Inside the Fedex of Marching Powder: “The Mules of the Rio Solimões”

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Flowing into the biggest muddy of them all: The Solimões meets the Rio Negro, “seen from space.” Source: Wikipedia. Where did Wikipedia get it? Doesn’t seem to feel the need to tell you.

A Tarde (Salvador, Bahia) reports today: “Brazilian feds say drug traffic rules the mighty Amazon.”

A Tarde seems like an awfully decent paper. Goes places, finds stuff out there, and gives it to you straight, no chaser or Rohypnol.

Unlike a lot of crude Brazilian “perp walk” journalism — all the major TV networks practice it sadistically in spades — it does not humiliate or prejudge the criminal suspects, exploiting their image, identity or the pathetic encrenca they find themselves in.

Tabatinga (AM) – Todos os meses, pelo menos 10 pessoas são presas pela Polícia Federal (PF) em Tabatinga (AM) levando pequenas cargas de cocaína pelo Rio Solimões. Com a droga dentro de bagagens, no interior de objetos ou amarradas com fita adesiva junto ao corpo, os “mulas” buscam a sorte no varejo do tráfico, tentando passar a salvo das barreiras policiais ao longo do caminho até Manaus e outras capitais.

Dateline Tabatinga, Amapá: Every month, at least ten persons are arrested by the federal police here carrying small shipments of cocaine along the Solimões river. With the drug hidden in their baggage inside objects or taped to their bodies, the “mules” are trying their luck in the retail drug trade, trying to get past police barriers set up along the roads to Manaus and other regional cities.

Se forem bem sucedidos, podem ganhar de R$ 1,5 mil a R$ 3 mil, dependendo da quantidade levada e do destino final. Mas quando são pegos, seguem para a delegacia da PF, onde são ouvidos, e depois vão para o presídio de Tabatinga, local de moradia pelos próximos três anos ou mais, onde 213 pessoas cumprem pena – 90% por tráfico.

If they succeed, they might make R$1,500 to R$3,000, depending on the quantity and the final destination. But when caught, off they go to the PF, where they are questioned, and then on to the Tabatinga prison for three years or more. There are 213 prisoners there, 90% of them in for trafficking.

Neste sábado (21), dois mulas foram presos pelos policiais federais da Operação Cobra, na Base Anzol, o último e mais temido posto da PF no Solimões, onde todas as embarcações são obrigadas a parar e são revistadas. Uma mulher que havia saído de São Luís (MA) e chegado a Tabatinga de avião levava três quilos de cocaína atadas ao corpo.

On Saturday, March 21, two mules were arrested during Operation Cobra, in Base Anzol, the latest and most feared federal outpost along the Solimôes, where all vessels have to stop and submit to a search. A woman traveling from São Luis in Maranhão who arrived in Tabatinga by air has three kilos of cocaine taped to her body.

Aos 28 anos de idade, bonita e bem vestida, ela poderia não despertar a suspeita dos policiais, mas começou a passar mal, devido ao excesso de aperto da droga junto ao peito, e acabou presa. Na delegacia, disse que era sua primeira viagem e ficou aos prantos, quando deu a notícia por telefone à família.

At 28, pretty and well dressed, she might not have aroused suspicion, but she started to feel unwell because the drugs were squeezing her chest too tightly, and wound up arrested. At the federal precinct, she said this was her first trip and started wailing when she informed her family by phone.

“Se eu pensasse que isso poderia ter acontecido na minha vida, jamais teria entrado nessa. Só entrei pelo dinheiro e porque pensei que seria fácil. Eu precisava terminar a minha casa”, desabafou ela, que é casada e tem uma filha de quatro anos. Pelo serviço, ganharia R$ 3 mil para levar a droga até São Luís.

“If I had thought this could happen in my life, I would never have gotten into it. I only got into it for the money and because I thought it would be easy. I needed to finish building my house,” [blurts] the woman, who is married and has a daughter, 4. She was to get R$3,000 to take the drugs back to the capital city of Maranhão.

I am guessing that is something like a 5% commission on the uncut wholesale price. Maybe less. Just a very rough guess, cannot remember where I saw the numbers on this.

Welcome to the land where risk transfer is an extreme sport.

No mesmo barco, foi pego outro “mula”. Morador de Tabatinga, 21 anos de idade, estudou até a quarta série e trabalhava como mototaxista na cidade. É sua primeira prisão. Levava 1,125 kg de cocaína atado nas pernas e nas coxas. Moreno, estatura média, conta que é descendente de índios kokama e que não tinha nenhum plano específico sobre o que fazer com os R$ 1,5 mil que ganharia para transportar a cocaína até Manaus.

Another mule was captured on the same boat. The Tabatinga resident, 21, attended school through the fourth grade and works at a motorcycle taxi service in the city. It is his first arrest. He was carrying 1.125 kg of cocaine taped to his legs and thighs. Dark, of medium stature, he says he is descended from Kokama Indians and had no specific plans for the R$1,500 he was to earn for transporting the coke to Manaus.

“A situação não estava boa. O trabalho está difícil. Então resolvi fazer esse negócio”, disse ele, na delegacia, enquanto esperava algemado para ser ouvido. “Na hora vale a pena, mas agora vejo que não vale. Estou arrependido, não quero esta vida mais não”, afirmou ele, irmão mais velho de um total de seis.

“It was not a good situation. Work was hard. So I decided to do this deal,” he said at the PF precinct, waiting, handcuffed, to have his statement taken. “It was worth it at the time, but now I see it wasn’t. I am repentant, I don’t want this life any more,” said the man, the oldest of six brothers.

A família mora em uma casa simples, onde só se chega depois de passar por ruas esburacadas e cobertas de lama. Ao saber da prisão, a mãe não demonstrou surpresa. “Já me falaram que tinha uns colegas dele chamando para viajar, para levar bagagem. Ele me perguntou e eu disse não. Mas ele não quer ouvir, prefere o conselho dos amigos. Então é isso o que acontece.”

The family lives in a simple home that can only be reached by traveling along potholed streets covered in mud. Learning of his arrest, the man’s mother did not seem surprised. “They told me he had some buddies of his trying to get him to travel, to carry weight. He asked me and I said no. But he wouldn’t listen, he preferred to listen to his friends. So this is what happens.”

Boys, this may sound like a cliché, but you really probably should listen to your mother.

A mulher contou que recebia o auxílio do Bolsa Família referente a três dos filhos que freqüentam a escola, mas que o benefício foi suspenso, sem nenhuma explicação. Atualmente, sobrevive da venda de curitis (picolés caseiros) de frutas. “Agora, com o filho preso, complica ainda mais para mim.”

The woman said he received the federal Bolsa Familia subsidy for her three school-age children, but that the benefit was suspended without explanation. Currently, she survives selling homemade fruit popsicles. “Now, with my son in jail, this makes things even harder for me.”

The Bolsa program recently expanded to cover kids up to 17, I think.

School attendance is compulsory. The program is often criticized as “populist electioneering,” and news articles often suggest it it rotten with waste, fraud and abuse.

Generally waved around by politicians from states that seem to make the news a lot over cases of “working conditions analogous to slavery.”

And who tend to orate finger-waggingly to the effect that the crackdown on organized criminals who funded their campaigns is a Communist coup d’etat of some sort.

These people are something else. You can argue all you want over the economics of privatization and the “burden the State poses to the market” — and get a sympathetic hearing from me. These questions are thorny. I do not have the answers.

But these people are positively freaking medieval.
The carvoeiros of the region, who do the drudge work of felling the mata and making BBQ charcoal out of it — an eerie site, those beehive-shaped ovens smoking away like little quilombos in the vastness — also cite lack of economic options.

Also an illegal business.

Also being tackled with a fair amount of oomph by the federal police now, especially in Pará. Stay tuned. That situation is already getting interesting.

Ela culpou a falta de trabalho em Tabatinga pelo grande número de jovens envolvidos com as drogas. “Eles não têm emprego. Aí aparece uma ocasião dessas e, quem é meio bobo, vai. Muitas vezes dá certo. Muitas vezes não.”

She blames the lack of work in Tabatinga for the large number of young people involved in drugs. “They have no work. So this comes up and the kind of dumb ones go for it. A lot of times, it works out. A lot of times, it doesn’t.”

E mesmo para os “mulas” que não são presos, o ganho com o tráfico acaba não valendo a pena. O mototaxista que levou nossa reportagem até a casa do garoto contou, com naturalidade, que também já havia feito o transporte de oito quilos de cocaína para Belém (PA), há cerca de quatro anos, mas que praticamente nada sobrou dos R$ 3 mil que ganhou. “Com o dinheiro, eu comprei roupas, um aparelho de som e fiz uma casinha de quatro por cinco, mas como não tinha emprego, vendi e fui morar em outro lugar. O meu dinheiro acabou em nada.”

The same goes for the “mules” that escape arrest. What they earn from trafficking is not worth the trouble in the end. The mototaxi man who took us to the young man’s house told us, frankly, that he himself had transported 8 kg to Belém some four years ago, but that hardly anything was left of the R$3,000 he earned. “With that money, I bought clothes, a stereo, and built a little 4m by 5m house, but since I was out of work, I sold it and went to live elsewhere. My money went nowhere.”

Para o delegado federal em Tabatinga Giovanni Vicente Fontes Lopes, os “mulas” são apenas a parte aparente de um grande esquema criminoso. “O ‘mula’ pode ser classificado como a pessoa que é a ponta do iceberg. Ele se forma dependendo da situação social do país, e na cidade de Tabatinga, especificamente, por falta de opção. Talvez seja necessário que se dê mais atenção a esse tipo de ocorrência que vem acontecendo aqui freqüentemente. É um problema social.”

Tabantinga federal police commander Fontes Lopes says the mules are just the visible part of a big criminal enterprise. “The ‘mule’ is the tip of the iceberg. The ‘mule’ is created by the social situation of Brazil, and here, specifically, by lack of options. It may be necessary to pay more attention to this type of case, which is happening more and more often. It is a social problem.”

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