Reportagens

Criminal frontiers

A global center of illegal trade in goods, the borders between South American countries have become a target for the growing and lucrative international trafficking of agrotoxics.

Aldem Bourscheit·Aldo Benítez·
29 de março de 2023

Criminal frontiers

ByAldem Bourscheit (Brazil) and Aldo Benítez(Paraguay)

Criminal frontiers

ByAldem Bourscheit (Brazil) and Aldo Benítez(Paraguay)

Vídeos: Javier Cabañas

Borders between Mercosur (Southern Common Market) countries have an economic life of their own where different characters subsist. An important part of the commercial force is connected to the goods trafficking through these national borders, which maintains a large illegal industry.

In the center of South America, the triple border between the cities of Foz do Iguaçu (Brazil), Puerto Iguazú (Argentina) and Ciudad del Este (Paraguay) is a hotspotfor crimes of all sorts. The Paraguayan city of about 250,000 inhabitants is linked to Brazil by the “Friendship Bridge”.

Every day more than 40,000 vehicles and more than 80,000 pedestrians cross it. Connecting Argentina and Brazil in the same region, the “Fraternity Bridge” receives 5,000 vehicles daily. The Brazil-Uruguay border extends along the entire southern border of the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul.

Goods arrive in Ciudad del Este from all over the world through the municipal customs office or the customs office at Guarani Airport, 15 kilometers away by road.

The 3,366 tons of agrochemicals that arrived in Paraguay through these two ports represent 27% of all the country’s imports in 2022, says the National Customs Directorate (DNA).

At the same time, seizures of agrochemicals (pesticides, fertilizers, and other farming items) have skyrocketed in recent years – 29,000 bottles, boxes, and bags were confiscated in 2022 on the Brazilian side. All were coming from Paraguay.

This is a 549% increase over the total seized in 2021 – around 4,500 items.

Os 8.300 m2 de um depósito da Receita Federal brasileira lotados com produtos ilegais vindos do Paraguai. Foto: Arcenio Acuña
Towards destruction, packages with pesticides in a warehouse of the Brazilian Federal Revenue Service. Photo: Arcenio Acuña
Rumo à destruição, embalagens com pesticidas em armazém da Receita Federal brasileira. Foto: Arcenio Acuña
The 8,300 m2 from a Brazilian Federal Revenue Service warehouse filled with illegal products coming from Paraguay. Photo: Arcenio Acuña

Mafia scenario

Commander of the Military Police Border Battalion in Brazil, André Dorecki has no doubts that the smuggling of agrochemicals has joined the organized crime, which controls the illegal routes along the Paraguay – Brazil border.

Most of the illicit involves marijuana and cigarettes and are linked to drug trafficking in 139 cities monitored by the Battalion in the Brazilian state of Paraná. There were agrochemicals in most of the seizures, in recent years.

A Paraguayan police source – not identified for his safety – says that the value of the agrochemicals has awakened the interest of gangs. In the Alto Paraná region, these products are even stolen from farms. The same occurs in the Argentine state of Misiones, bordering Brazil and Paraguay.

“Just one producer lost almost US$ 50,000 worth of agrochemicals”, says Rubén Sanabria, an engineer and director of the Agricultural Coordination of Paraguay (CAP), a private association of rural producers.

In February 2020, Paraguayan authorities seized nearly 20,000 cartons of cigarettes and 103 boxes of agrochemicals. The Reserve Operation was carried out by military personnel, DNA agents, and the Paraguayan Federal Prosecutor’s Office.

At the time, five warehouses in the city of Salto del Guairá, also bordering Brazil, were raided. So far, it was the largest anti-smuggling operation of the Mario Abdo Benítez government, sworn in August 2018.

Vídeos: Javier Cabañas

Agrochemical trafficking can tarnish the image of the agricultural sector. “We want to end the idea that [rural] producers are guilty, that there is a lot of smuggling of this and that. They are not the ones bringing the goods”, says Sanabria, of the Agricultural Coordination of Paraguay (CAP).

“The Paraguayan state agencies have to control [the criminality]. We, producers, are often overwhelmed by the authorities”, he adds.

A few kilometers from Ciudad del Este, a gigantic warehouse of the Brazilian Federal Revenue Service accumulates seized goods. The vast majority came from Paraguay. The items stay there until they are auctioned or destroyed – as in the case of agrochemicals.

In 2021, eight tons of these products were eliminated. In 2022, the amount jumped to 52 tons. The growth of almost 600% surpassed that of any other illicit product, including marijuana.

Monstrous imports

According to a report by the NGO Social Base Investigations (BaseIS), between 2016 and 2017 Paraguay imported 6.2% of all agrochemicals sold in the world, with a total entry of 52,067 tons of these products.

Figures from the National Customs Directorate (DNA) indicate that between 2018 and 2022, Paraguay imported 199,286 tons of agrochemicals. Last year, 48% of these imports came from China.

For Sanabria, from the Agricultural Coordination of Paraguay (CAP), it’s urgent that the national authorities take measures about the illegal use of agrochemicals, because this harms producers working within the law.

“[The authorities] have to act, because they know that the amounts imported and consumed don’t match. We have become a ‘triangulation country’ that hurts companies in both countries that pay taxes and work honestly”, he says.

Sanabria is an agro-industrial entrepreneur who lives in Hernandarias, a municipality 15 kilometers from Ciudad del Este. He highlights how the agrochemical’s flux has changed radically in the country in recent decades.

“Twenty or 30 years ago, illegal agrochemicals were coming from Brazil. Today, Paraguay is a country that brings raw materials and produces many agrochemicals, and this has attracted traffickers of these products to the Brazilian market,” he describes.

Vídeos: Javier Cabañas

Dangerous liaisons

States and municipalities in the Brazilian Midwest and South have been the focus, since the middle of the last decade, of national seizures of trafficked, counterfeit or stolen pesticides, show police data uated by bet 20 reais.

Eldorado and the capital Campo Grande, in Mato Grosso do Sul state, concentrate these crimes. The state is the national champion in these illicit activities.

The largest flagrant was 54.5 tons of pesticides in May 2017, in Eldorado. The municipality is 40 km by road from Paraguay.

From June to September 2022, a police operation seized 190 tons of illegal pesticides in borders and highways, especially in the South region. Thousands of cigarettes, drinks, weapons and also cars were seized. The goods were valued at about US$ 830,000.

The NGO Border Institute for Economic and Social Development (Idesf) points out a higher traffic of illegal pesticides in the country on the BR-163 and BR-116 highways. The highways cut through agribusiness zones and have direct or other links with Paraguay and other neighboring countries.

Fonte: Idesf / Arte: Gabriela Güllich
Fonte: Idesf / Arte: Gabriela Güllich

Packages with powder and gallons are camouflaged under loads of firewood, soybeans, corn and other grains. They are hidden in tractors, harvesters, cars and buses. Even cyclists are caught in the act. Small sachets of herbicides such as metsulfuron, used in oats, corn, soy and wheat, complicate inspection.

Head of the Cross-Border Crimes Sector of the Brazilian Federal Highway Police (PRF), Marco Palhano tells that smaller loads trafficked through highways, roads and rivers can be accumulated in trucks and trailers until they reach Brazilian farming zones.

"There’s more trafficking and other crimes during field preparation and in hours and routes that are less favorable for inspection", says the agent, who has been fighting these crimes since the 1990s. 

"There are companies doing security for trucks with pesticides from Paraguay to the Brazilian countryside", adds Eric Cardin, from the Research Laboratory on Borders, State, and Social Relations (LAFRONT) at the State University of Western Paraná (Unioeste).

Counterfeit products come from neighboring countries, but there are frauds even in cities like Ribeirão Preto, Franca and São José do Rio Preto, in the countryside of São Paulo state, or in the great Goiânia, capital of Goiás state. 

"These are areas where they copy packaging and labels with more and more technique", reports Nilto Mendes, manager of the Committee to Combat Illegal Products of CropLife Brazil, which brings together the main pesticide manufacturers in the country.

Pesticides smuggled from Uruguay, in the false bottom of a truck, seized in 2022 on BR 158. Video: PRF/Brazil

There are 33 twin cities with other countries in more than 16,000 km of Brazil's dry and river borders. Fourteen of them are connected by international bridges. Between Brazil and Paraguay, there are almost 1,400 km of dry and river borders.

"There is no way to control trafficking and other crimes in this whole area", says Fernando Marini. He worked for almost 40 years in the agrochemical market and today trains police, companies and producers to face crimes with such products.

"Aircraft take off from Paraguay and neighboring countries to spray crops along the border with products banned in Brazil", reveals the consultant.

The situation is likely to get worse with new cross-border connections. Between Porto Murtinho (Brazil) and Carmelo Peralta (Paraguay), work on the Bioceanic Bridge began last November and is being funded by Itaipu Binational, a company owned by both countries for hydroelectric power generation.

The bridge can reduce travel time and costs for business from Mercosur countries - the South American economic bloc created in 1991 - with markets in Asia, Oceania, and the United States.

In Paraná, the bridge between Brazil's Foz do Iguaçu and Paraguay's Presidente Franco is almost finished. In the state of Rio Grande do Sul, works on three bridges to Argentina were agreed upon in January by presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Alberto Fernández.

Last November, 300 illegal ports were mapped by the Federal Police between Brazil's Foz do Iguaçu and Paraguay's Guaíra, all along the Paraná River and the Itaipu hydroelectric dam lake, which is 1,350 km² - an area slightly smaller than that of the capital cities of São Paulo (SP) or London (UK).

Flagrant cases also occur in seaports. Last August, 60,000 liters of Paraquat and other pesticides coming from China were confiscated in Itapoá, on the coast of Santa Catarina state. The substance is banned in Brazil. The cargo was mixed with chemicals to treat water.

"Where there is developed agriculture, there is this problem [of illicit use of pesticides]", summarizes consultant Fernando Marini.

Parte de 14 toneladas de prováveis agrotóxicos apreendidas em caminhão na BR-316, em Teresina, capital do estado nordestino do Piauí. A nota fiscal identificava o pó branco como ácido fúlvico, um tipo de adubo, mas a vigilância não o reconheceu como tal e afirmou que a empresa responsável pela carga não era autorizada a comercializar produtos do Exterior. Foto: Divulgação / PRF
Part of 14 tons of probable pesticides seized in a truck on BR-316 in Teresina, capital of the northeastern state of Piauí. The invoice identified the white powder as fulvic acid, a type of fertilizer, but the surveillance did not recognize it as such and stated that the company responsible for the cargo was not authorized to market products from abroad. Photo: PRF/Brazil

Empty pockets

Confiscations of illegal agrotoxics in Brazil fell between 2018 and 2019, but have grown since the Covid-19 pandemic, recognized in March 2020 by the United Nations. The crisis has closed factories and ports in China – the world's largest producer of these commodities –, appreciated the dollar, and reduced legal trade.

"In China, commercial partnerships between provinces [states] and agrochemical manufacturers are common. The Chinese governments make a lot of money with this", says consultant Fernando Marini.

The seizures include herbicides and insecticides banned by the Brazilian government, such as Paraquat and Benzoate, used in soybean, corn, cotton, and bean crops. Certain products are used to speed up harvests and reduce losses from severe droughts, such as the one that has hit southern Brazil in recent years.

Information from the National Union of the Plant Protection Products Industry (SINDIVEG) shows that irregular imports already account for half of the pesticide seizures in Brazil. In 2010, this rate was only 5%.

For two decades Paraguay has been the largest bridge to Brazil for crimes involving poisons. Smaller amounts arrive from Argentina and Uruguay.
Trafficked, counterfeit and stolen pesticides occupy 25% of the Brazilian market. The global average is 15%, says CropLife Brazil.

"The objective is always to cut costs in the face of economic or climate crises. Illicit items are much cheaper than legal ones, but they don't collect taxes or used packaging [as required by Brazilian law]", tells consultant Fernando Marini.

A study by the State University of Western Paraná (Unioeste), points out that trafficked items cost 10% to 20% of the products sold in Brazil. The difference is due to taxes, rules considered to be rigid for releasing products and the market reserve guaranteed by high import taxes.

"The prices of products within countries are very unequal. Besides this, import taxes are high in order to protect the prices of these products in the Brazilian market", explains Eric Cardin, from Unioeste.

Calculations by the Center for Advanced Studies in Applied Economics (Cepea) at the University of São Paulo (USP) show that the rise in input costs, such as pesticides, is the main cause of the fall in the share of agribusiness in the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP), from 27% (2021) to 25% (2022).

Losses and damages

The pesticide market in Brazil moves about US$ 14.4 billion annually. The tax and economic losses due to crimes with agricultural inputs was US$ 4 billion in 2022, says the National Forum Against Piracy and Illegality (FNCP).

"Any investment against these crimes is cheap in view of the damage. We need permanent actions to investigate and punish those who benefit economically from these illicit activities", points out Federal Deputy Arlindo Chinaglia (PT-SP), one of the Brazilians in Parlasul, the Mercosur parliament.

Trading and transporting agrochemicals requires federal licenses, but countless Brazilians risk life, liberty and property for short-term profits. About less than US$200 usually is paid for trafficking 100 liters of Paraquat.

Marco Palhano, from the Federal Highway Police (PRF), explains that the "mules" - people carrying trafficked items - usually receive instructions for delivery during their journeys, including via WhatsApp.

Many people caught in the act are detained and become primary defendants. Cars and other vehicles of the suspects may be auctioned by the Brazilian Federal Revenue Service.

Farmers caught with illegal agrotoxins can have crops destroyed. Diluted products or mixed with other chemicals may not control pests and even destroy crops. "In Mato Grosso, farmers lost up to 3,000 hectares at one time and broke up", says consultant Fernando Marini.

Losses like these are rarely made public. After all, the producers ‘swallow’ their losses in silence to avoid being fined for buying and using illegal items.

Carga de agrotóxicos apreendida pela PRF em Mafra (SC). Foto: Divulgação/PRF
A load of pesticides seized by the PRF in Mafra (SC). Photo: Divulgation/PRF

Political-economic ties

Low taxes and legal benefits maintain the trade of agricultural inputs of numerous companies opened by Brazilians in Paraguay, mainly "maquiladoras". They export products assembled with inputs from all over the world, with zero import taxes and other advantages.

"There are schemes of importation, production and smuggling of pesticides from legalized purchases by companies in Paraguay", highlights Fernando Marini. "Many border populations don't see this as a crime", adds Nilto Mendes, manager of CropLife Brazil.

Para o deputado federal Arlindo Chinaglia (PT-SP), os países têm que agir conjuntamente contra delitos nas fronteiras. Foto: José Cruz / Agência Brasil
For the Federal Deputy Arlindo Chinaglia (PT-SP), countries have to act jointly against border crimes. Photo: José Cruz/Agência Brasil

Regulatory and fiscal disparities in Mercosur also foster crimes with agrochemicals. "No neighboring country has banned Paraquat, for example. This stimulates its trafficking to Brazil, which has banned its use", adds Mendes.

Federal Deputy Arlindo Chinaglia (PT-SP) explains that, unlike the European Union, Mercosul still has no common economic, sanitary, environmental, or inspection common guidelines.

"There are national initiatives [to combat crimes with agrochemicals], but I am unaware of a collective action. But the countries involved have to act jointly at the borders. The responsibility is not unilateral", he highlights.

Poisonous crops

The United States, Brazil, China and Argentina are the largest global users of pesticides and herbicides. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), the country has the third largest absolute agricultural area in the world, about 3.5 million km2 . This represents 41% of the national territory and is larger than that of India.

Marina Lacôrte is coordinator of the Agriculture and Food Campaign at Greenpeace Brazil. For her, the illicit activities linked to the trade and use of pesticides are directly connected to a national agribusiness based on monoculture of commodities for domestic consumption and exports.

From January 2019 to the end of last year, Jair Bolsonaro's far-right government released 2,182 new substances in Brazil - a record among all previous administrations. "Instead of prioritizing less toxic substances, the government accelerated the analysis of all chemicals," criticizes the activist.

Many products approved in Brazil have been banned globally, but continue to be industrialized in countries that no longer consume them. Paraquat is exported from China, but its use is prohibited there. It has also been severely restricted in the United States and Australia.

Most of the pesticides released in Bolsonaro's administration come from China and almost half have substances vetoed in the European Union, shows a study by Sônia Hess. She is a post-doctoral fellow in Chemistry at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, State University of Campinas and Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (Italy).

For Congressman Chinaglia, using these products makes Brazilians "second-class citizens" and can jeopardize agreements with sanitary and environmental requirements. Under debate, the Mercosur - European Union agreement can reduce or cancel taxes on 90% of the products traded between the blocks. This could greatly expand Brazilian exports.

"At the same time, our exports may be contaminated by pesticides that are banned in the European block. This opens a window for commercial disputes", recalls the congressman.

For their trade in Brazil, the effectiveness against pests and risks to human and environmental health of pesticides are weighed by the ministries of Agriculture, Health and Environment. However, the analyses have been precarious in Bolsonaro's government, increasing risks to the population and producers.

"The government's strategy has been to increase control at the border, but at the same time to accelerate the use of products previously prohibited in Brazil, increasing the supply in the domestic market and favoring a reduction in production costs", points out the LAFRONT, of the State University of Western Paraná (Unioeste).

Almost 4,700 pesticides are authorized in the country and other substances may be released in greater quantity and speed if the National Congress approves the "Poison Package", so called by NGOs. Approved in the House of Representatives, the bill is now pending in the Senate.

Civil entities summarize that the text replaces the term "agrotoxic" with "pesticide" and "environmental control product", allows mixtures, prescriptions before the occurrence of pests and imports of carcinogenic items, shortens approval times, and weakens environmental and health risk assessment.

"The massive release of pesticides is tied to the growth of the national productive area, interests the Ruralist Caucus and the companies in the sector, and ends up stimulating the legal and criminal trade of these chemicals", describes a LAFRONT’s analysis.

"In general, the regular or irregular entry of pesticides into the country guarantees the main objective of these industries: the oligopoly over seeds and over the other chemical components used in all stages of the production cycle", highlights the publication.

According to Marina Lacorte, investigations are multiplying and confirming the contamination of water, soil, people, and biodiversity, the destruction of pollinators, and the proliferation of diseases linked to pesticides, such as cancer.

"The inspection is far short of what is necessary to deal with the risks of these products, which are even more falsified and adulterated. The world is on the way to reducing the use and banning these substances", points out the activist.

This report was originally published in bet 20 reais and produced with support from The Environmental Reporting Collective.

Technical Data Sheet

Editorial coordination: Marcio Isensee e Sá
Text Editing: Daniele Bragança e Duda Menegassi
Reporting and stuff preparation: Aldem Bourscheit
Reporting and fieldwork: Aldo Benítez
Graphics and data analysis: Juan Ortiz
Arts: Gabriela Güllich
Videos: Javier Cabañas
Photos:Arcenio Acuña, Agência Brasil e PRF
Translation Portuguese - English: Aldem Bourscheit

  • Aldem Bourscheit

    Jornalista cobrindo histórias sobre Conservação da Natureza, Crimes contra a Vida Selvagem, Ciência, Comunidades Indígenas e ...

  • Aldo Benítez

    Aldo Benítez trabalha há mais de uma década como jornalista, fazendo investigações e reportagens, cobrindo temas ambientais, ...

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