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Story Publication logo July 2, 2010

French Guiana: River Patrol With the Gendarmes

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As jittery investors have sought safe-haven investments in gold during the recession, the metal's...

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After Cayenne, I traveled to a ramshackle little town about 50 miles from the Brazilian border called Regina. It had a disused airstrip and a rough cafe called the Fleur de Laos that was run by an older Vietnamese man. A company of gendarmes was also stationed in the village and I had come to see how Operation Harpie was playing out on the ground. The gendarmes' base, a two-story French colonial house surrounded by razor wire and guarded by a black dog named Rambo, sat on the shore of the Approuague River. It was one of French Guiana's major waterways and one that garimpeiros frequently used to move men and supplies to mines farther south in the jungle. On the second-floor porch facing the river, two gendarmes were posted in front of two laptops at all times during the day to log information about passing boats. An infrared camera mounted on a post near the water fed images at night into the computers.

The gendarmes were conducting a river patrol that evening and shortly after arriving I jumped into a battered pirgoe with an English-speaking warrant officer named Gilles Petiot and three other gendarmes. Each was armed with a Sig Sauer 9 mm and wore light-weight jungle camouflage. One carried a Taurus shotgun with a steel barrell and wooden pump. The three gendarmes were young, from metropolitan France, and regarded French Guiana as a backwater. Petiot was older and had been posted in Pakistan, Iraq, and Nicaragua but kept his watch set to Paris time. He too was only in French Guiana for three months, and he knew to the day how much time was left on his tour. "One month and 13 days, " he told me.

We motored out to the middle of the Approuague. It was nearly dusk. The jungle was a thick and unbroken wall of green on both sides of the river. The gendarme in the stern twisted the Yamaha engine's throttle knob and the boat's bow rose into the air and we skimmed over the water toward a bridge in the distance. As we approached it, the gendarmes spotted a man standing by a white car. French Guiana had one major road in the entire department. This bridge connected to that road and the road connected French Guiana to Suriname to the west and Brazil's northern states--all of which were poor, remote and good at exporting not much more than illegal gold miners--to the east. The road was an attractive transit route if you were trafficking bootleg diesel fuel or black market mercury and it was possible the man in the white car could be doing either.

The pirogue reached the shore and the gendarmes approached the man. A small black dog pranced nervously around the group. Petiot and the gendarmes questioned the man for several minutes and then we returned to the boat and headed back to the middle of the river. It appeared he had been either fishing or swimming. The gendarme in the stern opened up the throttle and we buzzed over the water, sending a dramatic arc of spray behind the boat. Then the pirogue's motor, an ill-used piece of equipment confiscated from miners, coughed and quit. We came to rest in the water. Warrant Officer Petiot radioed the base, but his radio seemed not to work and the base did not respond. He tried several times. We floated gently on the river. The sun was droppinig.

"This was the good boat," Petiot said.

After twenty minutes, Petiot made contact and another pirogue was dispatched to pick us up. Two gendarmes in that boat gripped our gunwales while a third held our bow line and began towing us back. If the rescue pirogue went too fast, it's wake swamped our boat and so we trundled in tandem slowly over the water like courting manatees. The sun had dropped behind the jungle canopy and night was coming on. The river was wide and brown and I could hear crickets thrumming in the jungle. As we neared the bridge again, the gendarmes spotted two men standing on it off to our starboard side. The other gendarmes crouched lower in the boat and one readied the Taurus shotgun. I had heard rumors that some garimpeiros were now armed with assault rifles and many gendarmes had been shot at multiple times. We pointed the pirogues toward shore but slow as we were moving, it took a long time to cross the short distance.

The men were barely visible in the gathering darkness and Warrant Officer Petiot scanned them with night-vision glasses.

"We are going to control this man," Warrant Officer Petiot said to me.

The pirogues ran up onto a small beach and three gendarmes charged up the bank with drawn pistols. I jumped out of the boat and ran up toward the bridge. Petiot was already speaking with the two men. Both were fishermen and had papers. We walked back to the beach, pushed the boats into the water and motored slowly back toward the base. One of the the fisherman blinked a flashlight at us. A little farther on, the rescue boat's motor also failed. It was a warm night and the sky was filled with stars.

Petiot lit a cigarette. "It is like cat and mouse," he said to me. "The garimpeiros are always hiding and we are always chasing. This is a game."

If it was a game, it seemed fairly clear who was winning so far. Since 2008, gendarmes had seized about 53 pounds of gold and 600 pounds of mercury during raids on illegal mines. Meanwhile, garimpeiros were mining an estimated 10 tons of gold from the jungle every year, while WWF figured about 30 tons of mercury was dumped in the department's waterways in the process. In February of this year, Sarkozy traveled to French Guiana and declared that he had been the first to make clandestine gold mining a priority, but the gendarmes still appeared seriously outgunned and under-equipped. They had two helicopters to conduct aerial surveillance and raids, one of which was currently broken. Much of their equipment--boats, guns, and four-wheelers--was either confiscated from miners or in poor condition. I saw one officer whose boots were trussed together with bungee cord.

"We dream like Americans, but are equipped like Africans," is how the gendarmes put it. It was an impolitic but accurate statement.

What is happening in the interior could not happen in France," a local journalist who had been covering the issue for more than a decade told me one day over lunch in Cayenne. "It says a lot about the relationship between France and it's overseas territories. For instance, there is gold in the center of France in the mountains of Cévennes. My grandmother lives there. If 10,000 or 15,000 illegal people would come here in search of gold, it would last 48 hours. There are two countries here."

The garimpeiros were also proving worthy adversaries. What gendarmes destroyed, miners resurrected. They repaired engines half destroyed by phosphorus bombs. They cannibalized parts from burned Kawasaki four-wheelers and continued using them to haul supplies over miles of treacherously muddy tracks. They had radio networks and look-outs and vanished into the jungle before raids. Where gendarmes erected road checkpoints, garimpeiros cut roads and footpaths around them through the jungle. They rebuilt illegal camps razed days before.

In Cayenne, I saw surveillance photos of miners transporting everything from tractors and cows upriver on nothing more substantial than two pirogues lashed together. Buoyed by the ever-rising price of gold, it seemed they had every incentive to continue.

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