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- Land grabbing and illegal ranching (even on public lands) has long been, and still is, big business in the Brazilian Amazon. Last year the Brazilian government launched its most ambitious crackdown ever. And some of the criminals caught up in the federal police net were members of Brazil’s richest families.
- In June 2016, federal law enforcement pounced on a gang of land thieves. Antônio José Junqueira Vilela Filho, known as AJ Vilela, and Ricardo Caldeira Viacava, among others, were charged with clearing public lands — 300 square kilometers (74,132 acres) of forest, in total — an area 5 times larger than Manhattan, and of using slave labor to do it.
- One of the gang’s innovations was to use sophisticated technology to work out just how much forest they could clear without being detected by monitoring satellites. Unfortunately for the offenders, they were spotted by Kayapó Indians who had their own sophisticated monitoring system (called radio!); they reported the crime to federal police.
- But by October 2016, AJ Vilela was out of jail and awaiting trial. And unofficial reports from Pará state, gathered there by Mongabay in November, say that the gang is carrying on as before, illegally raising cattle on the public lands they illegally deforested. Question: why hasn’t the land been reclaimed by the government?
The Tapajós River Basin lies at the heart of the Amazon, and at the heart of an exploding controversy: whether to build 40+ large dams, a railway, and highways, turning the Basin into a vast industrialized commodities export corridor; or to curb this development impulse and conserve one of the most biologically and culturally rich regions on the planet.
Those struggling to shape the Basin’s fate hold conflicting opinions, but because the Tapajós is an isolated region, few of these views get aired in the media. Journalist Sue Branford and social scientist Mauricio Torres travelled there recently for Mongabay, and over coming weeks hope to shed some light on the heated debate that will shape the future of the Amazon. This is the tenth of their reports.
Every month, a group of wealthy women representing some of Brazil’s most exclusive and powerful land-owning families, meets in São Paulo at the Brazilian Rural Society. One of the leading lights of the 23 “ladies of agribusiness,” as they’re known, was a glamorous socialite named Ana Luiza Junqueira Vilela Viacava, who often featured in Brazil’s Vogue magazine. In 2012, she declared: “I like land and the security it gives me for the future.”
In July 2016, Ana Luiza was arrested and charged with land grabbing. An unflattering picture of her startled face, taken by the police after her detention, appeared in the national press.
She was charged as part of the Flying Rivers Operation (Operação Rios Voadores), a well-planned, well-coordinated law enforcement action launched on June 30, 2016 by several arms of the Brazilian government. Its objective: to dismantle a powerful gang of land thieves who had illegally occupied and deforested huge tracts of public land near Castelo de Sonhos, a town on Brazil’s BR-163 highway in Pará state.
Heading the gang of Amazon land grabbers was Ana Luiza’s brother, 39-year-old Antônio José Junqueira Vilela Filho, known as AJ Vilela, or Jotinha. The gang’s number two was Anna Luiza’s husband, Ricardo Caldeira Viacava.
The band had been operating for years and had illegally cleared 300 square kilometers (74,132 acres) of forest, an area 5 times larger than New York’s Manhattan island. It was all public land.
This made AJ Vilela “the largest individual clearer of land in the Amazon, since the monitoring of deforestation began,” according to Juan Doblas, one of the authors of a recently published book about land grabbing and deforestation called “Dono é quem desmata” (which translates inelegantly as “the owner is the person who clears the land”).
It took two years of careful investigation to bring the Flying Rivers Operation to fruition. It mobilized 95 federal police, 15 tax experts and 32 employees from IBAMA, Brazil’s federal environment agency. Authorization was given to tap phones and hack into bank accounts, and the operation was launched last June with the issuance of 24 federal arrest warrants.
At first, Ana Luiza was only required to give a police statement — an order not enforced as she was on vacation in the U.S. However, in the days following the initial bust, police wiretaps showed that, she was making calls from outside the country, urging people in Brazil to destroy or hide evidence that could incriminate her still at large brother, already imprisoned husband, and other gang members.
When she landed in Guarulhos Airport in São Paulo on July 4, 2016, she was arrested. A few days later, her brother, who had gone into hiding, gave himself up.
A life of privilege
AJ Vilela and Ana Luíza are the offspring of Antônio José Rossi Junqueira Vilela, known as AJJ, a prominent, wealthy cattle rancher whose achievements as a breeder of Nelore cattle have long been praised in the nation’s agribusiness media. One influential magazine acclaimed him as “a model of success from whom large and small ranchers can learn lessons.”
AJJ saw to it that his children achieved celebrity status, with photos of AJ Vilela and Ana Luíza often appearing in Brazil’s most exclusive social columns — posing, smiling, at private art exhibit openings and exclusive fashion shows, rubbing shoulders with the elite. A highpoint of 2013’s social calendar, for example, was an extravaganza celebrating AJ Vilela’s 35th birthday at his luxury home in Jardim Europa, one of São Paulo’s most exclusive neighborhoods.
In 2010, AJ Vilela travelled to the tiny Caribbean island of Saint Barths to marry Ana Khoury, a fashionable Brazilian jewelry designer whose work adorns Madonna and other celebrities. On her website, Ana Khorury attests to only using Fair Trade gold in her work, of buying from mines “run according to exacting social, economic and environmental regulations that protect workers, their families and entire communities,” and of not contributing “to abuse through conflict, enslavement and child labor.”
Most of her international customers almost certainly have no idea that her former husband — they separated in 2012 — was illegally clearing land as far back as 2010 in the Amazon, and illegally appropriating and deforesting public lands to create cattle pasture as recently as 2016, while keeping workers in conditions analogous to slavery.
Nor would they likely be aware that the wealth boasted by family patriarch AJ Vilela arose from unsavory business activities conducted near the impoverished, remote Amazonian town of Castelo dos Sonhos, a world away from the rich, well-connected surroundings of São Paulo’s Jardim Europa.
AJJ, the fortune hunter
To unravel and understand AJ Vilela’s criminal history, we need to look back at the life of his father, Antônio José Rossi Junqueira Vilela, known simply as AJJ.
AJJ, as with many other self-made men in the Amazon, got his big break in Mato Grosso state in 1967 when, at the age of 20, he procured 10,000 hectares (24,710 acres) from the Brazilian authorities, which were eager to push out indigenous and traditional peoples and repopulate the Amazon with new settlers. In that then remote and wild, forested region, AJJ “set out to achieve his dream of becoming a great and respected cattle raiser”.
On the way to achieving this dream, he worked for a time in the state of Rondônia in the Southwestern Amazon basin, where he took over the Yvypytã Ranch. There, his name became associated with some gruesome events, though charges were never filed: in 1983 he was accused of ordering the killing of miners panning for gold on his land; and in 1986, he was alleged to have been involved in an attempt to wipe out a group of isolated Indians, also living on his land, by poisoning them with sugar laced with arsenic.
Back in Mato Grosso, AJJ became “great and respected,” though he openly boasted that in his early days as a rancher, he carried out extensive deforestation: “I bought a lot of land in Mato Grosso, when land was still cheap. I paid a symbolic amount. Something like a dollar a hectare. So I bought large areas, opened ranches and then sold them on. During this period, I had as much as 200,000 hectares [494,210 acres]. ”
He didn’t only deforest his own land. Eventually he was fined R$60 million (US$20 million) for clearing land within the Cristalino State Park, then the highest penalty ever charged by the Mato Grosso state government for such a crime.
But AJJ never paid the fine. More remarkably perhaps, he still received public funding to build two small hydroelectric plants inside the park, with money coming from the FDA, Amazon Development Fund (about R$60 million; US$19 million); BNDES, the National Economic and Social Development Bank (R$10 million; US$3 million); and Banco da Amazônia (about R$ 9.9 million; US$3 million). All this despite reports of irregularities in permits granted for the work — including the most obvious, the concession of a license for a hydroelectric dam within a conservation unit.
The case was reviewed by the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry into small-scale hydro-projects in the Mato Grosso Legislative Assembly, because accusations had been made that the project licenses were obtained using false documents. It was reported at that time that AJJ was an important backer of the former governor of Mato Grosso, Blairo Maggi, and that the licenses had been granted as part of a political deal. Today, Blairo Maggi is Brazil’s agriculture minister.
The construction work on the dams was halted, but AJJ’s cattle went on grazing inside the park, despite the lawsuits and the fines. Impunity was then rife in the region but, even so, AJJ had a special knack for living safely outside the law.
Like father, like son
AJ Vilela appears to have begun his illegal deforestation activities in Pará in 2010 and 2011. IBAMA soon became aware of his clear cutting, and imposed heavy fines and banned any further economic activity on the cleared lands.
AJ Vilela followed in his father’s footsteps, and even outdid him; today he holds the record for the largest fines ever imposed on an individual by IBAMA for environmental crimes: R$332,765,736.50 (US$111 million).
He followed his father’s example in another way, and simply ignored the fines. Not that they would have bankrupted him: they amounted to not even a fifth of the R$1.9 billion (US$600 million) that passed through his bank accounts between 2012 and 2015, according to the Federal Public Ministry (MPF), Brazil’s independent public prosecutors.
Few in Brazil are surprised by his failure to pay: “Have you ever heard of organized crime paying its fines?” responded Luciano Evaristo, IBAMA’s head of environmental protection, when asked whether AJ Vilela had ever paid any of the huge penalties imposed on him.
So, like the father again, the son shrugged off the setbacks, opened new pastures, put cattle on them and went on clearing rainforest. When he was finally arrested in the Flying Rivers Operation, more than four years after beginning his illegal activities — and after making it clear that he had no intention of stopping — he had cleared forest covering 300 square kilometers (74,132 acres).
Environmental and social costs
AJ Vilela and his illegal activities left a swath of environmental and social damage. Throughout our journey to the Amazon basin last November, people spoke to us of the violence that he and his gunmen have used to impose their rule of terror in the region and of the failure of the authorities for many years to hold the gang to account.
Many farmers, from small landowners to peasant families, spoke of the way people had been violently — and illegally — evicted from their land. One peasant farmer, who wanted to speak off the record for understandable reasons, told us: “The man who was farming this land before was kicked off by brute force. It was the Vilelas who did it. They used bullets. Anyone who returned was killed. So people are very frightened of the Vilelas, You just have to say the name Vilela and people tremble, they shiver. Because they’re barbaric”.
On one occasion AJ Vilela was taken to court for attempted murder. He and his henchmen were accused of ambushing and firing on a rural landless worker, Dezuíta Assis Ribeiro Chagas, who was taking part in a peaceful occupation near a farm belonging to the Vilela family in Pontal do Paranapanema.
According to press reports,, “the Federal Police recorded a conversation in which AJ Vilela’s lawyer ordered him to get rid of weapons used in the crime.” This is part of the transcript:
Lawyer: They [AJ Vilela’s gunmen] may be called in for questioning or even arrested.
AJ Vilela: Okay.
Lawyer: And make sure to get rid of the tools [the Federal Police term for weapons].
Mongabay has learned that the case, which had been put on hold due to lack of evidence, was recently reopened.
Map showing the Baú indigenous lands and some of the illegally cleared forest areas, which remain officially embargoed. Locals told Mongabay last November that the gang continues to raise cattle on the land. Map: Mauricio Torres
Slavery in the Amazon
In addition to accusations of land theft and deforestation, AJ Vilela and his brother-in-law, Ricardo Caldeira Viacava, have been accused of utilizing slave labor and violating labor legislation.
Viacava — Ana Luíza’s husband — likewise comes from a wealthy São Paulo family that made its fortune in ranching. His father, Carlos Viacava, was Minister of Finance during the military government of General João Baptista Figueiredo and owns large ranches. A former president of the Association of Nelore Breeders of Brazil, he was chosen by Dinheiro Rural magazine as one of the 100 most influential personalities in agribusiness for 2016.
IBAMA launched a separate action at the same time as the Flying Rivers Operation. That investigation ended with AJ Vilela and Ricardo Viacava being accused of holding laborers, employed to clear forest, in conditions “analogous to slavery.” According to charges filed by the MPF, the workers “began to clear forest at 4.30am and only stopped work at 5:30 pm,” and were “subjected to gruelling working hours.”
Interestingly, the two men were not caught due to the federal government’s sophisticated surveillance of illegal logging in the Amazon, using “real time” geo-monitoring, but by the Kayapó Indians, an Amazonian indigenous group that has developed their own even more effective — if somewhat less high-tech — system for monitoring goings on in their territory.
Outwitting satellite images, but not Indians
Satellite images can, by their nature, only record harm done to a forest after it has occurred. Remote sensing only detects changes in vegetation cover after a forest has been felled and when bare ground has been revealed. Then alerts are triggered and an inspection team is sent into the field to confirm the devastation. But by then, the trees have already been cut and there is rarely any sign of the slave labor often employed to do the logging.
In 2014, a gang headed by AJ Vilela started clearing an area of 14,000 hectares (34,595 acres) on the border of the Baú Indigenous Territory, which belongs to the Kayapó Indians. His gang organized 20 camps, each with 10 workers, distributed across the area.
They ran a technologically-savvy operation, calculated to avoid the prying eyes of satellites. Chainsaw operators felled the understory and some big trees, but left untouched just the right number of large trees to keep the canopy cover intact, so that the satellites failed to spot bare ground.
AJ Vilela — both a sophisticated entrepreneur and criminal — had hired geo-monitoring whizz kids to inform his overseers in the field precisely how many trees they could safely fell without their work being captured by the satellites. “In this way, the system did not emit deforestation alerts and, without alerts, there was no reason to go to the area,” explained Evaristo.
When understory clearing was complete, the remaining large trees could then be felled. Only then would the damage be seen by the satellites and, by the time IBAMA arrived in the area, the land thieves would be gone.
However, the gang underestimated the territorial monitoring capacity of the Kayapó.
Evaristo, told us: “The Kayapó came to Brasilia to report the terrible deforestation that was being carried out on the border of their territory and they demanded that measures be taken.”
This indigenous report took the government by surprise — the geo-monitoring system wasn’t registering any deforestation where the Indians said it was happening. IBAMA scrambled to send in investigators, including the director of environmental protection. “The Indians took us directly to five camps, and there we found 44 people busy at work in conditions analogous to slavery,” said Evaristo.
The director was astonished at the Indians’ ability to monitor the forest: “The Indians have an efficient intelligence system, and the various villages use radio to tell each other in Kayapó what is going on,” he said. “In this way, they always know what is happening in their territory.”
The discovery of slave labor in the tree clearing camps led authorities to intensify their investigation and to broaden the sweep of the on-going Flying Rivers Operation.
Are things different today?
AJ Vilela’s father, AJJ, was never punished for his criminal activities, even though he was given very heavy fines (few of which he ever paid) and lawsuits were brought against him.
Ana Luiza was reportedly freed on 20 July, after two weeks in jail. AJ Vilela was behind bars for a while longer, being released in October 2016. The whole family has disappeared from the social columns. Court cases are on-going. Brazilian justice is notoriously slow and the gang has very good lawyers defending it, so no one knows when the verdict will come, or what it will be.
Even so, the Flying Rivers Operation achieved something important. Until recently, AJ Vilela’s father, AJJ (who has disappeared from the scene and apparently suffers from Alzheimer’s disease), was committing acts much like his son and boasting about it in the press. Before now, it was extremely unusual for leading figures in agribusiness to be arrested.
However, the state has not reclaimed the land that AJ Vilela, Ricardo Caldeira Viacava and their crew illegally occupied. On our November visit to Pará state, we found that this land, though officially embargoed, is still recognized as belonging to them by neighbors, while men employed by the gang, we were told, are still fattening cattle on these properties.
So, as things stand: the defendants are not in jail, but await trial; large past fines against them have not been paid; the embargo on land use is not being respected; and, most seriously, the public land that AJ Vilela illegally occupied is still indisputably in his gang’s hands.
In light of this, we asked Evaristo if anything has really changed. Thanks to the embargo, he said, “the gang will not be able to sell the cattle they have fattened on their land, because the slaughterhouses will not purchase cattle from embargoed areas.” Also, the gang will be unable to get legal titles to the land.
But locals told us that there are easy workarounds: while the slaughterhouses have pledged not to buy cattle reared on embargoed land, it is straightforward, quick and cheap to “launder the cattle.” Livestock illegally fattened in one place, simply need to be taken for a short while to a legal ranch, as the slaughterhouses only check the last supplier.
Federal prosecutor Patrícia Daros Xavier said that, “there are documents that show that big slaughterhouses are acquiring cattle reared on illegally cleared land” and these claims are being investigated. As several studies have noted, the cattle industry is “lagging behind” in addressing Amazon deforestation.
The fact that the gang is unable to get legal title to the land doesn’t seem to cause serious problems either, as it doesn’t stop them from running their ranch on the property as before.
People living in the region commonly agree: “the owner is the person who clears the land”. Accordingly, the land thieves are viewed as the rightful owners, and they can readily sell the land on the open market and make a large sum in the bargain. In practice, it seems to make little difference whether those who clear a parcel have legal title to it or not.
The body responsible for ensuring that illegally appropriated public land is returned to state ownership is the federal government’s Terra Legal Program. But people to whom we made inquiries in Pará say that that these officials are doing nothing to reclaim illegally cleared land. We asked the person in charge of the Terra Legal Program in the west of Pará why measures had not been taken to reclaim the gang’s land but we didn’t get a reply.
All things considered, it seems that the Flying Rivers Operation, with its 2 year investigation, its 95 federal police, 15 tax experts, and 32 IBAMA employees, plus 24 arrest warrants, though successful on its own terms, has not been able to put an end to the most serious problem: those deforesting public lands can still keep that land, use it, make hefty profits from it, and maybe not face much punishment. This, to be fair, was something that lay beyond the scope of the federal operation.
So, Ana Luiza Junqueira Vilela Viacava, her brother and husband, can go on declaring, at least for now, that: “I like land and the security it gives me for the future.”