French Guiana: Welcome to the Jungle

If people know anything about this place--and not many do--it's because of Steve McQueen. In 1973, McQueen starred in Papillon, a movie based on the book of the same name by Henri Charrière, a hustler in the French underground and accused pimp-murderer sentenced to a life in prison on French Guiana's infamous Devil's Island penal colony. After spending several years in solitary confinement, murdering another convict, and attempting multiple cavales (French for escapes), Charrière finally leapt from a high cliff and floated away on a sack of coconuts. He left with good reason. Penal colony conditions were brutal, murder was common, and prisoners had to carry their money in a small metal cylinder lodged in the rectum.

Getting to French Guiana is almost as hard as escaping it. The photographer and I take a 14-hour bus ride from Georgetown, Guyana to Paramaribo, Suriname, then a battered Nissan taxi with Ernesto, a big man with dreadlocks who barrels down the marginally paved road through dense jungle and drops us at the ramshackle border town of Albina. French Guiana is across the river and we hop in a marginally seaworthy pirogue--a long, skinny, flat-bottomed boat--equipped with a Yamaha outboard and two teenage pilots who steer us across the brown Maroni River. The water is choppy because we are close to the sea and we ride low because of our gear and the five stocky Lebanese men wearing blingy sunglasses who've been shopping in Paramaribo. I'm afraid the boat will be swamped, but the boy in the bow pulls out his Nokia and start texting and I know we will be fine.

On the road east to Cayenne, we pass through two checkpoints manned by French gendarmes wearing camouflage shorts and modified Sig Sauer 9 mms. At the first checkpoint, they wave us over. They ask a few questions and photocopy our passports. It is friendly enough. Back on the road, we soon pass the European Space Agency's spaceport outside Karou where the EU, Russia, and private paying customers loft satellite-laden rockets into the sky. It is a superbly chosen location: rockets here benefit from the "slingshot effect," the energy created by the speed of the Earth's rotation at the equator, which makes them travel faster (and cheaper) than if launched from, say, the Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. This is the other thing French Guiana is known for, aside from Napoleon's penal colonies and now, perhaps, gold.

In Cayenne, we rest for a day and plot our route in the jungle. The plan is to first embed with one of the French gendarme units fighting the garimpeiros, generally at illegal mines located near one of the department's two big north-south running rivers that form its borders with Brazil and Suriname. After that, we'll head east to the Brazilian border town of Oiapoque, just across the river from Saint Georges and a key transit point for illegal gold being taken out of the jungle. It is not ideal. Garimpeiros can be suspicious and we have been warned not to be seen with gendarmes because miners will suspect we work with them. There is also the jungle's own menu of danger: caimen alligators, spiders, and, among many inhospitable snakes, Lachesis muta, the South American bushmaster whose Latin name translates to "brings silent death."

Several days after arriving, we also learn that a flotilla of machete-wielding miners in pirogues attacked a small squad of French soldiers and border police who'd been heading down the Oiapoque River after an operation. Earlier in the day, the soldiers had arrested 15 miners, confiscated three boats, and seized 617 grams of gold and the garimpeiros were attempting to retake their treasure. The soldiers fired warning shots and rubber "flash balls" but the miners managed to retake one of their boats and about 500 grams of gold. "The violent reaction by the garimpeiros can be explained by the exceptional take of 617 grams of gold, about 20 percent of the quantity seized in 2009 during the battle against illegal mining," said Phillipe Duporge , the director of French Guiana's border police, at a press conference the next day.

On the world market, 617 grams of gold is currently worth about $22,317.

Local coverage (in French) of the story here.