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Pirates of the Amazon: Rise of river gangs

While paddling a kayak down the muddy waters of a river in the Amazon region of Brazil, Emma Kelty, 43, came across a clutch of heavily armed men floating about on their canoes. The British woman had been warned of pirates when she started her solitary journey in Peru in August. She ignored the gang and continued her journey that was supposed to cover the entire stretch of the Amazon. “My boat will be stolen and I will be murdered. Cool,” Ms. Kelty tweeted about the threat. The words came true and she could not finish the trip. Last month, she was shot at twice and her decapitated body dumped in the river by a gang of seven men, including three minors.

The incident sent a shiver through the expatriate community in Brazil. The Amazon is a favourite hunting ground of foreigners seeking thrill and adventure in the world’s most diverse and dense ecosystem. Last week brought more bad news as an American couple and their two children vanished when a raft crossing the river was attacked by pirates. The family jumped from the raft when it came under attack and used a surfboard to escape. They hid in the woods for three days, surviving on insects and leaves. “They saw people looking for them. But they were not sure if they were policemen, pirates or local people. Out of fear, they decided to stay hidden,” Vanessa Macedo, a local policewoman, told reporters after the family was found safe near a riverside village.

Before leaving for the U.S., the family recognised their three assailants. The police have issued arrest warrants and are combing the area for them, with little success so far.

The pirates have become a new headache for the police in Brazil, where the crime graph is spiralling as the economy continues to sink. Latest figures show that Brazil saw a 6.8% rise in its homicide rate in the first six months of 2017. Violence is on the rise across the country, especially in the northern parts, where the Amazon and its tributaries flow. These rivers — and tourism and trade happening on them — are the new targets of these pirates.

The pirates, according to the police, are organised gangs that have moved from the country’s coasts to the rivers of the Amazon. Armed with AR 15 assault rifles, machine guns, VHF radio system and high-powered binoculars, these gangs mostly target vessels that transport fuel and electronics from the free trade zone of Manaus, the capital of Amazonas State. According to government estimates, companies transporting cargo through Amazon rivers lose up to 100 million reals ($30 million) a year to these gangs.

Easy targets

According to police sources, the modus operandi of the pirates is simple. With small, fast boats, they surround big vessels at night, tie a rope and climb on the raft and take the stolen cargo to a larger boat, which is anchored near the rafts. “The pirates have sophisticated weapons and communication system, while we struggle for resources. The economic crisis has made it even worse with the government cutting down on our budgets,” says a senior policeman from the region, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The number of pirate attacks in the region has increased four times from 50 in 2015 to over 200 in 2016. Now, they have turned to tourists, the easy targets.”

With the news about attacks on tourists spreading, there are fears of a sharp dip in the number of travellers going to the region. That will be another blow to the small communities settled along the rivers who are dependent on tourists for survival. Already reeling under the economic crisis, these villages may give more recruits to the pirates if the government fails to address the livelihood crisis they face.

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