At daybreak, in the northeastern Brazilian city of Feira de Santana, Bahia, a street market was awash in brilliant colors and the cacaphony of birdsong. Among the weathered plywood shacks and all along the dusty roadside, hundreds of wild birds, many of them designated as rare and threatened species, were on open display, caged and ready for sale. Vendors touted their latest catches as they haggled with customers over prices.
A few months earlier, the local police had raided the same fair, arresting two men and seizing more than 200 wild birds. Now, the market was back in full swing.
The country’s laxness in cracking down on such crimes reflects a culture of impunity that fuels the loss of millions of animals each year, while reaping criminals hundreds of millions of dollars in illicit profits, governmental and non-governmental organization officials say.
Government records obtained under Brazil´s recently-approved “Access to Information Law” show that between 2005 and 2010 the country´s environmental protection agency issued nearly US$314 million in fines for crimes against fauna.
Big numbers — if only offenders would pay what they owe. During the same period, the agency received the equivalent of less than 2 percent of that amount in fines paid.
One federal official expressed outrage at the numbers, calling them “proof of incompetence.”
Renato de Freitas Souza Machado, a federal prosecutor based in Rio de Janeiro, a hotspot for the illicit trade in rare and protected species, said, “Traffickers know that nothing is going to happen to them.”
A spokeswoman for IBAMA, the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Natural Resources, said that while fine payments may be low, the agency is working on increasing collections.
However, unpaid fines are not the country´s only problem when it comes to lack of accountability. A combination of soft laws, light sentences and seemingly endless appeals have resulted in little–or no–prison time for even big time traffickers. A few hours after their arrest, traffickers are back on the street and in many cases, back in business.
The leniency serves as an incentive for traffickers to ply their illicit trade, creating a climate of impunity, several officials said.
“It really stands out when someone has worked as a trafficker for 20 years and never gone to jail,” said Machado, the federal prosecutor. “The animal has less protection than a cell phone or a purse that are stolen.”
Until 1998, trafficking in fauna in Brazil carried a sentence of two to five years. In that year, the Brazilian Congress approved an environmental law that reduced the penalty to six months to one year.
But a catch in federal law means that even those softer sentences are typically never applied, since offenders who receive that little time are eligible for still further reductions.
Such an anything-goes environment has a corrosive effect, said Roberto Cabral Borges, former operations and inspections coordinator for IBAMA, the country´s environmental protection agency, which is charged with protecting threatened species.
It tells the trafficker it´s okay to continue his crimes; it tells society it´s okay to break the law, and it demoralizes law enforcement officers, Borges said.
“Over time, it leads to attitude changes, like, ‘Why should I bother?’” he added. “The first thing you need to change is the law.”
Low level traffickers often poor
Typically, the poachers are poor, uneducated peasants eking out a living in back-country villages. They sell the animals they trap for a pittance to help pay their families´ living expenses.
Although he says his life has improved now, João Alves Mateus dos Santos was once such a man. The 45-year-old farm worker lives in the small town of Canudos, in the middle of Bahia´s legendary sertão. In an arid landscape of thorny brush, stunted trees and cactus, life is hard and people are tough.
Mateus said that in the early 1990s, he went through an especially rough patch in his life as he tried to provide for his wife and two children.
He was unemployed and for a time earned money capturing and selling wild animals, he said.
“Ave Maria —– it was hard times; I even begged for money,” Mateus said.
He said that most people involved in traffic in the region do so because of poverty.
“This is the sertão —– if you haven´t got what it takes, you won´t make it,” he said.
But it´s the big-time traffickers who have many law enforcement officials clamoring for a law that would stiffen sentences.
A bill now working its way through Congress would increase sentences for large scale trafficking back to the two-to-five year level. But the bill´s author, Federal Deputy Sarney Filho, said that given the current acrimony in Brasilia over environmental issues, he is not optimistic the bill will pass.
The Green Party leader said members of Congress, who are aligned with what he described as “backward thinking” agribusiness and livestock interests, are extremely powerful. Using their influence, those “ruralist” legislators are unlikely to let the bill come before the lower house membership for a vote, he said.
“Anything involving the environment, they put in the same boat,” he said, moving to block any bill seen as pro-environmental.
Also, as of late August, a Brazilian Senate commission continued to debate the language in another proposed bill that would revamp the country´s penal code. The bill includes a proposal to increase the sentence for selling wild animals to two- to-four years and to two-to-six years for exporting them.
Similar to drug trafficking, the clandestine nature of wild animal trafficking makes it impossible to obtain solid numbers on just how many animals are being stolen from their native habitats each year. However, non-governmental organization RENCTAS, the National Network to Fight the Trafficking of Wild Animals, estimates that as many as 38 million animals are taken from their habitats each year.
IBAMA´s Borges lamented the lack of hard data but said that based on his observations, the number is huge.
“It´s millions of animals a year, unfortunately,” Borges said.
Wild life trafficking annually generates between US$5 billion and US$20 billion globally, making it the world´s third most lucrative illegal activity after drug-and-arms trafficking, according to a 2008 U.S. Congressional report on wild animal trafficking.
RENCTAS officials estimate that Brazil is responsible for between 5 to 15 percent of that world total.
Another day, another bust
Armed with search warrants, Sao Paulo´s environmental police earlier this year raided the home and general store of Almir Evaristo da Silva, near Baueri, in São Paulo state. But the 53-year old seemed unperturbed. He watched indifferently as officers loaded two pickup trucks with cages and 47 unlicensed wild songbirds.
Thirteen of the animals were endangered species, officers said. The police also seized what they said were notebooks showing his customer list, with annotations showing payments he allegedly received for the birds.
At the police station, an officer told da Silva it was not certain whether he would be facing criminal charges, but that he would have to pay a fine of about U.S. $100,000 just for possessing the animals. Silva smiled and jokingly said he would be walking back to his native state of Bahía, since he wouldn´t be able to afford the bus fare.
Even before the police had finished completing the man´s paperwork, he was released on his own recognizance and headed home.
Hope rests with new legal trend
Prosecutors say one way of getting around the lightweight or non-existent penalties for trafficking is to prosecute traffickers for other related crimes that carry heavier sentences.
Federal prosecutor Machado cited a recent major case that could serve as a blueprint for such a change.
In March 2009, Federal Police in Brazil arrested more than 70 suspects in eight states who were part of a gang trafficking wild animals in Brazil and Europe. The criminal enterprise included nationals from the Czech Republic, Portugal, Germany, Switzerland and Brazil.
Different members of the gang worked in coordination on every facet of the operation, from capturing the fauna or buying the animals from groups of hunters, to transporting them, and finally selling them in Brazil and overseas. Corrupt public officials were also involved in the scheme, as were breeders who falsified documents to show the animals had been bred in captivity.
Several of the foreigners were able to escape capture, but the Czech man who prosecutors say was the ringleader was not so lucky. In August 2011, a federal judge sentenced Tomas Novotny to 10 years in prison for receiving illegal property, smuggling and being part of a criminal gang. One other man, a Brazilian military policeman, was sentenced to five years and three months. Several other members of the group received lighter sentences.
Prosecutor Machado said the difference in this case was that he hit several key figures in the organization with charges such as smuggling, forming a criminal enterprise, receiving illegal goods and forging documents.
It is convictions on these other charges that allow judges to hand down sentences to traffickers that are far longer than those for animal trafficking alone. And therein lies hope for a future in which wild animal traffickers receive the kind of punishment that could serve as a deterrent, Machado said.
Asked what stood out about the crimes committed by the gang, Prosecutor Machado said it was the cruelty with which the animals were treated.
“There are telephone calls in which ‘A’ orients ‘B,’ who is traveling with a shipment of birds in a bus that in the event he sees a police road block, he should go into the bus’ bathroom and tear off the birds’ wings and flush them down the toilet,” Machado said.
RENCTAS spokesman Raulff Lima acknowledged that the lack of accountability for traffickers serves as an incentive to “to continue committing crimes against fauna.”
But he insisted that in order to seriously cut back on such crimes, the solution lies not in punishment but in public awareness.
“That,” Lima said, “is what will determine the future of species.”
William Finn Bennett is a member of 100Reporters, a nonprofit investigative website, living and working in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was made possible through a George Polk Investigative Reporting grant funded by The Ford Foundation.