Hacking, wiretaps, slavery and money laundering: How agents and indigenous people busted a massive Bad Ag gang in Brazil
Until his arrest last year, one of the biggest forest destroyers in the history of the Amazon oversaw a large and sophisticated criminal network from his base in Sao Paulo’s upper class neighbourhood of Jardins. Wiretaps and field investigations by federal agents have exposed a sprawling operation making millions from agriculture, facilitated by hacking, satellite analysis and slave labour. This piece draws extensively on a profile of the case in Brazilian non-profit environmental news site ((o))eco.
In February 2014, more than 30 Kayapó, an indigenous people living in the Mekrãgnoti reservation in Brazil’s northern state of Para, travelled to Brasilia to denounce illegal deforestation in their lands to IBAMA, the federal environmental protection agency. The Kayapó were eligible to receive government funds as part of the deal that allowed the construction of a new highway through their land. Suspecting that the communities were clearing parts of the reserve, the government had withheld the funds.
After laying down their bows and arrows, the Kayapó explained to Luciano Evaristo, IBAMA’s Director of Environmental Protection, that the forest was in fact being cleared by outsiders in a large-scale operation. “The conversation was hard,” Luciano told ((o))eco. In April 2014, he travelled to the Mekrãgnoti. In the resulting enforcement operation, Operation Kayapó, IBAMA found 18 illegal logging camps within the reservation. Some 40 individuals were arrested, and an area of 14,000 hectares in which the gangs were operating were “embargoed” by IBAMA. It was, Luciano told ((o))eco, “the largest area ever found by IBAMA opened by a single environmental offender in the Amazon forest”.
During questioning of those arrested, one name kept coming up: Antônio José Junqueira Vilela Filho. The operation was the beginning of a two-year criminal investigation that would result in the unprecedented detention of a powerful crime boss alleged to have overseen a sprawling, sophisticated network, responsible for the illegal deforestation of vast areas of the Amazon to produce timber and beef.
Operation Flying River
Vilela Filho, also known as Jotinha, is the son of Antônio José Junqueira Vilela, owner of one of the biggest cattle ranching empires in Brazil. Members of the Junqueira Vilela family were often seen among Sao Paulo’s A-list, rubbing shoulders with politicians and celebrities.
The two-year federal investigation that followed Operation Kayapó culminated in the arrest of several of Jotinha’s alleged collaborators on 30 June 2016, during the so-called Operation Flying Rivers (Operação Rios Voadores). The Federal Police, Public Prosecutors Office and IBAMA executed dozens of arrest warrants and searches in towns and cities across five states. A statement released by the Ministério Público Federal (MPF) named Jotinha as the head of a network that systematically invaded forests, harvested and sold high-value timber, burned what remained and then planted grass for cattle. “To practice these crimes,” according to the statment, “the criminal organization used labor under conditions similar to those of slaves.” Plots of pasture grown on torched forestland were registered by Jotinha’s network in the name of proxies (referred to as “oranges”) and then used for ranching by the gang, or rented to third parties, according to the MPF. TheMPF alleged that the network had “moved” more than half-a-billion dollars between 2012 and 2015. The environmental impact of its activities was priced at US$120 million.
Following the operation, Jotinha himself remained a fugitive for a week until he handed himself in on 8 July, when he was placed in remand custody.
During the two year investigation leading up to Operation Flying Rivers, IBAMA and other agencies had intensified monitoring of the Mekrãgnoti reservation, installed wiretaps and employed judicial orders to investigate bank accounts. A few days after Operation Flying Rivers took place, a wiretap by the Federal Police revealed that Jotinha’s sister, Ana Luiza Junqueira Vilela Viacava, had been coordinating the destruction of evidence against her brother from the US. Ana Luiza was arrested when she landed in Brazil a few weeks later. Her sister, Ana Paula, and husband, Ricardo Viacava –from the Viacava family, also known in Brazil for its cattle ranching empire – were both arrested during Operation Flying Rivers, accused of participation in Jotinha’s criminal activities.
In addition to freezing US$125 million of Jotinha’s money, federal authorities have also frozen funds belonging to another 12 individuals and companies, including Ana Luiza and Ricardo Viacava, as well as the shell company Guatambu Agricultura e Pecuária S.A, which had its assets confiscated.
The modus operandi
The investigation that culminated in Operation Flying Rivers exposed operations, allegedly overseen by Jotinha, that were audacious in their breadth and sophistication. The scope of the crimes committed is hinted at by the range of offences with which Jotinha and other members of the network have been charged: illegal deforestation, land grabbing, falsification of property titles to claim private ownership of land in protected areas, conspiracy to commit crime, money laundering and slave labour. By the time of their arrest in June and July 2016, Jotinha and his partners had illegally deforested some 30,000 hectares in Para for cattle ranching and soy and rice cultivation, mostly located alongside the motorway BR-163 – which borders Mekrãgnoti. The same deforestation that had in the first place prompted the government to retain federal funds owed to the Kayapó.
According to ((o))eco, the gang was organised into clearly-defined cells, each responsible for a particular type of operation. The so-called gatos (cats) were responsible for recruiting workers to log forested areas. Logging camps were run by dedicated cells (núcleos de desmatadores) always composed of ten people – one cook, one person responsible for repairing the chainsaws and eight chainsaw operators. They worked in degrading conditions, with no days off and the threat that, if they were caught by IBAMA, they would get no pay.
These gangs were responsible for logging high-value species, torching the forest and planting grass. Following Operation Kayapó, grass cultivation was often done through aerial dissemination due to the intensified presence of law enforcement on the ground.
“The interesting thing about this case is that since there was a lot of money available for the operation, deforestation happened very fast,” Higor Pessoa, of the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office in Pará, told ((o))eco. “It was a well-organized program, to be done in the least amount of time possible and avoid environmental oversight.”
In Sao Paulo, shell companies financed the deforestation or offered credit to cattle ranchers who leased or bought land from the group. Sociedade Comercial AJJ was the largest of these companies. Jotinha’s sisters, Ana Luiza and Ana Paula, were allegedly responsible for managing these companies’ funds. The two sisters also received payments amounting to US$5 million made by companies buying Vilela Filho’s beef, which are alleged to include some of Brazil’s leading beef exporters.
The gang reportedly also sought to hide their activities from the satellite monitoring systems employed by IBAMA, and used IT and GIS professionals to hack government land registry databases so that its illegal operations were less likely to be spotted by enforcement officials. ((o))eco names several individuals connected to Jotinha’s operations, who facilitated various aspects of the operation. Eremilton Lima da Silva, aka Marabá (one of the so-called “cats”), received US$50 million on behalf of his wife, Laura Rosa Rodrigues de Souza; the brothers Jerônimo Braz Garcia and Bruno Garcia, partners in the company Jerônimo Máquinas, received US$150,000 for a “cleaning service”; Eleotério Garcia, aka Panquinha, helped run “beef laundering” practices, to make beef from Jotinha’s farms appear to be from legitimate operations. Some employees at the meat processing company Redentor were issued arrest warrants over their involvement in buying illegal beef from Jotinha’s farms. All these individuals were arrested during Flying Rivers.
In late August 2016, IBAMA – again spurred to action by complaints made by the Kayapó – carried out Operation Free Curuá (Operação Curuá Livre) to detect illegal mining in Para. A central aim of the operation was to revisit the areas previously deforested by Jotinha, where its activities had been shut down by the environmental agency. Prior to the operation, IBAMA had suspected that some of Jotinha’s farms might still be operational.
IBAMA agents visited four areas attributed to Jotinha and, in spite of the spate of arrests and embargoes, found illegal activities in all of them: recent signs of fires, fences, roads, pasture, 800 heads of cattle, chainsaws, ammunition, and people working there.
Investigations have recently uncovered further evidence against the criminal network. On 9th August 2016, a judge in Sao Paulo issued a new arrest warrant for Jotinha (who at the time had already been in jail for a month) to be placed under remand custody due to new evidence that in May 2015 a group that he led tried to assassinate the landless peasant Dezuíta Assis Ribeiro Chagas in Sao Paulo state. The case had been dismissed due to lack of evidence, but the new arrest warrant was made possible by fresh evidence that emerged following Operation Flying Rivers.
In October, Jotinha and ten other individuals were indicted for illegal deforestation and land grabbing in a farm in Para. They have been charged with violations of labour legislation, imposition of slave-like conditions on workers, environmental crimes and invasion of public federal lands. The area had been seized by IBAMA in 2013 due to illegal deforestation. But Jotinha allegedly split the farm in two, selling one part and putting the other under the name of a proxy, or “orange”. In 2015 IBAMA found camps with slave-like working conditions on the farm.
Others indicted include Ana Luiza, Ana Paula and Ricardo Viacava, who were Jotinha’s partners in the farm and are accused of receiving US$1.5 million in payments related to irregular real estate deals and the sale of illegal beef.
Press reports have highlighted the fact that authorities are still working to uncover further shell companies involved in Jotinha’s activities, as well as the extent to which Amaggi, Bom Futuro and JBS are responsible for sourcing illegal beef from the criminal network.
Jotinha at large again
In October last year, Jotinha was released from the Tremembé penitentiary in Sao Paulo – where he had been in remand custody since his arrest in early July – thanks to a successful habeas corpus petition made by his defence. However, he may be soon behind bars again. On 2nd December, a federal prosecutor in Para requested a federal court to issue a new warrant for his arrest. The prosecutor has made fresh accusations of money laundering, forgery, active and passive corruption, and illegal deforestation of public lands against Jotinha and 23 other individuals.
((o))eco has claimed that impunity was one a critical factor enabling Jotinha to continue operating. According to the news portal, his father was responsible for large-scale illegal deforestation but was never brought to justice. In the 1970s, he was one of the pioneer cattle ranchers who made fortunes in the new agricultural frontier of Mato Grosso. ((o))eco says that cattle ranching was in Jotinha’s blood. He knew how to “launder the beef”, making it appear to be from regular ranches.
“It’s a cultural issue,” Higor Pessoa, the Prosecutor from Para, told ((o))eco. “Vilela Filho’s father was a great deforest and nothing ever happened to him. But they were other times.”
Last month (19th December) the MPF named another suspect in the case: an IBAMA agent. According to a detailed press release, Waldivino Gomes Silva, the director for the agency in the Mato Grosso city of Sinop, had tipped-off Jotinha’s network about impending inspections. After tractors, chains and fuels had been seized in busts, Waldino Silva allegedly returned it to the gang, only for it to be seized again in later enforcement operations. His role in the network was first discovered during the execution of a search warrant, that turned up a bank deposit made to his wife.
In a hint at the scope of the charges still to be brought under the investigation, MPF says that it will release three more press releases detailing aspects of its case against Jotinha’s gang.
According to ((o))eco, this case is unique due to Jotinha’s arrest and the serious, concerted and continual effort by IBAMA, the Federal Police and prosecutors to dismantle his entire criminal network. In an interview with ((o))eco, Luciano Evaristo said that “José Junqueira Vilela Filho’s criminal empire, despite him having been arrested, is still up and running. IBAMA, its partners and the indigenous people affected [by Jotinha’s activities] will [continue to work to] destroy Mr. José Junqueira Vilela Filho’s criminal empire”.
“Illegal Deforestation Monitor (IDM) monitors illegalities relating to conversion of forests for export-oriented agribusiness, the largest driver of global deforestation. It brings together news on illegal deforestation from around the world, from the Amazon to Southeast Asia, and combines it with new in-depth analysis of individual cases and expert commentary on the problem and the response of companies and governments.”