Drawn by high gold prices, reduced state and federal oversight, and outdated mining legislation, plus pro-mining rhetoric and proposed legislation from far-right President Jair Bolsonaro that would make it legal to mine on reserves, thousands of miners have flocked to the Yanomami reserve in search of the precious metal, exacerbating a longstanding problem that has only grown worse in recent years.

The scorching Amazon sun beats down as a group of agents inspect the body of a black helicopter. Nearby, in the backyard of the federal police headquarters in the city of Boa Vista, sit more than twenty aircraft — all seized, reports the AP.

Some bear signs of violent crashes: caved-in cockpits with wings broken off. Others feature interiors with stripped-out passenger seats in order to load up with more men and women, plus additional motors, fuel, food, and other cargo. Before they were confiscated, the aircraft were allegedly used for flying in and out of illegal gold mining sites.

Here in Roraima state, where all gold mining is illegal, they are essential for transporting prospectors and equipment to far-flung Indigenous reserves, including Brazil’s largest, Yanomami. Environmental and Indigenous rights groups estimate some 20,000 illegal miners are present on the reserve that is roughly the same size as Portugal. Government officials, including Brazil’s Vice President Hamilton Mourão, put the number closer to 3,500.

“Our focus over this last year has been to go after the logistics of illegal mining,” José Roberto Peres, the police superintendent for the state, told the Associated Press during an interview in November. “These are expensive machines; we can deduce that there is a lot of money involved.”

Police have intensified their efforts to identify and capture aircraft supporting illegal mining, but tracking down planes’ owners is stymied by the fact they’re usually registered to fronts – relatives, workers, or spouses who refuse to name names. Still, police said they have identified the true owners of most of the planes they’ve seized, and keep them as evidence while the investigations advance. Generally, the illegal aircraft owners are local elites who launder their money in Boa Vista hotels, restaurants, gyms, and gasoline stations, according to police officials, who declined to disclose names.

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