Midnight Run with the Garimpeiros

To reach a clandestine gold mine in the eastern half of French Guiana, I paid a Brazilian blackmarket transporter named Rise about $250 to take me several hours upriver to a place called Ilha Bela. Built on a constellation of islands in the middle of the Oiapoque River, which forms French Guiana's border with Brazil, Ilha Bela had become a somewhat notorious staging area for garimpeiros heading upriver to the gold mines. Speeding there in a leaky pirogue piloted by a pot-bellied Brazilian in a black trucker hat, we first portaged around a massive barrier of rocks and rapids and then dodged a French gendarme outpost. Further on, we encountered a riverside checkpoint of Brazilian soldiers carrying Imbel MD-97 assault rifles who waved us to shore. They questioned us briefly and we continued on. The river was wide and brown and the sun punishingly hot. Grey rocks glistened like dolphin's heads in the water and we barreled through Class III and IV rapids. Wrecked pirogues littered the shore and we passed several boats filled with Brazilian men heading upriver.

"People are crazy for this business right now," Rise told me. When I asked him why, he replied, "For the gold, the money."

Rise was right. To the west, Suriname's jungle is virtually unpoliced and miners moved in and out of French Guiana more or less at will. It was also considerably more violent. Although a flotilla of garimpeiros had attacked a squad of gendarmes on this river the previous week, the majority of violent encounters were now happening around the border with Suriname. Jean Bena, a notoriously vicious boss who operated a gold mining fiefdom in French Guiana during the 1990s and protected it with veterans of Suriname's civil war called the Jungle Commandos, still lived on a compound on the Maroni River, the border between Suriname and French Guiana. In 2001, Bena's security chief was accused of torturing two Brazilians, shooting both in the legs, and leaving them tied to a tree in the forest. Both men claimed Bena had taken their passports and forced them to mine gold. In 2003, displeased with unfavorable coverage, Bena also attacked a local journalist in front of a courthouse in Cayenne. He had been quiet since then, but many suspected he was still connected to the gold business. I attempted to arrange an interview with Bena through his lawyer but he was somewhere in the jungle and could not be reached on his satellite phone.

After five hours, we rounded a bend in the river and reached Ilha Bela. Pastel-colored cottages and cantinas lined the shore. Ragged dogs with mottled coats and accordioned ribs trotted across the sand. The settlement resembled nothing so much as a ramshackle beach resort--one that had been built inside Tumucumaque Park, Brazil's largest protected tropical park at 9.5-million acres--and its existence was testament to the profitability of stealing French gold and the Brazilian government's willingness to do little about it. The Brazilian Army had raided the islands in 2009, seizing a diesel generator large enough that it required airlifting and whose owner reportedly had been charging between 1 and 2.5 grams of gold per week to supply electricity to each home. Now, however, I could hear the loud rumble of several generators and Ilha Bela had a fluctuating population of at least several hundred residents.

On the beach, an older man walked down to greet us. His name was Domingos and I had arranged to meet him from the dusty Brazilian border town of Oiapoque. Domingos was a short man in his early fifties with a belly like a small kettle drum and eyeglasses lashed to his head with a rubber strap. He was a cantineiro, running a small shop on the island that supplied garimpeiros. In his store, a set of scales sat on the counter and everything from rice and beans to motor oil was paid for with gold. If a miner needed a bar of soap, it would cost about 1/10 of a gram of gold--expensive, but not as expensive as supplies hauled deeper into the jungle on four-wheel ATVs and the backs of petroleros. Domingos was also one of Ilha Bela's first inhabitants--he'd set up shop in the late nineties--and as such was well respected. Garimpeiros are notoriously wary of outsiders, some violently so. Because of recent gendarme raids, they were even more apprehensive than usual. Several people had told me that Domingos might help assure safe passage to the gold mines in French Guiana.

"We're not criminals," Domingos told me as we sat drinking sweet black coffee in the kitchen of his small cabin. There was a large black dog tied up out front and a picture of Jesus at the last supper hung on one wall. A Brazilian telenovella blaring from a television in the next room. "My business stops at the front of my door. I don't sell directly to the miners." This was technically true, but considerably myopic.

A few hours later, Domingos helped us arrange a trip upriver with a young Brazilian blackmarket transporter named Junior. Initially, we had been approached by a man in blue shorts who offered to take us upriver for €500, an exorbitantly high sum for the journey. Then another Brazilian man, this one wearing red shorts, offered to transport us for €400. After a few minutes of deliberation between the two, though, the man in the red shorts walked over and said us he could no longer take us because the motor on his boat was broken. It was not true, of course. The man in the red shorts was connected to the man in the blue shorts--they likely did business together, or perhaps had bosses that did business together--and reluctant to upset their relationship for a few hundred euros. Junior was younger than both, ambitious, and willing to take us that night for €340.

It was 2:30 a.m. when we climbed into the rickety pirogue with Junior and an older man named Francis. Junior stood in the stern and piloted us out into the inky black water. It was dark except for a spotlight hooked to a car battery that threw a weak cone of yellow light several feet ahead of the boat. The pirogue was loaded with supplies: jerry cans of diesel fuel, sacks of rice, machine parts. Above us, the sky was flecked with stars. Crickets thrummed in the jungle. Francis, whose job it was to watch for things that could sink the boat, sat mostly inert and useless in the bow while Junior steered around jagged rocks and floating tree trunks thick as ships' masts. Soon, we turned into a small creek running into the river on our starboard side. Someone standing in the trees signaled Junior with a flashlight. We nosed into a tiny tributary and then pulled in behind five other pirogues. Soon, four more boats pulled in behind us. Each carried several garimpeiros and each was loaded to the waterline with thousands of pounds of frozen meat, mechanical parts, hoses, and blue 50-kilo cans of diesel fuel. It was a supply convoy, running at night to avoid detection from gendarmes, and all of it was heading upriver to the gold mines deep in French Guiana's jungle.