In the remote Amazon region known as the wild west, agents are cracking down on the country's secret shame
From Tom Phillips in Maraba
IT WAS just after 8am when the growl of pick-up truck engines filled the car park outside the Augusto Palace Hotel and a convoy of four Mitsubishi 4x4s roared off into the tropical morning, the sun's fierce gaze already beating down on this remote and notoriously violent Amazon city.
Inside one of the vehicles sat Claudio Secchin, a fresh-faced Work Ministry inspector from Rio de Janeiro who has spent the past nine years battling a practice that was officially outlawed in Brazil over a century ago: slavery.
As ever, the atmosphere was tense as the convoy sped out of town and towards that day's target, kicking red clouds of dust up into the scorching air.
Four years ago, almost to the day, four of Secchin's colleagues from Brazil's mobile anti-slavery taskforce had been gunned down while on a similar mission. Now Secchin's team was ccompanied by a handful of heavily-armed federal police agents, carrying pistols and automatic rifles.
"My wife thinks it's too dangerous," sighed 40-year-old Secchin, the father of a three-year-old girl. "She gets nervous."
Officially, slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888. But today, at the start of the 21st century, activists say as many as 50,000 impoverished Brazilian workers are still caught up in a web of exploitation, the majority here in the sprawling Amazon region.
The majority of Brazil's indentured workers hail from the country's dirt-poor north east and end up working as forced labourers in the Amazon.
Uneducated, unskilled and often almost completely unpaid, they are recruited by middlemen and then put to work clearing rainforest and making charcoal in order to pay off debts they have incurred while travelling to the region. Often they are forced to live in pigsties or squalid jungle camps. Some are prevented even from leaving by gunmen known here as pistoleiros.
Jose Batista, a local human rights activist who has dedicated his life to the battle against slavery, said one of the biggest challenges facing the government was the sheer size of the Amazon. It could take government officials days or even weeks to reach the remote areas where slaves were being held, he pointed out, making the Amazon a paradise for those wishing to profit from modern-day slavery.
"In this region of Brazil, crime pays," he said baldly.
In 2003 Brazil's leftist president Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva came to power vowing to change this reality and to bring the rule of law to a region often described as Brazil's Wild West.
Having been elected promising to transform Brazil, one of the world's most unequal countries, and help the poor, Lula doubled the work ministry's budget and began pumping extra funds into the mobile anti-slavery taskforces, known as the grupo moveis. It was an attempt, he said, to put an end to "Brazil's shame" once and for all.
Few doubt the group's successes. Last year the government's anti-slavery taskforce announced it had freed 4634 workers from "slave-like conditions" in 2008. According to government figures 31,726 workers were freed between 1995 and 2008, while more than 200 businesses are currently blacklisted because of involvement in slavery.
But despite the growing crackdown the practice of modern-day slavery persists, not just across the Amazon region but also in Brazil's south and midwest, where workers are put to work on sugar-cane plantations or soy farms.
With the sun forcing its way into the skies above Maraba, the Work Ministry convoy headed north, rattling past a monotonous horizon of cattle ranches and sawmills. Once this area was home to native Amazon rainforest. Now there is hardly a tree in sight, the result of 40 years of destruction at the hands of illegal loggers and cattle ranchers.
Fifteen kilometres out of town, Secchin and his team of inspectors pulled up at the gates of the Geladinho ranch. They had arrived at the day's target. On cue, 11 dishevelled workers emerged from the farm's rickety wooden charcoal factory. Wearing torn trousers, filthy T-shirts and rubber flip-flops, they wandered slowly towards the vehicles and asked simply: "Who are you?" The idea they might be saved by government officials hadn't crossed their minds.
Among the 11 workers was Walmir dos Santos, a 39-year-old farm hand from the north-eastern state of Maranhao. Mr Santos had arrived in Maraba by coach and was picked up from the bus station by a farmer who said he was looking for workers. For Mr Santos, born and brought up in one of the poorest backlands of Brazil, it had seemed like an opportunity too good to miss.
"At first I thought it was good because we came here in search of a better future," he recalled. "You know, we can't go back home without money and they said it was good around here."
But once at the farm he quickly realised he had been wrong. The workers were forced to drink from the same river used by cattle. The smoke from the charcoal furnace stung their eyes day and night. And while the farm owner did not directly threaten them, they had seen his weapons and feared what he might do if they tried to flee. It was difficult to sleep at night, he remembered.
"It hasn't been very good because all these things are happening and I don't really know what is going on," Mr Santos said.
For Claudio Secchin, a veteran of anti-slavery missions in the Amazon, this was just another day at work. But that made the situation no less disturbing.
"It is a shock for us when we come here. It is a situation of virtual anarchy' where everyone invents their own rules," he said.
Work inspectors like Mr Secchin share the frontline of Brazil's war on modern day slavery with dozens of anonymous heroes such as Jose Batista, a member of the Catholic support group the CPT, or Pastoral Land Commission.
The CPT, which has offices scattered across the Amazon, offers aid to workers who have fled abuse at remote jungle camps and provides information to the Brazilian work Ministry about the possible location of slaves.
Each year, hundreds of workers, fleeing their employers, arrive at the front door of the CPT's offices in central Maraba - a remote Amazon city so violent that locals have renamed it Marabala (Marabullet). Covered in insect bites and with their feet swollen from days walking in the forest, their stories are depressingly familiar.
"The story repeats itself," said Batista, explaining that the poverty-stricken north-east provided a constant flow of desperate workers who come to the region week after week only to fall into the same network of slavery.
As the son of an immigrant worker who was enslaved by unscrupulous farmers, Batista understands the mechanics of this trade better than most.
Batista charts the re-emergence of slavery back to the 1970s and the national integration plan, or Plano de Integracao Nacional, as it was known in Portuguese. Seeking to populate this vast Amazon region, the Brazilian government began to build a vast network of roads across the Amazon and offered incentives to farmers and businessmen who came to live and work here.
At the same time, faced with grinding poverty in the country's arid north east, many workers set off on open-backed trucks in search of a better future.
Some headed south to the favelas of Rio and Sao Paulo, Batista says, where they found "slums, misery and hunger". Others headed west to the Amazon rainforest, hoping to claim a piece of land or perhaps to build a house. Instead, however, many encountered debt-slavery, violence and even murder.
Having spent decades illegally deforesting the world's largest tropical rainforest, many ranchers no longer cared about what the government, thousands of kilometres away in Brasilia, might do, he said. "Impunity is the rule here."
"To say to these people that they should tell their workers they have rights well, it's unthinkable to them," Batista said, sitting next to eight bulging grey filing cabinets with labels such as "Massacres", "Slave Labour", "Conflict Areas" and "Rural murders".
The creation of Brazil's anti-slave taskforce in 1995 was an attempt to rescue these rights for men such as Francisco Raimundo Mendes, a 48-year-old farm hand from the rural north east who was also recently freed by the government taskforce.
"We were treated like slaves," said Mendes, who was paid less than two pounds a day to lift tree trunks. "We didn't stop work on Saturday, Sundays or even Christmas Day. It was so much suffering."
Few doubt that the raids, which have earned Brazil international praise, have improved things.
"Things have improved a lot here. Lots of people have corrected their ways and we are trying to move this cultural reality that means people come here and take advantage of the absence of the state to exploit others," says Secchin.
"The posture of the state over the last 15 years has made many people reflect on whether or not it is worth carrying on with this model."
Many, however, still do think it is worth it. While the public face of slavery are the exhausting looking workers the government rescues from remote farms, Batista, the activist, said he believed many workers were simply assassinated before they could report their employers to the government.
One worker, recently interviewed by Batista's team, recounted being told by his employer: "Any worker who has the courage to report me deserves a bullet." Another CPT activist in the remote Amazon town of Sao Felix do Xingu said she had recently heard reports of one worker's body being found floating in a local river, bound to a tractor tyre and riddled with bullets. The worker, she was told, had demanded his pay.
"The number of workers who are killed deep inside these farms is not in our statistics," Batista said.
"The raids are fundamental and have helped reduce the number of cases, but it is not enough," Batista added, arguing that without resolving the social problems of the north east, little would change.
Two says after the raid on the Geladinho ranch outside Maraba, Claudio Secchin and his team pulled up outside the city's work ministry in their white Mitsubishi L200. It was early afternoon and awaiting them were a dozen dusty-faced workers, among them the men freed earlier that week. They had come to receive compensation from their former employers.
The mood was upbeat among the unshaven workers, many of whom had not received their pay for months.
"I'll tell my friends back home not to come here, because it isn't very good," joked Walmir dos Santos, who said he planned to get the first bus out of Maraba as soon as he was paid. "That's what I'll tell them."
"After I leave the hospital I'm going back home to the north east," chipped in his colleague, Francisco Raimundo Mendes, who said he had suffered a hernia while lifting tree trunks at the ranch but had received no medical assistance. "Then I'll have to work again, I suppose."
But where would he find work, apart from here in the Amazon? He frowned and gazed out at a haze of pick-up trucks and lorries rushing past on the Trans-Amazonian highway.
"I don't have a clue," he said.