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 lined up across the skies, connecting people in remote corners of the Amazon and providing a crucial advantage to Ukranian 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 back to the city.
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Agents from the Brazilian environment agency’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.
They also seized 600 grams of mercury (21 ounces), 15 grams (0.5 ounces) of gold, 508 cartridges of ammunition of varying calibers, and personal documents.
They destroyed 3,250 litres (848 gallons) of fuel, four mining barges, 12 generators, 23 camping and storage units, and seven outboard motors.
The mining area known as Ouro Mil is controlled by Brazil´s most feared criminal organisation, known as the First Command of the Capital, according to federal investigations.
Since taking office this year, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has empowered authorities 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 used to separate gold. They have disrupted traditional Indigenous life, brought disease and caused widespread famine.
The environment agency, known as Ibama, has seized six Starlink kits in Yanomami land over the past five weeks, including the two this Tuesday, the agency’s press office said in an emailed statement.
An untold number of the highly portable Starlink terminals could have been taken with miners as they fled sites into the rainforest.
Illegal miners have long used the 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 whenever mining sites move or are raided.
Even so, the connection was slow and unstable, especially on rainy days. Connection in the Amazon´s small- and medium-sized cities has been no better.
Starlink – which first became available in Brazil last year and has spread rapidly – solved these problems. Installation is do-it-yourself, the equipment works even on the move, speed is as fast as in Brazil´s large cities and it even works during storms.
Starlink has long viewed the Amazon as an opportunity. That was underscored by Musk’s visit to Brazil last May. He met with then-President Jair Bolsonaro and the region was at the center of their conversation.
“Super excited to be in Brazil for launch of Starlink for 19,000 unconnected schools in rural areas and environmental monitoring of Amazon,” Musk tweeted at the time.
That project with the Brazilian government, however, hasn’t advanced.
SpaceX and the communications ministry haven’t signed any contract, 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, on 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 binging Netflix.
“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 1,140 kilometres (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, Alves said.
He bought a second terminal for his tour boat. Up until now, passengers even on his 10-day voyages have had to do without any communications. If something were amiss, no one would know until the boat failed to arrive on time.
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.
“It made a revolution in our city,” Alves said.
A world away, in Ukraine, Starlink has yielded advantages on the battlefield in its war with Russia.
Ukraine has already received some 24,000 Starlink terminals. Amid ongoing Russian shelling of civilian infrastructure, they allow continued internet connection in the most vulnerable regions in the country’s southeast.
In all large Ukrainian cities, authorities have set up “points of resilience” that offer free internet 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. It allows coordination of equipment, miners, food and fuel.
“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 environment agency told the AP it is just beginning to expel miners from the Yanomami territory and the spread of Starlink is a fever among illegal miners, complicating that mission.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of concerns about personal safety.
An unauthorized reseller of Starlink in Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima state that is 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 USD 1,600, with monthly installments of USD 360 — six times what Alves pays for service at his little hotel in Atalaia do Norte.
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 heavy video files of their operation via WeTransfer.
Brazil’s environment 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.
“This measure is crucial to dismantling the logistics that sustain illegal mining in Indigenous Territories,” its press office said.
The AP emailed James Gleeson, SpaceX’s Communications Director, questions about Starlink’s presence in Brazil and its use by illegal miners in remote areas, but received no response.