The Truth About Drugs and Violence in the Amazon

Planet In Peril
 Jeff Hutchens / Contributor/ Getty Images


A new book, The Third Bank of the River, upends the myths of the Amazon and explores why the region remains mired in turmoil.

IN THE SUMMER of 2014, journalist Chris Feliciano Arnold returned to Manaus, Brazil, to cover the FIFA World Cup, and no longer recognized it. In the eight years since his last visit, the city, the largest in the Amazon and surrounded by jungle, had built a mall, a Nike store, and a 12-screen movie theater. Arnold passed Subway franchises, enjoyed 3G cell service, and cruised freshly paved highways.

In many ways, however, Manaus remained a backwater, despite the recent developments. The city’s century-old sewer system, for starters, served less than 10 percent of its residents. “It’s bizarre to be in a city of 2 million people where some kids have Pokémon Go and others don’t have running water,” says Arnold, who was adopted from Brazil as an infant and raised in Oregon. He soon felt that the perception of the region didn’t match reality. To many outsiders, “the Amazon is almost a Discovery Channel special,” he says. “That was a myth I really wanted to bust.”

Arnold’s new book, The Third Bank of the River, chronicles his three-year effort to understand the Amazon as it exists today. Through exhaustive research and firsthand reporting, he reveals how drug lords, loggers, politicians, and tribe leaders have shaped the region, weaving together stories hundreds of years old and others he watched unfold, and explores the myriad of issues facing the people who live there. Early in his reporting, he learned that a cattle truck full of loggers, confined in slavery-like conditions, had been discovered near the town of Altamira. When he asked an official at the scene why the incident hadn’t sparked an outcry, “the dude was like, ‘That’s just kind of what happens here,’ ” Arnold recalls. There’s essentially a slave trade in the Amazon, he adds, “but because it doesn’t affect iPhones, it’s invisible in terms of global consciousness.”

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Courtesy image

The abuse of workers is just the beginning. Illegal logging outfits, in their effort to control the rain forest, massacre indigenous tribes, one of which emerged from the jungle during the World Cup, fleeing for its life. The bloodshed dates back to the 17th century, when settlers began enslaving the Amazon’s indigenous people en masse. The tribes are not “uncontacted,” as sometimes reported, Arnold says. “In large part, they have voluntarily isolated themselves out of a deep-seated fear. They had contact, terrifying contact, and have withdrawn.”

Despite the atrocities committed in the rain forest, the drug trade poses perhaps the most conspicuous threat. In December 2015, Arnold took a boat to the town of Tabatinga, where each year some 300 tons of cocaine cross into Brazil from Colombia and Peru. At first, it didn’t seem like one of the world’s highest-volume trafficking corridors, but “it’s hard to find somebody who’s completely clean,” Arnold says. “It’s police, it’s businessmen, it’s lawyers, it’s accountants.”

When the drugs make their way to the cities, violence follows. In Manaus, in July 2015, a spat of reprisal killings claimed 38 lives, reigniting a war between the cartels and law enforcement. The dead included an 18-year-old construction worker; a 25-year-old parking attendant, on duty directing cars; and two young fry cooks, standing outside a home. Afterward, Arnold went door-to-door to interview the victims’ families and realized that trafficking was all around him. “I reached a point where I was no longer sure that I could responsibly continue to pursue the story without making people feel unsafe,” he says.

Looking back, Arnold says he didn’t want to dishonor his home country by writing a negative book. “But I realized, ultimately, that the most important thing I could do was amplify the systemic crises there rather than try to rush past it with, ‘Oh, look, they have the internet now,’ ” he says. He admits that initially the new developments had given him hope. “I was really naive,” he says, “because a lot of the transformation was superficial.”

This story appears in the print edition of the June 2018 issue, with the headline “The Urban Jungle.”