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Musk brought the internet to the Brazilian Amazon. Criminals love it.


ATALAIA DO NORTE, Brazil — Brazilian federal agents aboard three helicopters descended on an illegal mining site in the Amazon rainforest on Tuesday. They were met with gunfire and the shooters escaped, leaving behind an increasingly familiar find for authorities: Starlink internet units.

Starlink, a division of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, has nearly 4,000 low-orbit satellites lined up in the sky, connecting people in remote corners of the Amazon and providing a crucial advantage to Ukrainian forces on the battlefield. The lightweight, high-speed internet system has also proven to be a valuable new tool for illegal miners in Brazil, with a reliable service to coordinate logistics, receive advance warning of law enforcement raids, and conduct payments without going back to town.

Agents from the Brazilian Environment Agency’s Special Inspection Group and the Federal Highway Police’s Rapid Response Group found an operational Starlink terminal next to a pit on Tuesday, The Associated was told. Press an officer who participated in the raid. He spoke on condition of anonymity due to concerns for his personal safety.

They also seized 600 grams of mercury (21 ounces), 15 grams (0.5 ounces) of gold, 508 cartridges of ammunition of various calibers and personal documents. They destroyed 3,250 liters (848 gallons) of fuel, four mining barges, 12 generators, 23 camping and storage units, and seven outboard motors.

The mining area known as Ouro Mil is controlled by Brazil’s most feared criminal organization, known as the First Capital Command, according to federal investigations.

Since taking office this year, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has empowered authorities to crack down on environmental violations, particularly illegal mining in Yanomami lands, Brazil’s largest indigenous territory. In recent years, around 20,000 prospectors have contaminated vital waterways with mercury used to separate gold. They disrupted traditional Aboriginal life, brought disease, and caused widespread starvation.

The environment agency, known as Ibama, seized seven Starlink terminals in Yanomami land in the past five weeks, including the two on Tuesday, the agency’s press office said in a statement. sent by email. Countless numbers of highly portable Starlink terminals could have been taken with miners as they fled sites in the rainforest.

Illegal miners have long used the Internet to communicate and coordinate, but until now this has involved sending a technician, usually by plane, to install a heavy fixed antenna that cannot be carried away when mining sites turn. move or are attacked. Even so, the connection was slow and choppy, especially on rainy days. The connection in small and medium-sized towns in the Amazon has not been better.

Starlink – which first became available in Brazil last year and has spread rapidly – ​​has solved these problems. The installation is self-made, the equipment works even on the go, the speed is as fast as in the big cities of Brazil and it works even during storms.

Starlink has long viewed the Amazon as an opportunity. This was underscored by Musk’s visit to Brazil last May. He met then-President Jair Bolsonaro and the region was at the center of their conversation.

“Super excited to be in Brazil for the launch of Starlink for 19,000 unconnected schools in rural areas and Amazon environmental monitoring,” Musk tweeted at the time.

This project with the Brazilian government, however, did not advance. SpaceX and the Department of Communications have not signed any contracts and only three terminals have been installed in Amazon schools for a 12-month trial period, the department’s press office said in an email response to questions. issues.

Nevertheless, Starlink took off in the region and began to usher in change.

In Atalaia do Norte, in the western Brazilian Amazon, near the borders with Peru and Colombia, Rubeney de Castro Alves installed Starlink in his hotel in December. Now he can make bank transfers and make video calls. He even started binging Netflix.

“There are so many new things to watch I can’t even sleep,” Alves said with a laugh.

Once, her son flew to Manaus, the state capital 1,140 kilometers (708 miles) away, just to negotiate with a group of tourists via conference call. Today, internet at his 11-room hotel in Atalaia do Norte is more reliable than in Manaus, Alves said.

He bought a second terminal for his tour boat. Until now, passengers, even on his 10-day trips, had to do without any communication. If something was wrong, no one would know until the boat arrived on time.

With high demand for the internet, dozens of the riverside town’s 21,000 residents flock to Hotel d’Alves every day. Its balcony is a meeting point for teenagers who spend hours playing online games on their phones.

“It made a revolution in our city,” Alves said.

A world apart, in Ukraine, Starlink has gained battlefield advantages in its war with Russia.

Ukraine has already received some 24,000 Starlink terminals. Amid ongoing Russian bombardment of civilian infrastructure, they allow continuous internet connection in the most vulnerable regions in the south-east of the country. In all major Ukrainian cities, the authorities have set up “resilience points” which offer free internet access as well as hot drinks.

The benefits of connectivity are immediately apparent to bad actors in the Amazon, Hugo Loss, operations coordinator for Brazil’s environment agency, told the AP in a phone interview. It allows the coordination of equipment, miners, food and fuel.

“This technology is extremely fast and really improves the ability to deal with an illegal mine,” Loss said. “You can manage hundreds of mine sites without ever setting foot in them.”

Another environment agency official told the AP that it was just beginning to evict miners from Yanomami territory and that the spread of Starlink was a fever among illegal miners, complicating that mission. The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to concerns about his personal safety.

An unauthorized Starlink dealer in Boa Vista, the state capital of Roraima which is the gateway to Yanomami territory, is marketing the units in a WhatsApp group for illegal miners and promising same-day delivery.

Its price for a terminal is $1,600, with monthly installments of $360, six times what Alves pays for service at his small hotel in Atalaia do Norte.

As violators gained access to premium internet service, authorities began to use Starlink themselves. Federal agents have set up a terminal at a new checkpoint on the Uraricoera River – an important corridor for minors entering Yanomami territory. The official who informed the AP of Tuesday’s raid used Starlink to send photos and even heavy video files of their operation via WeTransfer.

Brazil’s environment agency told the AP via email that it is studying, along with other federal agencies, how to block Starlink’s signal in illegal mining areas.

“This measure is crucial to dismantling the logistics that support illegal mining in indigenous territories,” its press office said.

The AP emailed SpaceX communications director James Gleeson asking about Starlink’s presence in Brazil and its use by illegal miners in remote areas, but received no response. .


AP journalist Yuras Karmanau contributed from Tallinn, Estonia.


The Associated Press’s climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. Learn more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.