Amazon Journal

By Darren Foster

Operation Roosevelt

Traveling with the federal police

Truck speeding through mud in the jungle

Cacoal was our base of operations for this little research trip. The regional headquarters of the governmental Indian protection agency -- Fundação Nacional do Índio (National Foundation of the Indian) (FUNAI) -- is here, and about 40 miles east is Pimenta Bueno, the base camp for what the federal police had dubbed Operation Roosevelt. In between and a little to the north lies Espigão d’Oeste, the town where many of the massacred miners had lived.

We hit a snag in our research right away. The man we had arranged to meet at the FUNAI headquarters had been called away to Brazil’s capital. Apoena Meirelles was a legendary indigenista. He made first contact with a number of tribes in the Amazon, including the Cinta Larga in 1969. Three decades later, he came out of retirement to help the tribe he had introduced to the modern world get through a crisis. He was integral in the negotiations between the tribe and the Brazilian government and was reportedly searching for ways to put an end to mining on Cinta Larga land.

“Look,” he said, “I know why you’re here. You’re here to buy diamonds.”

A couple of months after our visit, Meirelles was shot dead while leaving a bank in Porto Velho. The federal police considered the case a botched robbery. But suspicions remain that his death was somehow linked to his role in trying to shut down the mine.

The next morning we took a bus to Espigão d’Oeste to pay a visit to the miners union. Unfortunately, Celso Fantim, the representative of the miners union, was also away. But another man in the office flashed a card and said he was from Brazil’s mining ministry. He offered to take us to meet with some miners.

We walked with him to the central plaza in Espigão, and he invited us to sit down on a bench. There was no one around, let alone any miners.

“Look,” he said, “I know why you’re here. You’re here to buy diamonds.”

We told him again that we were journalists and that we were there not to buy diamonds, but to speak with some miners. Still, he persisted. “Many people come here saying they are journalists or geologists, but they’re really here to buy diamonds,” he said.

We indulged him for a little while to find out how the process works. He explained that it was easy. All we needed to do was rent an apartment for a week, and he would take care of the rest. The diamonds, he said, were cheap and very good quality, and we could easily sell them abroad for a lot more.

“So you interested?” he asked.

No, we told him, we really are journalists.

At which point, he gave us this warning: “If you really are journalists, I advise you to leave. If you ask too many questions around here, you’ll wind up dead.” And apparently to give some teeth to his words, he told us that two European journalists had recently come there and will never be heard from again. With that, he walked away.

We later learned that this guy was -- surprise -- a fraud, just one of a number of shady people that the diamond trade had attracted to the area. And his story about the European journalists was also b.s. But the relative ease with which we found ourselves in the middle of a clandestine diamond deal made us question how we would be able to find someone we could trust. We were now just a few months past the massacre. The lid had been blown off the diamond trade, yet here was a guy posing as a representative of Brazil’s Mining Ministry trying to sell diamonds to two gringos he had just met. Something was clearly rotten in the state of Rondônia.

Mauro Sposito and Mariana van Zeller When it comes to the Amazon, Mauro Sposito is something of a living legend. He has been the sheriff of Brazil’s Wild West for more than 30 years.

The federal police force was our last resort. The federal force is roughly the equivalent of the FBI in the United States. And unlike many other police forces in Brazil, this one has a reputation for being a clean and professional outfit. Members of the force are required to have a college degree, and they are well paid, by Brazilian standards. The federal police were leading the investigation into the massacre and had set up a special task force to stop the illegal diamond trade. But, to tell the truth, we weren’t expecting much from them.

We went to the task force’s headquarters in Pimenta Bueno with the intention of getting some information on the investigation. Luck was on our side. The man in charge of the operation, Chief Mauro Sposito, had just arrived.

We spoke with Sposito for almost two hours, and at the end of our conversation, he asked us what we wanted to do. We gave him what amounted to a wish list, and without a pause, he said, “No problem.” We just needed to let him know when we would be returning to do the story. That was it.

But as we left his office, he added one more thing: “Bring a hammock.”

When it comes to the Amazon, Sposito is something of a living legend. He has been the sheriff of Brazil’s Wild West for more than 30 years, and he has dedicated a large part of that time to battling the drug trade. The Amazon is a major conduit for cocaine, and Sposito heads operations along Brazil’s borders with Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, the world’s top three cocaine producers. Among his comrades, he has earned another nickname, “Mauro Bomba,” because of his penchant for dynamiting airstrips used by drug smugglers.

After the massacre, Sposito was asked to set up a special task force, not only to investigate the murders, but also to help put an end to the illegal diamond trade. Sposito said we could film everything, no restrictions. And his blessing helped open a lot of doors.

Mauro Sposito and Mariana van Zeller The police chief gave van Zeller full access to his investigation, which helped open many doors.

The Operation

During our first day of filming, we arrived at federal police headquarters in Pimenta Bueno at 8 a.m. About a dozen agents were packing trucks with guns, smoke grenades and other equipment. None of them had been briefed on the nature of their mission. All they knew was that they were heading to the federal police’s jungle base just outside the reserve, and about a three-and-a-half-hour drive away. All we knew was that we were going with them.

The mission of the federal police was to provide security for a plan that came all the way from the top of the Brazilian government. By a special executive order signed by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the government was offering the Cinta Larga a 15-day amnesty to sell their illegally mined diamonds through Caixa, Brazil’s federal bank.

As part of the plan, Caixa had set up a temporary prefab office adjacent to the police camp. The office was surrounded by an electric barbed wire fence and was complete with computers, air conditioners, and scales and other appraisal equipment -- all run by generator. A small staff of administrators and a gemologist were on hand to help the Cinta Larga set up an account in the bank, to appraise their diamonds and to deposit the gems for an auction to be held three months later in Rio de Janeiro. In exchange for the amnesty, the Cinta Larga had to agree to stop mining.

Back to top     Next Entry