Amazon Underworld
2024 Finalist

Amazon Underworld

InfoAmazonia (São Paulo, Brazil)
La Liga Contra el Silencio (Bogotá, Colombia)
Armando.Info (Venezuela)

Category Newsroom Development

Media associated with this campaign

Overview of this campaign

Since its beginning, one of the goals of Amazon Underworld was to map the presence of organized crime in the Amazon. The idea was to gather information to generate a visual map. 

The investigation took 1 year, 4 months. First, we wanted to cover the complete Amazon, but later we realized that it would be impossible to map the more than 1,000 municipalities in the timelapse of the project. So, we decided to focus on borders, since they are strategic for organized crime. This is the first map of this scope generated on the municipality level.

To gather information, we conducted interviews with primary sources in the territory and filed hundreds of petitions for information. Interviewees were mainly people with direct contact with armed actors and illicit economies: Indigenous leaders, community members, law enforcement officials, public prosecutors, gang members and individuals involved in illicit economies. 

The biggest challenge was gathering this information from scratch. Once the data was collected, we used the estimated number of members to define the armed groups that we would individually identify. Then, smaller criminal outfits are grouped as 'others.' The database was built in a spreadsheet that was linked to Mapbox. 

For the long-form stories we used a WordPress plug-in named Jeo, which allows building maps with scrollytelling elements. We believe this is one of the most compelling aspects of the project, since it allows us to guide the reader through the story, geographically, and this is very important when reporting about remote parts of the Amazon. 

With support from the Pulitzer Center and Earthrise, attempts to develop an algorithm for detecting gold mining barges faced challenges due to constant cloud coverage and the mobility of dredges. Opting for an actual flyover, we synchronized cameras with GPS units to map dredges locations and calculate associated revenues. Our findings also exposed the ineffectiveness of law enforcement crackdowns, as evidenced by Planet satellite imagery showing changes in river color, indicating miners hid barges before enforcement actions.


Results for this campaign

Several major media interviewed or published about our project: BBC, NPR, CNN, The Guardian, El Pais, Al Jazeera, ABC Australia, Folha de S Paulo, France24, among others. Nature also invited us to write an oped. 

GIJN featured us in their Top 10 best data journalism projects of 2023 and, last November, we were awarded as the best data journalism investigation by the Claudio Weber Abramo Award in Data Journalism, the most important of its kind in Brazil. 

We were invited to present the project in more than 50 events and meetings, among which we may highlight a WWF and Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History event, in Washington DC, and the GI-TOC 24Hs Global Conference on Organized Crime. We also presented the work to several UN agencies, the New York based Climate-Security Mechanism, and government officials in Brazil, Peru and Colombia. In some of these meetings we were told that the gathered data has strong potential as a tool for developing public policies in the Amazon and strengthening international cooperation to tackle criminal activities that threaten the rainforest.

The map is also already being used by NGOs and other media outlets to plan their field work in a secure manner.



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