CORUMBA - Sotilos, or "o Grego" (the Greek) as everybody calls him, has the nervous look of those who've been sleeping too long with their eyes open. The homeless pensioner has settled on the pavement right in front of the railway station in Corumba, a Brazilian border town of 100,000, bounded by the troubled waters of the Paraguay River.
Corumba has become the main border crossing for cocaine, weapons and people passing from neighboring Bolivia into Brazil.
Born in Athens, 60-year-old Sotilos moved here because life was cheaper and safer than in Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. "Everybody knows each other around here," says the penniless man. "Everything is sold at very cheap prices, in silence and in complete impunity."
Prostitution rings, underage girls, stolen cars, hard drugs. Every day, alongside the poverty and misery, a flow of illegal trafficking and hard drugs crosses the invisible line that separates Corumba from its small Bolivian neighbor, Puerto Quijarro.
Between 20% and 25% of the cocaine paste that arrives in Brazil transits through these border towns. They are located in the Pantanal, a wild region in the Southwest of Brazil, covered in wetlands and lush rainforest.
The road that stretches from Mato Grosso do Sul's capital Campo Grande to Bolivia's city of Cruz de la Sierra runs across this vast part of the Amazon Basin. It has allowed Bolivia to become the third biggest cocaine producer in the world, after Colombia and Peru.
All three countries share borders with Brazil, where cocaine consumption has grown along with the boom of the middle class. Brazil has more than 1.2 million crack addicts, a cheap and extremely harmful form of cocaine. Brazil's daily consumption of crack is between 800 kilos and 1.2 metric tons (1764 lbs. to 2646 lbs.), according to a survey carried out by a Brazilian parliamentary commission last November.
The traffic has attracted envious eyes on both sides of the border. In the area, a gram of pure cocaine costs between one and 10 reais (between U.S. $ 0.5 and $ 5), depending on the mood of the dealer and the tenacity of the buyer. According to a recent survey carried out in major European cities, thousands of miles away, the same gram of cocaine will be sold for 60 euros, even though it is often mixed with other substances.
What is most striking about Corumba is the calm. It is a sort of antithesis to violence-ridden Ciudad Juarez, the Mexican border town famous for its drug traffic. Even the poor suburban neighborhoods, where, according to the police there are more than "300 bocas de fumo," illegal shooting houses where drugs are sold and consumed, seem unaffected by the boom in illegal trade.
Corumba and Puerto Quijarro are mirror images. The two cities are linked by a small bridge, built in 1980, that stretches over a tiny branch of the river. On each side of the bridge stand two massive border posts, mostly unoccupied. The border seems timeless, and travelers pass it without showing their passports, unless they are unlucky. A few kilometers away, unpaved roads are used by traffickers to pass seamlessly from one country to the other. These tracks often run through vast open fields. On the Brazilian side of the border, there are more than 50 small airfields scattered the length of the border, about one every five kilometers on average. Undetectable aircraft fly literally under the radar across the border, filled with drugs and illegal merchandise.
Cross-border crime wave
"This segment of the border in Mato Grosso do Sul is one of Brazil's most sensitive areas with regards to illegal trafficking," says security specialist Monica Herz, from the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro. In 2010, a parliamentary commission added Corumba to its list of Brazil's 17 busiest entry points for drugs and weapons. Things have only gotten worse since then. Shortly after the report was published, anti-gang operations in Rio de Janeiro reached a peak as the government sent troops from the National Public Security Force (FNSP) to Corumba.
"The situation continues to evolve," says Joao, a young, heavily armed, officer from the Military Police (Policia Militar), who has been working in Corumba for two years. "The drug lords now come from Sao Paulo and its PCC gang ["First Command of the Capital"] whose jailed bosses remain very active, even from their cells."
Brazilian authorities have recently arrested a number of young Brazilian gang members accused of murders across the border. This leads them to believe that there are more and more traffickers and that they are better organized. "There is a cross-border crime wave," explains Gustavo Villela Lima da Costa, an anthropologist from the Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul. "We even note the beginning of a 'cartelization' of the border."
The situation is so worrying that President Dilma Roussef has made border security one of Brazil's top priorities. In 2011, the government launched an eight-year special plan with a budget of over $5 billion. Its goal is to increase military operations along the 15,000-kilometer border that separates Brazil from its 10 neighbors.
Twice, nearly 10,000 soldiers have been deployed for a three-week period along the Peruvian, Bolivian, and Paraguayan borders. The last operation, named "Agata 6," ended on October 24th. Nearly 3.7 metric tons (more than four tons) of drugs were seized. "These operations may have to continue indefinitely in order to prevent criminals from settling in the border area," says Amauri Pereira Leite, head of the operation in Western Brazil, speaking from his headquarters in Campo Grande. Aware of the communication issues faced by Brazil's police forces and military on the ground, he claims "things are getting better." Pereira Leite also notes that trafficking in Mato Grosso do Sul fell by 70% during Operation Agata 5.
A drop in the bucket, experts say. "Things calm down during the operation, and then resume once it is over," says university professor Edgar Aparecido da Costa, a Corumba border expert. "Soldiers lack preparation and they are not familiar with the front-line territory. Yet intelligence and highly effective coordination are needed for this kind of operation. Even at the U.S.-Mexico border, where huge efforts have been made, it can't be said that border control is very efficient," says the specialist.
Military police and FNSP [National Public Security Force] troops continue to patrol the border every day, until the next operation. Yesterday, they seized 15 kilos (33 pounds) of cocaine. They seized only 10 kilos (22 pounds) last week, along with a few automatic weapons and some knives. They arrested two or three people, who were later sent to the local overcrowded jail. This is routine for the men patrolling this long and porous border.
Sotilos has earned only three reais today, carrying suitcases to the nearby railway station. "It is not much but it does not matter," he says smiling. "O Grego" is still waiting for the Greek state to pay off its debt and send him the small pension he claims, even here on the sidewalk in Corumba, Brazil.