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Elon Musk brought the internet to Brazil’s Amazon. Criminals love it

Brazil's Environmental Agency, federal agents destroy an illegal mining barge
A barge used in an illegal mining operation burns after being set ablaze by Brazilian environmental agents in the Yanomami Indigenous territory of Roraima state, Brazil, on Tuesday.
(Ibama via Associated Press)
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Brazilian federal agents aboard three helicopters descended on an illegal mining site on Tuesday in the Amazon rainforest. They were met with gunfire, and the shooters escaped, leaving behind an increasingly familiar find for authorities: Starlink internet units.

Starlink, a division of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, has almost 4,000 low-orbit satellites circling the Earth, connecting people in remote corners of the Amazon and providing a crucial advantage to Ukrainian forces on the battlefield. The lightweight, high-speed internet system has also proved a new and valuable tool for Brazil’s illegal miners, with reliable service for coordinating logistics, receiving advance warning of law enforcement raids and making payments without flying to a city.

Agents from the Brazilian environmental protection department’s special inspection group and the federal highway police rapid response group on Tuesday found one Starlink terminal up and running next to a pit, an officer who participated in the raid told the Associated Press. He spoke on condition of anonymity over concerns for his personal safety.

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They also seized mercury, gold and ammunition, and destroyed fuel and other equipment used by miners in an area known as Ouro Mil, controlled by Brazil´s most feared criminal organization, known as the First Command of the Capital, according to federal investigations.

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Since taking office this year, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has sought to crack down on environmental violations, particularly illegal mining in Yanomami land, Brazil’s largest Indigenous territory. In recent years, an estimated 20,000 prospectors contaminated vital waterways with mercury, which is used to separate gold for ore. They have disrupted traditional Indigenous life, brought disease and caused widespread famine.

The environment agency, known as Ibama, has seized seven Starlink terminals in Yanomami land over the past five weeks, the agency’s press office said.

Illegal miners have long used satellite internet to communicate and coordinate, but until now that entailed sending a technician, usually by plane, to install a heavy, fixed antenna that cannot be carried off when mining sites move or are raided. And the connection was slow and unstable, especially on rainy days.

Starlink, which first became available in Brazil last year and has spread rapidly, solved those problems. Installation is do-it-yourself, the equipment works even on the move, data transmission speeds are as fast as in Brazil´s large cities and it works during storms.

Starlink has long viewed the Amazon as an opportunity. That was underscored by Musk’s visit to Brazil last May, when he met with then-President Jair Bolsonaro.

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“Super excited to be in Brazil for launch of Starlink for 19,000 unconnected schools in rural areas & environmental monitoring of Amazon,” Musk tweeted at the time.

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That project with the government hasn’t advanced, however. SpaceX and the communications ministry haven’t signed any contracts, and only three terminals were installed in Amazon schools for a 12-month trial period, the ministry’s press office said in an emailed response to questions.

Nevertheless, Starlink has taken off in the region and begun ushering in change.

In Atalaia do Norte, at the western reaches of the Brazilian Amazon near the borders with Peru and Colombia, Rubeney de Castro Alves installed Starlink at his hotel in December. Now, he can make bank transfers and conduct video calls. He even started bingeing Netflix shows.

“There are so many new things to watch that I’m not even sleeping,” Alves said, chuckling.

His son once flew all the way to Manaus, the state capital 708 miles away, just to negotiate with a group of tourists via conference call. Today, internet at his 11-room hotel in Atalaia do Norte is more reliable than in Manaus, and he bought a second terminal for his tour boat to enable communications on its 10-day cruises, Alves said.

With high demand for internet, dozens of the riverside town’s 21,000 residents flock to Alves’ hotel each day. Its balcony is a meeting point for teenagers who spend hours playing online games on their phones.

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“It made a revolution in our city,” Alves said.

A world away, in Ukraine, Starlink has yielded advantages on the battlefield in defenders’ war with Russia.

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Ukraine has received some 24,000 Starlink terminals that allow continued internet in the most vulnerable regions of the southeast, even amid ongoing Russian shelling. In large Ukrainian cities, authorities have set up “points of resilience” that offer free internet access along with hot beverages.

The benefits of connectivity were immediately apparent to bad actors in the Amazon, Hugo Loss, operations coordinator for Brazil´s environment agency, told the AP in a phone interview.

“This technology is extremely fast and really improves the ability to manage an illegal mine,” Loss said. “You can manage hundreds of mining sites without ever setting foot in one.”

Another official with the environmental agency told the AP that it was just beginning to expel miners from the Yanomami territory and the spread of Starlink has complicated that mission. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of concerns about their personal safety.

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An unauthorized reseller of Starlink in Boa Vista, the gateway for travel into Yanomami territory, has been marketing the units in a WhatsApp group for illegal miners and promising same-day delivery. Her price for a terminal is $1,600 — six times what Alves pays for service at his little hotel in Atalaia do Norte. Others are selling the Starlink terminals to illegal miners in Facebook groups, including one called “Fanatics for Prospecting.”

As lawbreakers have gained access to superior internet service, authorities have started using Starlink themselves. Federal agents installed a terminal at a new checkpoint on the Uraricoera River, an important corridor for miners entering Yanomami territory. The official who informed the AP about the Tuesday raid used Starlink to send photos and even video files of their operation.

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Brazil’s environmental agency told the AP via email that it, along with other federal bodies, is studying how to block Starlink’s signal in illegal mining areas, calling it crucial to stopping the activity.

The AP emailed James Gleeson, SpaceX’s communications director, with questions about Starlink’s presence in Brazil and its use by illegal miners in remote areas, but received no response.

AP journalist Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia, contributed to this report

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