New gun sales have risen sharply in Brazil’s Amazon region under far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, according to official figures reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
The Amazon has long had high rates of violence due in large part to conflicts over land. Illegal deforestation has also spiked dramatically since Bolsonaro took office and weakened environmental agencies, leading to the devastating fires in the rainforest this summer that caused a global outcry.
BuzzFeed News’ analysis suggests that gun sales are increasing in the Amazon states at a faster rate than the rest of the country under Bolsonaro, whose family has ties to the US’s National Rifle Association. He has made loosening Brazil’s strict gun control laws one of his top priorities since taking office in January, echoing the NRA’s argument that guns are the best defense from crime for law-abiding citizens.
Government records show that if current trends continue through the end of 2019, new gun sales in the Amazon will be 33% higher than they were in 2018, while in the rest of Brazil, new guns are being sold at about the same rate as last year. In more than half of the Amazon states, more guns were sold in the first eight months of this year than in all of 2018.
Across the Amazon states, home to 29 million people, 5,270 guns were sold in the first eight months of 2019, up from 4,801 in all of last year. Across the rest of Brazil, where around 180 million people live, 30,739 guns were sold between January and August this year, compared to 42,890 sold in the whole of 2018.
These records were originally obtained through a freedom of information request by the Brazilian public security think tank the Igarapé Institute and shared with BuzzFeed News. Brazil’s Congress is due to take up sweeping new gun legislation this week.
The data analyzed by BuzzFeed News is not a comprehensive look at all the guns in circulation in Brazil but does provide important clues to how Bolsonaro’s policies have transformed gun ownership since taking office. The records obtained by the Igarapé Institute only cover the first eight months of this year, and the government’s own records sometimes contain contradictory data due to different agencies’ accounting methods and different quality of state-level data, said Igarapé researcher Carolina Taboada.
This data also only covers legally sold weapons, and there’s no reliable data on illegal guns circulating in Brazil, which account for much of the country's violence. And it only reflects guns sold to civilians, not military or police officers — weapons registered to police also play a role in deforestation, because off-duty cops often work on private security forces, which settlers in Brazil have used to claim new turf.
Since becoming president, Bolsonaro has issued eight separate decrees that seek to change gun laws without requiring Congress to change the law, although several of these are facing legal challenges. One of Bolsonaro’s signature policies seems to have been specifically designed to spread guns in places like the Amazon. In August, Bolsonaro enacted a law allowing gun owners to carry their weapons across “rural properties,” overriding a previous law that had required gun owners to keep weapons inside their homes. This has long been a priority of an important part of his base; agrarian interests occupying large tracts of disputed land. Separately, he also issued a decree this year increasing the number of guns an individual could own to 30.
The spread of guns in the Amazon region is a dangerous sign for the rainforest and the communities that live there, said Robert Muggah, the Igarapé Institute’s research director.
“The relaxation of gun laws will very likely empower criminal groups who already operate with impunity across the Amazon,” Muggah said, adding that these groups are increasingly turning towards activities that destroy the rainforest — like illegal logging and mining — for profit.
Even under previous administrations, which restricted gun ownership and took many steps to greatly reduce illegal deforestation, land disputes in the Amazon led to many deaths. The Pastoral Land Commission, an NGO that tracks violence in the region, counted at least 300 people killed in Amazon land disputes during the past decade. In one case documented by Human Rights Watch in Mato Grosso state, nine small farmers were murdered in 2017 by an armed group trying to seize their land for illegal logging.
BuzzFeed News’ analysis reveals that Mato Grosso had one of the largest jumps in gun sales under Bolsonaro. More than 1,400 new guns were sold in the first eight months of 2019, more than twice as many as were sold in all of 2018.
Lúcio Andrade Hilário de Nascimento, the general ombudsman for the military police in Mato Grosso, told BuzzFeed News that law enforcement agencies are already overwhelmed in the region. If more guns come to the region, illegal loggers, miners, and others who are violently claiming rainforest territory could be even more emboldened.
“Arming people will stimulate, increase, and intensify social conflicts in the Amazon region, including … illegal deforestation [and] criminal mining,” Nascimento said.
The city of Colniza — near the community where the farmers were murdered in 2017 — is “like something out of a Western movie,” Nascimento said, adding that spreading more weapons in the region will only make the situation worse. “A ‘bang-bang logic’ will dominate — everyone defends their own self-interest whatever it takes,” Nascimento said.
When armed groups claim new land, "it’s more like a summary eviction of peasants,” said Jeane Bellini, national coordinator of an NGO that works with small farmers and landless laborers in the Amazon called the Comissão Pastoral da Terra. “There is a mood of terror because of the presence of gunmen in these moments of repossessions."
Bolsonaro has also spent his first year in office slashing the budgets of the agencies charged with protecting the Amazon, as well as weakening the offices that are supposed to defend indigenous communities and human rights. In this context, human rights and environmental activists worried the August gun bill was giving rural landowners a green light to form their own armed forces to grab more land in the Amazon.
Gilberto Vieira dos Santos, deputy secretary of the Indigenous Missionary Council, told the outlet Repórter Brasil when the bill was adopted in August that the legislation was a gift to landgrabbers, “who already use weapons off their property to attack indigenous people who are fighting for the land.”
It’s still not entirely clear what will be included in the gun legislation coming before Congress this week. But the bill’s author, São Paulo representative Alexandre Leite, had said he’d hoped it would remove most restrictions on where Brazilians could carry guns. He also wants to lower the purchasing age to 21 from 25 and make it easier for owners of illegal guns to get legal status for them.
Muggah of the Igarapé Institute warned that the uptick in gun sales this year could be just the beginning if the country’s gun laws are weakened further. Some researchers estimate there’s enough demand in the country for sales to total more than 3 million weapons and $3 billion windfall for gunmakers, he said, adding, “The gun lobby is salivating for good reason.”
“Brazil has registered a dramatic surge in civilian firearms acquisitions in the last nine months. This is not coincidental,” Muggah said. “Bolsonaro is satisfying his two-decade old ambition to dismantle Brazil’s arms control regulation.”