We waded into the river. The unit leader said to watch for Piranha, and all the men nodded. I never was sure if he was serious or just said it to have some fun at this gringo's expense.
But I wasn't taking chances. I tucked my pants legs into the top of my boots and laced them tightly. Holding the assault rifle I was issued high over my head, and my camera gear secured high on my shoulders, I waded in.
Halfway across with the water above my waist, I felt something nibbling around my legs. I never knew if it was Piranha, something else or maybe just my imagination.
In March, I went on patrol with a nine-member unit which regularly faces illegal loggers in the Amazon rainforest who are ready to kill. The unit’s name, like the work, isn't glamorous. Grupo Especializado de Fiscalizacao — Specialized Inspection Group.
The unit, better known as GEF moves through lawless and ungovernable regions of the Amazon River basin. Many places are remote. To reach them takes days by riverboat and foot.
The first day I went on an operation in Maranhao State, on the Amazon fringes, we woke at 3 am.
Pulling on combat camouflage, body armor, and bulletproof helmets, we strapped Taurus ART556 assault rifles on our shoulders before moving for hours in Ford F-150s with FX4 off-road packaging, and a 5'5" box over ragged and rutted jungle roads to the upcountry.
Because of the obstacles, GEF — pronounced (JEFF-ee) — often patrols in helicopters and utilizes satellite images. Working with Ibama, Brazil's environmental protection agency, GEF looks for illegal deforestation and mining.
Created in 2014, the crew needs all the assistance it can muster. Deforestation is escalating in the Amazon. It climbed almost 30% between August 2016 and July 2016. Illegal logging destroyed 2 million acres of forest during those 11 months.
Logging crews continue to enter the forests illegally. Their goal is to take out treasured hardwoods.
"In the world of illegal Amazon activities, there's deforestation, gold mining, bush meat hunting and animal smuggling," said Roberto Cabral, GEF’s commander,. Shot in the shoulder in 2015 while chasing gunmen through flattened tracts of forest, Cabral adds, "We needed to eradicate these lowlifes with brainpower as well as boots on the ground."
International defense attorney, Arkady Bukh, of New York says, “With billions in profits to be made with very low risk, it’s a crime that won’t evaporate soon.”
Even while relying on state-of-the-art technology, GEF's mission looks more like a frustrating game of cat and mouse.
"You've got to see the Amazon from the air to get a feel for how much of it is gone," said Mauricio Brichta, 44, an oceanographer who spent his career specializing in studying Arctic algae at Germany's Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research before joining GEF.
"You can imagine," he grinned, "there wasn't much demand in Brazil for Arctic expertise."
Like everyone in the unit, Brichta never expected he would take up arms to protect the rainforest.
Before this chapter in life, Brichta was a stay-at-home dad in Jakarta and New York — places where his ex-wife posted for Brazil's Foreign Ministry as a diplomat.
When GEF developed, Brichta applied and went through a survival course where he had to drop from helicopters, trek through the jungle, scavenge for food in the wild, treat snakebites, go for days without meals and sleep and train for gun battles and knife fights.
"This work isn't for everyone," said Rafael de Souza, a chain-smoking military veteran who pilots the choppers used for GEF's missions.
We landed, and the squad members went to work. Wearing balaclavas to protect their identity, they fired a newly discovered sawmill and destroyed to charcoal making furnaces. Then we moved to the second objective.
In a few minutes, we hit pay dirt once more when Souza spotted a truck on a logging road. The squad leaped out of the chopper in a clearing, and one member punctured the truck's fuel tank with a well-placed shot and set the vehicle on fire.
While the truck burned, a shout came from the forest. Two GEF members came across a tractor used for hauling trees. A chainsaw, still warm from being used, was left stuck in a tree. The bandits made a quick getaway.
GEF members set the tractor and chainsaw on fire and went into the forest looking for loggers. We were on edge. Cabral was startled by a panicked logger and bloodied by the gunman.
Drenched in sweat, we boarded the helicopters. As we lifted off, we still saw the smoke from the destroyed vehicles.
A small achievement against encroachment.
I am an American freelance writer and ghostwriter now living the expat life in Argentina. Never far from my coffee and Marlboros, I am always interested in discussing future work opportunities. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and join the million-or-so who follow my life and work on Twitter @ Journey_America.
Thanks for being part of my wild and wonderful journey called life.