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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 June, 2005, 23:03 GMT 00:03 UK
Swoop on Brazilian logging gang
By Steve Kingstone
BBC News, Brazil

Logs in Amazon
Almost one fifth of the Amazon rainforest has been cut down
Brazilian police have issued arrest warrants for 124 people following the discovery of a massive illegal logging operation in the Amazon rain forest.

Over a period of 15 years, the gang is said to have illegally extracted wood worth $370m.

The suspects include senior civil servants working for the government's environmental protection agency, Ibama.

They are accused of providing false documents which allowed the timber to be transported.

This was the biggest police operation in the Amazon. It focused on the state of Mato Grosso, which last year accounted for nearly half of all deforestation.

Bitter victory

What officers appear to have uncovered is a vast criminal network in which illegal loggers worked in partnership with corrupt officials.

Starting in 1990, the loggers extracted nearly two million cubic metres of timber from the rain forest - enough to fill 76,000 lorries.

The bureaucrats who worked for the state branch of the government's environment agency, Ibama, are alleged to have supplied false transport permits so the wood could be sold both in Brazil and abroad.

The accused include the executive director of Ibama in Mato Grosso, Hugo Jose Scheuer Werle, and one of the agency's senior directors in Brasilia.

Mr Werle was among 89 of the suspects who had been arrested by late afternoon on Thursday, Brazil's federal police say.

These operations are a bitter-sweet victory for the authorities.

On the one hand, they show that illegal activity can be exposed at a time when deforestation rates are at a 10-year high.

But they also suggest a shocking level of corruption. In this case, the alleged criminals include people whose job it was to protect the rain forest.

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