Elon Musk brought the Internet to the Amazon of Brazil. Criminals love it

Brazilian federal agents boarded three helicopters that descended on an illegal mining site Tuesday in the Amazon jungle. They were met with gunfire, and the shooters escaped, leaving behind what the authorities were becoming increasingly familiar with: the Starlink cyber units.

Starlink, part of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, has nearly 4,000 satellites orbiting the earth, connecting people to the remote corners of the Amazon and providing a significant advantage to Ukrainian forces on the battlefield. The lightweight, high-speed Internet system has also proven a new and valuable tool for Brazil’s illegal miners, with reliable logistics service, receiving early warning of law enforcement raids and making payments without flying into town.

Agents of Brazil’s environmental protection ministry’s special investigation unit and a rapid response team of the traffic police on Tuesday found the Starlink facility near the pit, a police officer involved in the raid told the Associated Press. He spoke and asked not to be named out of concern for his safety.

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

Since taking office this year, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has tried to curb environmental violations, especially illegal mining in the Yanomami country, the largest indigenous community in Brazil. In recent years, an estimated 20,000 water testers have contaminated important waterways with mercury, which is used to separate gold from iron. They disrupted the lives of the Natives, brought disease and caused great famine.

The environmental agency, called Ibama, seized seven Starlink terminals in Yanomami country five weeks ago, said the agency’s press office.

Illegal miners have long used satellite internet to communicate and coordinate, but until now that involved sending a technician, usually by plane, to install a heavy, fixed antenna that could be wiped out if mining sites moved or were attacked. And the connection was slow and unstable, especially on rainy days.

Starlink, which became available in Brazil last year and has quickly spread, solved those problems. The installation is done by yourself, the equipment works even on the go, the data transfer speed is as fast as in the big cities of Brazil and it works during hurricanes.

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

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

However, that project with the government did not progress. SpaceX and the communications department have not signed any contracts, and only three terminals were installed in Amazon schools for a 12-month trial period, the department’s press office said in an emailed response to questions.

However, Starlink has moved into the region and started to bring about change.

In Atalaia do Norte, west of the Brazilian Amazon near the borders of Peru and Colombia, Rubeney de Castro Alves installed Starlink in his hotel in December. Now, you can transfer money to the bank and make video calls. He even started bingeing on Netflix shows.

“There are so many new things to watch that I can’t even sleep,” said Alves, laughing.

His son once flew all the way to Manaus, the provincial capital 708 miles away, just to have a conference call with a group of tourists. Today, the internet at his 11-room hotel in Atalaia do Norte is more reliable than in Manaus, and he has bought a second port for his cruise ship so we can stay connected on its 10-day cruise, Alves said.

With high demand for Internet access, dozens of the riverside town’s 21,000 residents flock to the Alves Hotel each day. Its veranda is a gathering place for teenagers who spend hours playing online games on their phones.

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

Globally, in Ukraine, Starlink has shown advantages on the battlefield in the defenders’ war with Russia.

Ukraine has acquired some 24,000 Starlink terminals that allow continued Internet access in the most vulnerable areas of the southeast, even amid Russia’s shelling. In major cities of Ukraine, authorities have set up “hardness points” that offer free Internet access and hot drinks.

The benefits of the connection were immediately apparent to bad actors in the Amazon, Hugo Loss, operations coordinator for Brazil’s environmental agency, told the AP in a telephone interview.

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

One official with the environmental agency told the AP that it had just begun evicting miners from the Yanomami area and that the spread of Starlink had complicated that task. The official has not been named out of concern for their safety.

An unauthorized Starlink dealer in Boa Vista, a gateway to Yanomami territory, has been marketing units to a WhatsApp group of illegal miners and promising same-day delivery. His terminal price is $1,600 – six times what Alves is paid for work at his small hotel in Atalaia do Norte. Others are selling Starlink terminals to illegal miners in Facebook groups, including one called “Fanatics for Prospecting.”

With criminals now able to access high-speed internet, authorities have started using Starlink themselves. Federal agents installed a terminal at a new checkpoint on the Uraricoera River, an important tunnel for miners into Yanomami territory. The official who briefed the AP on Tuesday’s raid uses Starlink to send photos and even video files of their operations.

Brazil’s environmental agency told the AP by email that it, along with other government agencies, is studying how to intercept the Starlink signal in illegal mining areas, calling it essential to stop the operation.

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 did not receive a response.

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

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