On a recent Wednesday morning, we drove past central Cayenne's dilapidated houses and ramshackle shops to the gendarmerie HQ at the edge of the city for an interview with Colonel François Müller, the commander of French Guiana's gendarmes. (The U.S. has no real equivalent to the gendarmerie, a national police force with both military training and a mandate to enforce French law.) Müller, a tall man with a long, thin nose and square, metal-framed glasses, is in charge of executing Operation Harpy, a major offensive to not only destroy illegal mines in the jungle but also target the supply lines and underground economy which support them.
In his office, there is a large portrait of President Sarkozy on one wall and to the left of his desk, a topographical map of French Guiana resting on an easel. On the map, shovel-and-pick icons, red dots that look like bullet holes, and other symbols mark the location of clandestine mines, illegal roads, airplane runways, and violent confrontations between gendarmes and garimpeiros. It is generously covered.
Has Operation Harpie been successful at stopping illegal gold mining?
The first operation in 2008 was for four months, from February until June. The problem is that it's very efficient during the four months, but after the four months the garimpeiros come back. In 2009, a new operation was launched that was six months, from April to October. We did a lot of actions, but after they stopped the garimpeiros came back. That's the reason we continue today. We have to disrupt to the networks, the trafficking and smuggling.
Is this the best strategy?
I cannot be the judge of the party. You have to see the different actors. The studies done by ONF [France's version of the US Forest Service] have show that in fact we have had a stabilization in the labor and decrease in the pollution. Our objective is to end the miners, to disrupt the networks, to slow down the situation. With our actions, they don't have comfort and it's difficult for them to live in the forest. The problem is the rate of gold, which is increasing considerably. Garimpeiros are very poor and they come here to earn money. It's a survival situation.
Why are Brazilians coming here, as opposed to mining in Brazil?
In Brazil, they are very strict against miners. The methods of the Brazilian police are not the same. They are not Democrats.
What happens during a typical operation?
It's very difficult because the miners are deep in the Amazon. We need a helicopter to get there. For us, it's difficult to find helicopters to transport the prisoners, the miners. Most of the time we destroy the materials, and we tell the miners they have to go back to Brazil. We try to have an eye on the chief of the gang. It's better because the basic Brazilian, he is not interesting.
Does that mean the miners just come back? Is that frustrating?
Yes. We do the job. It all depends on the situation of the Brazilian. If it's the first infraction, we say okay, you have to go back. But for the leaders, the infractions are higher for them. The problem with the miners is two things: the international price of gold and the lack of cooperation with Brazil and Suriname. For the average Brazilian, the life in jail here is more like paradise than the jungle. They take a shower, they have TV. They are more fit when they go back.
Sarkozy and Lula recently signed a major arms deal. Are there are political considerations in play that make your job more difficult?
No, the difficulty is that Brazil is a federal state. We have President Lula, but the different states have autonomy and they don't have the same way of thinking. The difficulty is Amapa [the Brazilian state bordering French Guiana to the east]. There is a collusion between the miners and the local people. The president can have a point of view, of course, but in Amapa state it's very different.
How much illegal gold is being sold in Oiapoque, the Brazilian town bordering the Saint Georges in French Guiana?
Approximately one ton of gold has been declared in Oiapoque. Our estimation is that four tons of gold is moving through there. And there is no gold mine there in Brazil. The gold is coming from French Guiana, but the Brazilians from Oiapoque don't ask themselves about it. What is an infraction in French Guiana, is not an infraction for them.
Do French people know understand what is happening here?
No, they don't know. Guyane is known for space, the rockets, or the penitentiary, Papillon, Steve McQueen. And the equatorial forest with animals. But I think people from France, from Paris, from Toulouse, don't worry about Guyane, about what happens here. You have prostitution, guns, mafia. It is a place without law and we want the law. For an American, it is like the Wild West in the 19th century. A new frontier.