Thursday 23 September 2021

Brazil: War against marijuana in the hinterlands

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Federal Police officers get ready to combat the Marijuana Polygon in the Brazilian Northeast. (Courtesy of the Federal Police of Pernambuco)
Federal Police officers get ready to combat the Marijuana Polygon in the Brazilian Northeast. (Courtesy of the Federal Police of Pernambuco)

TODAY BRAZIL – SALGUEIRO, Brazil – The Marijuana Polygon has many sides. Brazil’s Federal Police (PF), which gave the area its name, estimates that at least 15 municipalities between the northeastern state of Bahia and the geographic center of Pernambuco have marijuana plantations.

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About 10% of the marijuana consumed in Brazil comes from the Polygon, as well as the states of Paraíba, Maranhão, Amazonas and Pará, according to the PF.

“Paraguay, which is the largest producer of marijuana in South America, supplies the other 90%,” said the head of the Drug Enforcement Operations Division of the PF, Cassius Valentin Baldelli.

During the course of 16 years, more than 50 eradication operations have been carried out in the Marijuana Polygon. The PF estimates that 23 million plants have been destroyed, preventing 7,600 tons of marijuana from reaching users.

In calculations used by the drug trade, every three plants produce an average of a kilogram of marijuana.

Drug traffickers pay up to R$200 (US$84) a kilogram to the planters, said Cristiano de Oliveira Rocha, a federal police officer in Salgueiro, a city in the state of Pernambuco that’s in the cultivation area. In the major cities of the Brazilian Northeast, a kilogram of marijuana can be sold for R$500 (US$210) to R$700 (US$294).

“If the volume that has been eradicated were sold at R$500 (US$210) a kilogram, R$3.8 billion (US$1.59 billion) would have been injected into the drug-trafficking chain,” Rocha calculated.

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In 2013, eradication operations prevented 300 tons of marijuana from reaching the market, well above the 220.7 metric tons seized by the PF throughout the rest of the country during the same period. Yet, the numbers have been falling.

“From 2008 to 2010, nearly six million marijuana plants were destroyed in the sertão. Between 2011 and 2013, the figure fell to 2.5 million,” Baldelli said. “The reduction shows that the periodic operations have been effective.”

On the banks of the São Francisco River

Planting began in the Marijuana Polygon in the 1970s and intensified between 1990 and 2000. Rocha points out that cultivation is facilitated by locating crops along the banks of the São Francisco River.

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“The drought affecting the region discourages legal farming, while marijuana can be planted near the river, on land with no owners and a guaranteed source of water,” Rocha said.

The police stations in Salgueiro and Juazeiro (BA), which are the only two PF stations within the Polygon, determined criminals were paying farmers and unemployed local residents to care for the crops.

“Until the mid-2000s, there was a lot of violence because the gangs used the profits from the drug trade to buy weapons and rob banks in the region,” Rocha recalled.

Beginning in 2005, there was a decrease in the number of plants destroyed by the PF, which was associated with the dismantling of these gangs.

Many of the criminals who served as the link between the planters and the drug traffickers moved to other states or died in clashes with the police. But some residents of the Polygon continue to plant crops and have started selling directly to drug traffickers, Rocha said.

In December, the PF conducted a small, three-day operation in Orocó and along the coastal islands of the São Francisco River. The task force, dubbed Operation Gavião, brought together 30 officers from the PF and the Pernambuco Military Police’s (PM) Independent Company for Operations and Survival in the Caatinga (CIOSAC).

“Access to the location is difficult. As a result, we use helicopters to reach the forest areas, islands and ravines,” said Lt. Col. Isaac Pereira Guerra, commander of the 8th Battalion of the PM.

Police discovered that the crops are being located farther from the banks of the river, making them difficult to eradicate. Rocha also found that planters were using pipelines running through the sertão to ensure access to water.

The transposition of the São Francisco River to take water to areas where it’s scarce concerns Rocha.

“We’ve alerted the authorities to the risk of plantations in areas where they had not previously existed,” Rocha said.

To escape enforcement by the police, drug traffickers will often remove the marijuana plants before they obtain high concentrations of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana, making the quality of the drug less desirable, Rocha added.

This habit, together with the low levels of domestic supply, opened the market to Paraguayan marijuana. In 2013, the PF reported that 1.8 tons of the 2.5 tons of marijuana seized in Pernambuco came from Paraguay.

Police enforcement in the Marijuana Polygon has led drug traffickers to expand the area used for planting, said Marco Antonio Valle Agostini, an investigator with the PF’s Technical Scientific Unit in Juazeiro.

In January, 350 plants (116 kilograms) were destroyed in Barreiras, a Bahian city 577 kilometers from Juazeiro.

“Now, we need to cover larger areas, which increases the cost and time of the operations,” Agostini said.

Attention is also being paid to Pernambuco’s neighboring state of Paraíba. The Civil Police in Monteiro, a city 265 kilometers from the state capital of João Pessoa, recently identified marijuana plantations.

“During our first raid on Oct. 30, 2103, we were greeted with gunfire when we attempted to enter the estate. We went back 10 days later and found 2.2 tons of marijuana,” said Yuri Givago, an officer with the Special Tactical Group of the Civil Police, which is investigating slave labor on the estate and the connection with drug traffickers in the Polygon region.

Givago has determined that the estate’s owners live outside the state.

“I’m going to need the support and experience of the police from the Polygon to combat the planting going on here,” he said.

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