Flows and the State in Peru’s Amazonian Borderlands
[xxiv] Miraglia, Drugs and Drug Trafficking in Brazil
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[xxvi] Miraglia, Drugs and Drug Trafficking in Brazil
[xxvii] Van Dunn, Cocaine Flows and the State in Peru’s Amazonian Borderlands
[xxviii] Bergenas, Green Terror
[xxix] Dana, Felipe, Brazil prison massacre exposes gruesome gang war over drugs.
[xxxi] Bergenas, Green Terror
[xxxii] Van Dunn, Cocaine Flows and the State in Peru’s Amazonian Borderlands
[xxxiv] Bergenas, Green Terror
[xxxv] Van Dunn, Cocaine Flows and the State in Peru’s Amazonian Borderlands
[xxxvi] Gaworecki, Mike. 2016. Interpol says corruption in global forestry sector worth $29 billion every year. December 9. Accessed March 12, 2017. https://news.mongabay.com/2016/12/interpol-says-corruption-in-global-forestry-sector-worth-29-billion-every-year/.
[xxxvii] Gaworecki, Mike, Interpol says corruption
[xxxviii] Contreras-Hermosilla, People, Governance and Forests
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[xl] Preston, Thomas. 2007. From Lambs to Lions. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc.
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[xliv] Preston, Thomas, From Lambs to Lions
[xlv] Wigell, Mikael, and Mauricio Romero. 2013. Transatlantic Drug Trade: Europe, Latin America and the need to strengthen anti-narcotics cooperation. Briefing Paper, The Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
[xlvi] Greenpeace, The Amazon’s Silent Crisis
[xlvii] Wigell, Mikael, and Mauricio Romero, Transatlantic Drug Trade
[xlviii] Greenpeace, The Amazon’s Silent Crisis
[xlix] European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction & Europol, EU Drug Markets
[l] Williams, Dark Networks in the Atlantic Basin
[li] Yagoub, Mimi. 2016. Spain and Morocco Bust Colombia Cocaine Trafficking Ring. December 7. Accessed March 12, 2017. http://www.insightcrime.org/news-briefs/spain-and-morocco-bust-colombian-cocaine-trafficking-ring.
[lii] Wigell, Mikael, and Mauricio Romero, Transatlantic Drug Trade
[liii] Rubino, Guilio, and Cecilia Anesi. 2017. How the Italian mafia found a Dutch home. March 27. Accessed April 3, 2017. https://euobserver.com/investigations/137328.
[liv] Ryan, George. 2017. Extra officers on atrol after further discoveries of drugs on beches in Norfolk and Suffolk. February 13. Accessed April 3, 2017. http://www.edp24.co.uk/news/crime/extra_officers_on_patrol_after_further_discoveries_of_drugs_on_beaches_in_norfolk_and_suffolk_1_4888731.
[lv] Williams, Dark Networks in the Atlantic Basin
[lvii] Hesterman, Jennifer. 2015. "Transnational Crime and Terror in the Pan-Atlantic: Understanding and Addressing the Growing Threat." Chap. 2 in Dark Networks in the Atlantic Basin, by Daniel S. Hamilton, 35-56. Washington DC: Center for Transatlantic Relations.
[lviii] Miraglia, Drugs and Drug Trafficking in Brazil
[lix] Gideon, Lior, and Hung-En Sung. 2011. Rethinking Corrections: Rehabilitation, Reentry, and Reintegration. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications Inc.
[lx] European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction & Europol, EU Drug Markets