The hunt for slave outposts in the Amazon

Humberto Silva is behind the wheel of a bouncing Mitsubishi 4x4 hundreds of miles from civilization. When he looks left, he sees one of the wonders of the world: a thick wall of trees that marks the edge of the mighty Amazon rain forest. When he looks right, he sees a crime against humanity: a tableau of flames and embers so intense they leave the sun a flamingo pink as the western horizon is swallowed in a shroud of smoke.

In a few hours, Mr. Silva will camp under the stars with the noise of frogs croaking so loudly he can't sleep. He will eat piranhas caught 10 minutes earlier and see the fresh footprints of a jaguar heavier than many of the 14 members of his team. He will dodge butterflies painted in bright primary colors and hear birds with calls like rattlesnakes, maracas, and police sirens.

But right now he is focused on hunting for a camp of indentured slaves.

According to the Brazilian government, as many as 40,000 slaves - the majority of them poor, uneducated, and unskilled - are currently laboring under brutal conditions. Many are lured to the rain forest by ranchers - with the false promise of princely wages - to clear the trees. Once here, they have neither the money nor the means to leave. As the coordinator of one of the government's seven Mobile Anti-Slavery Units, it is Silva's job is to set them free.

On this day in August, he has been traveling a rutted dirt track through a part of the Amazon, known as the Arc of Deforestation, since early morning. An escaped worker, Domingos Santos, stands in the back of a following pickup truck, directing Silva and his team to a remote slave camp.

"It's not far now," says Santos, "only about 20 kilometers [12 miles] to go."

Half an hour later, with the sun low behind the towering treetops, Santos shouts, "Stop! Here!"

Silva quickly swings the vehicle into a clearing on the left. He jumps out and without waiting for his four police bodyguards, he picks his way through the gloom towards a shack made of branches and black plastic sheeting.

"What's your name?" he asks the old man who ambles out to meet him.

"Amazonas," the man replies.

"Come here," Silva tells him and the man slowly shuffles forward to be patted down for weapons. "How many people are here with you?"

"Just me and Thiago, and there are a few others in a camp just through there," he replies, as three men appear out of the forest.

Fanning out behind Silva are the police officers, a Federal Police sheriff, five detectives, two drivers, an assistant attorney general for labor issues, and four armed guards whose presence has become all the more vital since four officers were killed while investigating illegal labor practices not far from here in January. They pat down two others - one of them a 16-year old boy named Thiago - and pick through the rice, beans, motor oil, and other supplies piled in boxes at the back of the shack.

"There are others in shacks just along the road," one of the men says. Silva's team jumps back into the pickups and heads back into the forest. Night has fallen and the trees and bushes scrape against and over the truck as it bumps violently along the increasingly narrow path. When they cross a makeshift bridge over a dried river bed, Santos calls out again and Silva hits the brakes.

"Hello in there!" he shouts into the forest.

"Hello out there!" a voice from inside replies, and a group of a dozen or so surprised men emerge. Disheveled and unshaven, they look at the strangers with a bewilderment one of them would later say disguised both fear and elation.

Most of them have been living in the forest for weeks, sleeping in hammocks with only flimsy plastic sheets for protection. They rise at 4 a.m. to eat a meager breakfast before heading out into the forest to cut down trees. They drink water and wash their clothes from the same muddy pools used by wild animals. They survive on a diet of rice and beans supplemented with the fish they catch in the river or the wild animals they hunt in the forest. They have no toilets and no electricity. If they want a break from their labors they must pay their boss nearly 200 reais ($68) to drive them to the nearest town. The catch? Most have not been paid more than a few dollars for their work.

Slavery's long history in Brazil

Slavery's roots run deep in the world's 14th-largest economy. Brazil was built on the backs of 4 million African slaves, roughly eight times the number brought to the United States. It was the last country in South America to officially abolish slavery, in 1888, but it has turned a blind eye to the practice for most of the past century.

That began to change only last year when Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva took over as president. A former socialist who dropped out of school at 14, Lula came to power with a mandate to make Brazil a fairer place. One of his first campaigns has been to combat what he calls "Brazil's shame." He has more than doubled the Department of Labor Oversight's budget of 2.9 million reais (almost $1 million), and increased the number of Mobile Anti-Slavery Units like Silva's from four to seven.

The influx of cash allowed the antislavery police to add 16 new pickups to their aging fleet of 22 - and the International Labor Organization (ILO), based in Geneva, has backed the campaign with donations of satellite phones, communications equipment, laptops, and printers.

The mobile units are the operational arm of the campaign. With the help of the Roman Catholic Church's Pastoral Land Commission, where most escaped slaves go to denounce the practice, the police follow up the allegations by venturing into some of the most remote and inhospitable areas in the country. The program has freed 4,932 slaves in President Lula's first year in office, the most in any one-year period and twice the number freed during the previous 12 months.

"Under Lula, Brazil has become a reference [for other countries] in the fight to end slave labor," says Patricia Audi, coordinator of slavery eradication projects at the ILO's Brazil office. "Never have so many slaves been freed, never have so many people been forced to pay fines, never have so many people been brought to justice, and never have the public been made so aware of it."

Spending the night under the stars

In a normal month, Silva's team will spend two weeks in the rain forest following up leads and making arrests. This evening, Silva tells the bewildered men that he is here to help them and instructs them that tomorrow they will be free men. With the nearest town four hours away, he and his team have no option but to spend the night as the slaves do, swinging from hammocks strung under the stars.

Silva loves his job. A former cop, he gets his adventure fix from trips like this. He's also notoriously stingy. His colleagues call him "0800," the Brazilian prefix for a toll-free call, and joke that he spends the night in the forest in order to pocket the hotel per diem.

But it is bitterly cold, and even Silva doesn't sleep well. His blanket does not provide much sanctuary from the elements, never mind the constant noise of the crickets and frogs, or the snoring police officer in the hammock next to him. When he rises around 5 a.m., he can see his breath in the chill air and he walks briskly toward the bonfire kept alive by his fellow insomniacs.

As morning dawns on a short, uncomfortable night, Silva's team is eager to gather the slaves from the other eight camps and head for Vila Rica, the nearest big town. Two watermelons - bought from the back of a truck at a gasoline station the day before - are sliced and consumed for breakfast. Then, the investigators and machine-gun toting federal police are back in the middle of a forest clearing addressing the slaves. A gutted piranha with ferocious teeth hangs drying from a wooden pole and a can filled with water is boiling over an open fire. Shafts of sunlight start to pierce the trees.

"How did you sleep?" someone asks.

"I didn't sleep a wink," replies Joacy Borges de Araujo, one of the slaves.

"Too cold?"

"Too happy," he says, and breaks into a broad grin.

A false promise

Mr. Araujo's story is typical. He came here two months ago after being promised work clearing a patch of forest for a cattle rancher. He was lured by Ezequias Alvez Novato, the gato, or farm manager, who hires and manages the slaves for the fazendeiro, or rancher.

Mr. Novato offered Araujo an advance on future earnings and 300 reais ($103) for every 12 acres of forest he cut down. He gave him a chain saw and told him the $820 pricetag would be deducted from his earnings. He then charged him - or more accurately, overcharged him - for everything else he needed to work or live, including gasoline, motor oil, soap, clothes, and food. The 37-year old father of three never left the area; Mr. Novato would have charged him $68 for the ride out.

Since they kicked off their campaign last year, Brazilian officials have found slaves on land registered to multinational companies, a federal senator, a federal deputy, and dozens of millionaires. Investigators have found slaves living in squalor alongside a villa that the fazendeiro had copied from a mansion his wife fell in love with while in France. Officials say they are no longer shocked to find slaves living in poverty next to horses that enjoy pristine stables, balanced diets, and regular veterinary care.

"They are living in conditions worse than the slaves of the 19th century," Dercides Pires, Silva's assistant, says when he sees Araujo's temporary home. "This is why we call it slavery. You can see how degrading it is. People have been taken from their normal lives as citizens and had all their rights taken away."

Mr. Pires orders the men to gather up their belongings. As they lug the chain saws and rations along with them, police officers slash the plastic tenting so it can't be used again and stab holes in the drums of gasoline and motor oil. By noon, they have picked up nearly 40 slaves from nine camps and are back under the plastic roof of the main base eating lunch. One of the drivers wades into the river - past some enormous jaguar footprints on the near shore - and catches a handful of fish which are prepared with rice and flour. The meal cheers everyone up, but all are keen to get back to civilization.

Forcing the ranch owner to pay up

The team's next task is to find the fazendeiro and secure payment for the workers. When Silva rolls his Mitsubishi back onto the dirt highway on Saturday afternoon, he's after two men: Novato and his boss, a man known only as Junior.

After a day spent on the phone passing messages through friends and family, Silva tracks down the farm manager Novato. He in turn contacts Eli Junior Pereira, a stocky man who sold his dairy herd to raise the cash to buy the 7,100 acres of forest he was having cut down to turn into cattle pasture. By law, Mr. Pereira has to pay the workers for their labor. After interviewing all 38 of them back in Vila Rica, and based on going labor rates and negotiations with Pereira's lawyer, Silva has determined that Pereira must cough up 100,000 reais ($34,000). It takes two days for Vila Rica's two banks to agree to release to Pereira such large sums of money - and only after the labor prosecutor intervenes.

But at last, the cash is packed into two brown-paper envelopes and Pereira's lawyer sits down with Silva and counts out the correct amount to be given to each of the men forming a line by the door.

Although he doesn't let it show, this is the part Silva likes best. He takes pride in finding forgotten labor camps and telling haggard slaves they are free to go. He enjoys tracking down fazendeiros and making them pay. But his favorite moment of all is handing over piles of bills to people who have never dreamed of ever seeing such riches.

He's been doing this job for three years now and knows the type of men who come to the rain forest. Many of them will waste their windfall. Silva refuses to give one perennially drunk man his money until the next morning when he has sobered up. But that, he says, is beside the point. There is a special satisfaction in seeing justice. "There," he says to Araujo and hands him 3,714 reais ($1,270), an amount that would have taken him 14 months to earn at Brazil's minimum wage. "Can you write your name?"

"Yes, sir," says Araujo, as he takes the pen and scrawls his name on the receipt.

Araujo packs the money away and his eyes bulge. "I am so happy," he says as he leaves the building to head home to Porto Alegre do Norte, a small town 80 miles from here that is home to most of the slaves. "I feel like I got what I worked for. Now I am going to start a new life, buy a few calves and let them graze quietly in Porto Alegre where my brother has land. I am going to buy new clothes for my three children and I am going to buy them new clothes and shoes."

Few slave owners face jail time

Although Silva has secured payment for the workers, he is well aware that the victory is fleeting and incomplete. The government has doubled the maximum penalties for slave labor, to eight years, but criminal convictions are almost impossible to achieve. The few fazendeiros like Pereira who are indicted have money to spend on lawyers who grind the justice system to a halt with endless appeals. He will probably just end up paying a fine.

"We're putting out fires," says investigator Marco Antonio Molinetti, an experienced member of the team. "Nothing has changed fundamentally. The only way you are going to really eradicate slave labor is by passing the law [currently languishing in Congress] that allows the government to confiscate the land of those keeping slaves. Do you think a guy ... would risk losing 14,000 cattle and all the land they are on? No way."

The government's inability to pass that key deterrent is only one of the obstacles facing the antislavery lobby. The Brazilian Supreme Court has spent more than a year in deciding whether slave labor falls under federal or state jurisdiction.

Finally, not all levels of the government are working together. When Silva asks sheriff Cristian Lages if he will be recommending that a criminal investigation take place, Mr. Lages shakes his head. "I don't think the conditions are degrading. I don't think a crime has been committed," he says. Silva, a normally patient man, loses his cool.

"What are you talking about?" he asks indignantly. "What we saw out there was about as bad as I've ever seen. If you can't see slavery there then you'll never see it. If that isn't slavery then I might as well resign and recommend they disband the Mobile Anti-Slavery Units right now. You are my friend, Cristian, and I like you, but I am going to ask that you not be assigned to work with us again."

The words hang unanswered, a lingering pall over the last night of the unit's work - a night that was supposed to be a celebration. The next morning, the team heads home. The forest is still burning and as they drive onto the main highway out of town, slivers of ash fall onto the windshield like dirty snow flakes. "It's sad," says Silva, as he accelerates. "It makes me think of death."

On Sept. 1, The Monitor ran a special report, "Slavery is not dead, just less recognizable," on slavery worldwide.

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