João Soares Rocha, 64, has been identified by the Brazilian police as the ringleader of an international cocaine trafficking network. Between 2017 and 2018, the group led by Rocha transported eight tons of cocaine abroad and received at least $3.4 million by way of payment, according to investigations that formed the basis of the Federal Police’s Operation Flak. Rocha was charged with international drug trafficking, criminal association with drug trafficking, and undermining air transport safety, among other crimes.
Soares Rocha, alias “Rochinha” or “Joãozinho Pé de Cobra” (“Lil’ Joe Snake Foot”), also became a “narco-rancher” – a mixture of a drug trafficker and a cattle breeder – active mainly in the northern state of Pará, where his family owns more than ten rural estates. On top of the illicit origins of these properties, some of their lands overlap with areas dedicated to agrarian reforms and even environmental protection.
Investigations into the group suggest that Rocha made huge sums of money in trafficking narcotics and reinvested part of the profits in purchasing cattle that would later be sold to slaughterhouses. According to Marcos Camargo, president of the National Association of Federal Criminal Experts (APCF), this practice is commonly employed to launder money, especially in cattle-rearing states.
Since an investigation by Federal Police did not seek to discover which slaughterhouses the cattle were sold to, Agência Pública traced the path of cattle from eight farms linked to Rocha that were investigated and marked for asset seizure as part of Operation Flak.
Guides to Animal Transit (Guia de Trânsito Animal – GTA) are documents needed to move livestock. Examples obtained by Agência Pública show that, between January 2018 and July 2020, JBS and Frigol – two giants of Brazil’s meatpacking industry – received 2,505 animals for slaughter from two of Rocha’s farms.
According to Brazilian law, a GTA must be provided every time cattle are transported, no matter the distance. The guide must state the origin and destination of the animals, the names, CNPJ (National Register of Legal Entities or Employer Identification Number) or CPF (Individual Taxpayer Identification Number) of the seller and buyer of each consignment of cattle, disease control information and whether the purpose of the cattle transfer is for breeding, fattening or slaughter.
Documents analyzed by Agência Pública’s reporters show that five other farms belonging to Rocha’s family were transporting cattle among themselves or to third parties, intending to fatten the cattle later. These cattle were then sold to the two slaughterhouses.
According to data from the Environmental Rural Register (CAR) – in which all rural properties in Brazil should be registered – a number of the properties belonging to the family are located next to one another. All of them are located in the state of Pará, in the north of Brazil, in the municipalities of Tucumã, Ourilândia do Norte and São Félix do Xingu – the city with the largest cattle herd in the country. In these three cities, at least 34 conflicts over land rights were recorded in 2020 alone.
Agência Pública contacted the defense teams representing João Soares Rocha, Mayra and their children. Rocha’s lawyers did not respond to requests for comment by publication date. Lawyers representing Mayra and the children stated that the family was the legitimate owners of the assets. They also highlighted that the courts had accepted the arguments submitted by the defense team in the context of a writ of mandate and reversed the seizure of their assets. The defense team further highlighted that none of the family members were indicted by Operation Flak.
Rocha and Brazil’s Biggest Drug Trafficker
Launched by Brazil’s Federal Police and Federal Public Ministry on February 21, 2019, Operation Flak aimed to investigate the modus operandi of the criminal organization led by Rocha. With over forty members, the organization trafficked cocaine from countries where the drug is produced, such as Bolivia and Colombia, to other countries across South America (Suriname, Venezuela and Guyana), Central America (Honduras and Guatemala) and Africa.
At the start of Operation Flak, Rocha was arrested and held in preventative detention. A few months later, however, he was granted habeas corpus by a Federal court. Rocha was released in July 2019 after posting bail. But he is currently believed to be on the run due to another case, where he is suspected of ordering the murder of the former partner’s boyfriend in April 2020.
Investigations suggest that Rocha was in charge of crucial aspects of the criminal organization’s activities and day-to-day running. He allegedly financed the purchase of airplanes used for the group’s operations, with the Federal Police identifying him as the owner of at least nine planes. He also recruited pilots, co-pilots and mechanics to work for the gang and negotiated the shipping costs of the narcotics directly with the producers and buyers.
The Federal Police discovered that “Rochinha” also trafficked drugs for Luiz Carlos da Rocha, or “Cabeça Branca,” considered to be Brazil’s biggest drug trafficker until July 2017, when he was arrested as part of Operation Spectrum. Elvis Secco, the Federal Police official who coordinated Operation Spectrum and arrested Cabeça Branca, told Agência Pública that, like Rocha, the notorious drug trafficker also used cattle-raising as a way of hiding the source of the money he made from drug trafficking.
“You could say that cattle-breeding and the cultivation of grains were the main activities he used to launder his money,” said Secco. “Firstly, you can register the farm under the name of a fake intermediary while remaining its formal owner. Secondly, it’s a great way to lead a rather discrete life because if you buy rural land and live in a small farming town, you can easily use grain cultivation and cattle-raising as your cover story. Thirdly: it’s lucrative.”
The Federal Police also alleged that Rocha received about $150,000 for each flight between Venezuela and Suriname, which carried an average of 400 kilograms of cocaine. These sums would have “substantially boosted his wealth” and would be laundered via activities relating to cattle farming, “from the raising and fattening of the cattle to their sale to slaughterhouses, as well as purchasing land to be used for pasture, illegal mining and gas stations,” according to the police investigation.
Marcos Camargo explained: “What one normally looks for [to launder money] is an activity that is either poorly regulated or that the authorities have difficulty in monitoring, for whatever reason.” In the case of cattle farming, the value which is ascribed to the livestock is subjective. “You can take a cow at random and say that it costs 2 million reais – there’s no way of effectively monitoring this. When you purchase a farm or something like that, you just put your livestock there and attribute whatever “value” you like to them.”
Furthermore, the investigation also revealed how, as a means of concealing a portion of his assets, Rocha transferred part of his wealth to his three children – Stefania, 29, Isabela, 26, and João Vitor Ferreira Rocha, 22 – as well as to his then partner, Mayra Gomes Trindade Ferreira, 47.
According to the ACPF expert Camargo, the transfer of assets to relatives is a commonly used strategy by drug traffickers. “[They usually put their assets] in the name of third parties, such as their wives, daughters, or other fake intermediaries, since, if anything arises in terms of criminal prosecution and [the authorities] want to block their assets, they’ll either be unable to or find it very difficult to do so, because the assets won’t be registered in their name. You’ll have an extra layer of protection against any legal action that is seeking to block or liquidate your assets,” Camargo highlighted.
From Drug Trafficking to Meat on Your Plate
Agência Pública analyzed all 190 Guides to Animal Transit (GTAs) from farms linked to João Soares Rocha, including those registered in his children’s or ex-partner’s names that the courts seized at the request of the Federal Police and the Federal Public Ministry. The decision to seize the land linked to Rocha’s relatives was later reversed in a court ruling.
The GTAs cover eight rural properties belonging to the family, five of which are located in São Félix do Xingu municipality: Paranaíba farm, where transactions have been recorded in Rocha’s name; the Cachoeira and Matão farms, linked to his ex-partner Mayra Ferreira Trindade Gomes; Serra Grande farm, belonging to the youngest son João Vitor Ferreira Rocha; and Izabela farm, which belongs to the middle daughter, Izabela Ferreira Rocha. Two other properties, located in Tucumã, are Estrela da Serra farm, connected to the eldest daughter, Stefânia Ferreira Rocha; and the smaller Cacau farm, also belonging to João Soares Rocha.
There are also GTAs linked to another farm, Agropecuária Abelha II, in Ourilândia do Norte, which belongs to Agropecuária Abelha Comércio & Serviços Ltda., an agribusiness company that lists Rocha’s three children among their shareholders.
Although Rocha himself is not officially listed as a shareholder of Agropecuária Abelha Comércio e Serviços Ltda., the Federal Police’s investigation revealed that both the company and its farm in Ourilândia do Norte belong to him.
The Agropecuária Abelha II farm is the main post for moving cattle between the family’s farms and the slaughterhouses, with 3,018 bovine animals transported from the five farms belonging to Rocha’s relatives between January 2018 and July 2020. In the same period, 2,230 animals were moved from there to slaughterhouses owned by JBS and Frigol. Frigol also received 275 livestock from Matão farm, registered in the name of Rocha’s ex-partner Mayra, between January and December 2018.
The GTAs analyzed by Agência Pública also show cattle transfers involving two farms in the state of Pará registered in Rocha’s name. In 2018, on November 28 and December 3, Mayra sent 350 head of cattle from Matão farm to Paranaíba farm, owned by Rocha himself. On December 4, she sent another 65 animals from the same farm to Cacau farm, also belonging to her now ex-husband. The reason stated on the GTAs for these three cattle transfers was for fattening them up before putting them on the market.
On December 5, Rocha sent 200 head of cattle from Cacau farm to Primavera farm, a property in the same state belonging to another cattle rancher, who later sold 161 animals to JBS and Marfrig over the course of the following months.
On top of this, Agência Pública’s report has revealed that three of the farms involved in the cattle transfers infringe upon areas dedicated to agrarian reform projects. This is the case with the Estrela Grande and Paranaíba farms – which overlap with a project where 3,610 families have settled – and Agropecuária Abelha II, where a settlement project currently houses 309 families.
As well as infringing upon the aforementioned settlement project, Agropecuária Abelha II farm was also the scene of a conflict between the Rocha family and small-scale farmers in 2020.
Shortly after the estate was ordered to be seized in February 2019 as part of Operation Flak, around 50 families occupied the land, hoping that the federal government would dedicate it to agrarian reform projects instead of putting it up for auction. The occupation continued until November 2020, when a group of men set fire to the landless peasants’ huts and plantations and threw them off the land, according to sources interviewed by Agência Pública on the condition of anonymity.
The Serra Grande farm’s land also infringes upon the Triunfo do Xingu Environmental Protection Area (APA), a conservation area between the cities of São Félix do Xingu and Altamira created by the state of Pará in 2006. The Environmental Protection Area is part of a mosaic of protected land in the region known as Terra do Meio, in the south of Pará state. Between February and April this year, this area saw the highest levels of deforestation of any conservation area in the Amazon, according to a survey carried out by the Institute of Man and Environment in the Amazon (Imazon).
Daniel Azeredo, a public prosecutor and one of the people behind the Conduct Adjustment Agreement (TAC) for Meat in Pará State – an agreement signed between the Federal Public Ministry and meat processing companies that sought to prevent the purchasing of meat from farms involved in socio-environmental irregularities – told our reporters that, in theory, Environmental Protection Areas allow for cattle-raising to take place within their confines, as long as the activity is regulated by a ‘management plan,’ a document that regulates land use in conservation areas. Such a document does not exist for the Triunfo do Xingu Environmental Protection Area.
According to the Conduct Adjustment Agreement, it is also illegal to buy animals from farms where deforestation took place any time after August 2008, when the agreement was signed. Data from Prodes – a project that monitors deforestation in the Amazon via satellites – shows that this has consistently occurred on the Matão farm between 2008 and 2016.
Azeredo thinks it would be possible to charge the meat processing companies concerning their dealings with properties linked to drug trafficking and other crimes if a database existed that brought together all the information regarding the properties owned by people convicted of those crimes. At present, no such database exists. “It’s challenging to request access to all of the justice system’s different databases and analyze everything on a case-by-case basis. I think it’s a question of compiling a list of all this information so that these charges can be brought forward,” he suggested.
Responding to questions posed by Agência Pública (read here in full), Frigol told our reporters that it stopped buying animals from the Agropecuária Abelha II and Matão farms in January this year and December 2018, respectively.
JBS reported that it last received animals from Agropecuária Abelha II farm in 2018, when “the property acted in accordance with the company’s Procurement Policy and the Federal Public Ministry’s Supplier Monitoring Protocol,” and that no new transactions took place in 2019, the year in which Operation Flak was launched.
Old Ties to Drug Trafficking
Although he was only accused of drug trafficking concerning Operation Flak, Rocha’s involvement in this world has been raised in the past. In 2006, the Federal Police investigated the relationship between Rocha and the notorious drugs and arms trafficker Fernandinho Beira-Mar, former leader of the Rio de Janeiro-based criminal gang, the Red Command (Comando Vermelho). The Federal Police suspected Rocha of laundering Beira-Mar’s money during this period. However, the investigation never led to any convictions.
The same investigations also suspected João Soares Rocha of having ties to another drug trafficker, Leonardo Dias de Mendonça, one of Beira-Mar’s partners in crime. In late 2002, as part of the Federal Police of the State of Goiás’ Operation Diamond, many of Mendonça’s assets were seized, including the Paranaíba farm in São Félix do Xingu. Shortly after, Mayra, Rocha’s partner at the time, went to court in an attempt to recover the rural property, stating that she and her husband were the legitimate owners of the estate. As proof, she presented a contract detailing a cattle-raising partnership signed between Rocha and Mendonça in November 1999. The family regained control of the property, which remains in their hands until this day.