But on the bright side there will always be the struggle against clandestine gold miners in French Guiana. The country stretches inland for hundreds of miles up several large rivers from the northeast coast of South America, between Suriname and Brazil. It is a malarial inferno, a former penal colony and home to Devil’s Island—once famous for its isolation, now largely just forgotten. With the exception of a rocket site for the European Space Agency and a few dismal coastal towns linked by a single road, it remains almost entirely undeveloped. For obscure historical reasons, it has nonetheless become an integral part of metropolitan France—not a colony or territorial holding but a full-fledged département of the republic, though one neighbored by South American countries. The arrangement is awkward, especially for a country as tightly engineered as France. One consequence is the need to pretend that the borders are real, and to do something about increasing numbers of Brazilians and Surinamese who have been hacking their way into some of the most remote areas of the jungle to dig illegally for gold. The Legion’s Third Infantry Regiment, which is based in Kourou, on the coast, to protect the rocket site, has been given the job of finding those people, seizing their possessions, and getting them to leave. The assignment is obviously hopeless, even absurd, and therefore a good fit for the Legion.
The jumping-off point for the mission is a hamlet called Saint Georges, on the wide, fast Oyapock River, which flows from south to north and forms the eastern border with Brazil. I passed through it on the way to joining up with Boulanger’s former outfit, the regiment’s Third Company, which was currently stationed at the Legion’s most remote permanent outpost, in an Indian village called Camopi, about 60 miles upriver by boat. The embarkation port was a muddy embankment with a couple of open-sided shelters, where in heavy rain a team of legionnaires piled barrels of fuel and bottled water into two 45-foot pirogues. A pirogue is a canoe. These were wood-planked, leaky, and extremely crude, but capable of carrying as many as 14 men and tons of supplies, and particularly resilient during encounters with submerged trees and rocks.
A half-dozen replacement legionnaires boarded the pirogues for the ride to Camopi. They were joined by the company’s commander, an earnest French captain, who had been in Kourou attending to bureaucratic chores. The trip upriver took six hours, much of it spent bailing. The day was intensely hot and humid. Brazil lay to the left, France to the right. Both were sheer walls of forest.
The village of Camopi occupies a point formed by the confluence of the Oyapock and its largest tributary, the Camopi River, which drains the immense uninhabited jungle of southern Guiana. About 1,000 people live in the vicinity, most of them members of a small indigenous group called the Wayampi. Few of them speak much French. Some of the women go bare-breasted. Some of the men wear loincloths. Most of them fish, hunt, and tend subsistence gardens. But Camopi also has a national police post manned by gendarmes who rotate through from France. It has a school, a French national post office and bank, a boardinghouse, a bar, a restaurant, and a general store. It has a brothel across the river, in Brazil. The Wayampi are full French citizens, and they are not inclined to forget it. They know that, because the French administration cannot treat their traditional subsistence living as a form of employment, they qualify for the public dole. In the French presidential election of 2012 they constituted one of only two constituencies in Guiana to vote for the right-wing incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, who had visited Camopi by helicopter.
The Legion’s base fronts the Oyapock in semi-solitude, isolated from the settlement by the confluence of rivers, yet close enough for the sounds of tropical music to drift through the air on sultry nights. The base has a floating dock, a small guard tower, an elevated barracks with bunkrooms above and hammocks below, an open-sided kitchen and mess hall, and various small structures, including those for the all-important generators. There is no cell-phone coverage. There is a satellite television that captures the world’s funniest home videos dubbed in French: Things babies do. Things pets do. Goof-ups and pranks. There is a drinking-water system that no one trusts. Depending on the gods, there is sometimes the whisper of an Internet connection that lands on a patch of dirt by the outboard-motor storage shed. There are at least two wooden signs saying, LEGIO PATRIA NOSTRA. There are mosquitoes. There are coral snakes under the wooden walkway to the showers. There are wandering chickens to keep the coral snakes down. There is no air-conditioning. There is a pet duck. Behind the base there is a runway that has been recently paved and could be used by small military transport airplanes in a pinch, though moving legionnaires by boat is cheaper and makes more sense. The runway is paved because someone got a contract. There are no airplanes.
On the evening of my arrival, about 30 legionnaires were there, most having just returned from patrols, and were engaged in the high military art of appearing to be busy while doing nothing at all. The talk was about a shoot-out that had occurred at dawn the same day, after a team of visiting gendarmes had gone off in pursuit of two pirogues that had passed by the village under cover of darkness and were obviously smuggling supplies to gold miners somewhere up the Camopi. After a chase that lasted hours, the gendarmes forced one of the helmsmen into a hasty landing that capsized and sank his pirogue and sent its occupants scrambling into the forest. A young woman was captured, and said she was a cook. The gendarmes placed her onto their boat for the return home. Just then the other pirogue, which had been hiding in dense vegetation upstream, broke from cover and ran downriver toward Camopi and Brazil. As it passed, someone repeatedly fired a shotgun at the gendarmes—apparently to dissuade them from following. Naturally this had the opposite effect. Returning fire with their 9-mm. pistols, the gendarmes took up the chase. So far so good: this was infinitely better than moping around the back roads of France. The problem, however, was that the smugglers had a more powerful engine and steadily pulled ahead. Toward the end, when they got within range of the police post at Camopi, the gendarmes radioed for their comrades to block the river. Some of them tried, maneuvering two boats nose to nose across the center stream, but when the smugglers bore down on them—at full throttle, nose high, intent on ramming—they wisely moved aside and let them escape. The gendarmes were right, of course. It would have been pointless for them to die in a collision. Nonetheless, that night there was a sense among the legionnaires that they themselves would not have given way.
The fight was escalating, and it didn’t matter why. Boulanger’s former platoon was camped deep in the forest astride some of the main smuggling routes, a day’s travel up a narrow tributary called the Sikini. I joined a supply mission to get there; it involved portaging around rapids near the mouth of the Sikini, and then transferring to three small pirogues. Blue butterflies, green jungle, heat, water, flitting bats, stagnation, rot—monotony. The regiment’s motto is “Where Others Don’t Go.” A soldier told me that the most common thought in the Legion has always been “What the fuck am I doing here?” He said his mother had phoned him from half a world away after seeing a National Geographic special on how beautiful the jungle is. “How beautiful is it?” she asked. “It sucks,” he said. First, you can’t see it, because it’s too dense. Second, it’s worse than ugly because it has hostile intent.
We passed a river landing—a former Legion camp where old ridgepoles remained nailed between the trees, and the ground was littered with trash, much of it fresh. The camp was now occasionally used by smugglers as a staging area to transfer their loads from pirogues to human porters for the overland trip past the Legion’s patrols upstream, and on through the forest to the gold-mining camps farther in. The smugglers, it turns out, are highly organized; their spies and lookouts track the Legion’s movements from as far away as French planning offices in the coastal cities.
Toward the end of the day and miles farther up the Sikini, when we got to Boulanger’s former platoon, the Russian warrant officer in command began to express his frustration within minutes of our arrival. He came up to me and said that he did not trust the boatmen, because half of them were on the take. He warned me that the smugglers had placed a lookout directly across the river from us, and that he was watching us now, and maybe wondering why I had arrived, except that he probably already knew. The Russian was a burly man, aged 40. Around 1993 he had been a young soldier in the Soviet Army in Berlin when his unit was suddenly disbanded. Feeling betrayed and uprooted, he had drifted for three years until finding the Foreign Legion forever.
His name was Pogildiakovs. He said, “You do not live in the forest; you survive.” His men did not love him as they loved Boulanger. Still, they called the camp “Pogigrad” in his honor. They had hacked it from the jungle two months before and now lived there full-time, sleeping in mosquito-netted hammocks beneath stretched tarpaulins, bathing in the river, and running daily patrols in uniforms that never dried. During the few days I spent at Pogigrad, the platoon captured no one but found an empty homemade pack, a swamped pirogue in excellent shape, a few bags of rice, a cache of diesel fuel in six 65-liter jerry cans, and plenty of fresh footprints and trash. The work was hot, wet, and tiring. Mostly it involved cruising the Sikini, clambering on and off the pirogues with weapons slung and machetes in hand, and conducting innumerable searches of the braided trails and virgin jungle within a few hundred yards of the banks. There had been some excitement the week before when a patrol surprised two couriers hurrying toward Brazil along the riverbank. One of them jumped into the river and escaped. The other, who was captured, said that the swimmer was carrying 18 pounds of gold in plastic bottles taped to his body. The captain came to Pogigrad soon afterward for a visit. That night when he heard the story he said to Pogildiakovs, “Did you write it up? Write it up! The general will jump for joy, because we still don’t know where the gold goes!”
Pogildiakovs eyed him evenly. Jump for joy? Maybe that’s what generals do, he seemed to indicate, but let’s not forget that the gold got away. The night was hot. He had had a bit to drink. We all had, even the captain, if only as a gesture. Rum and water, with Tang stirred in. Ten men were sitting around a rough-hewn table by the camp kitchen under an assembly of tarpaulins in heavy rain. They spoke in whatever French they had. Drink. Pour. Another. Enough. At the camp’s edge, confiscated goods were burning in a firepit and emitting black smoke, all the better against mosquitoes. Sweat streamed down Pogildiakovs’s face. He mentioned that the latest seizures brought the platoon’s total to several tons over the previous week’s. That was a measure of something, at least. But the conversation was mostly about the strength of the opposition. “Oh, they’re good,” an Ivorian master sergeant said, and no one disagreed.
In a nutshell? They’re not the “enemy”; they’re the “adversary.” They include hundreds of people—no, thousands—most of them from Brazil. Runners, scouts, boatmen, porters, lookouts, A.T.V. drivers, mechanics, miners, machine operators, guards, carpenters, medics, cooks, washerwomen, whores, musicians, ministers—none with the right to be there, and all of them paid in gold. They build whole settlements in the jungle, some with stores, bars, and chapels. These places are so remote that French forces cannot get close without their approach being detected days in advance. Helicopters might help, but there are only six in Guiana, and five of them don’t work. Meanwhile, the clandestine settlers live without fear. On Saturday nights they clean up, dress up, and dance on wooden floors that are level and beautifully joined. And they are gutsy. The miners descend on ropes into vertical holes 100 feet deep to chip at the stone containing gold. They burrow even deeper into hillsides. The teams who support them are equally ambitious. They hack A.T.V. tracks through some of the most difficult jungle on earth and pre-position spare parts in hidden depots where mechanics can fix whatever is required. As for the porters, they carry 150-pound packs in columns of 30 or more, sometimes for 20 miles at a stretch, up and down steep hills, in sandals, often at night. They are not immune to the dangers. Some are bitten by poisonous snakes; some are injured; some fall sick; some die. Their graves are occasionally found in the forest. Nonetheless, the smugglers never stint on the goods they deliver—including, for instance, frozen chickens in Styrofoam coolers, eggs, sausages, women’s makeup, live cattle and pigs, candy, cereals, Coke, rum, Heineken, suntan oil, animal growth hormones (for human use), marijuana, Bibles, pornographic DVDs, and in at least one case, according to Pogildiakovs, a battery-powered dildo.
A big blond legionnaire with an assumed identity said, “As they see it, they are doing nothing wrong. They’ve been gold mining for a very long time. They call us the pirates.”
Pogildiakovs got up, scowling. He said, “I do not feel at all sorry for the bastards. These are not helpless victims. They are breaking the law. Some of them make more money than I do.”
He left. Later, a dark-bearded soldier sat beside me and said, “Yes, but the ones we catch, they’re always the poor.” He was born in the Cape Verde Islands. He emigrated to Brazil, went to school in Rio de Janeiro, got a master’s degree in computer science, became fluent in English, and three years ago found himself sitting in an office working on cyber-security. He checked out, flew to France, and joined the Legion. The surprise, he said, was to find himself now as a soldier involved in suppressing Brazilians. A legionnaire walked into the light holding a long thin snake that he had killed with a machete. The snake was a territorial type that stands its ground rather than slithering away, and had reared up to strike at the legionnaire in his hammock. Somehow he had managed to extricate himself from the mosquito netting and get to his machete in time. The talk turned to that and subsided. There was a heavy thump in the darkness. It seemed to be the sound of Pogildiakovs falling down. The Ivorian got up to check. When the rain stopped, the chirps of the jungle filled the silence.
The next day, all day, I returned to Camopi on a scheduled run. That night after dinner I sat in the open-sided mess hall with another group of legionnaires, some of whom I would accompany on a one-week patrol into the most remote areas of Guiana. The talk was of women. One soldier was an Argentinean who had spent $25,000 on prostitutes, drugs, and drink during a one-month binge in Amsterdam.
Another soldier said, “You’re really crazy. You risk getting killed for six months in Afghanistan, then take the money and spend it like that?”
The Argentinean said, “Everyone should do it at least once in life.” He looked at me for affirmation.
I said, “It probably depends.”
A Malian sitting at the table said that as a matter of principle the most he had ever spent on partying was $7,000. That was in Bamako, Mali’s capital, and it had gone a long way. The Argentinean told a racial joke. A Polish legionnaire nearly fell off his bench laughing. I wandered down to the river. In the guard tower overlooking the dock, I had a conversation with a giant, warmhearted South African named Streso, who told me that he liked the Malian but couldn’t tolerate his type.
Streso was a Boer and immensely strong. His family had a farm in a remote valley of the Baviaanskloof Mountains in Eastern Cape province. He grew up there going barefoot and hunting baboons in the potato fields. The baboons came out of the mountains and raided the crops in organized groups. To control them you had to sneak past their sentinels and kill their chiefs. Afterward the baboons ran away to the mountains and were so disorganized that they didn’t come back for weeks. Streso joined the Legion for the experience. Now the French were starving him with their breakfasts of coffee and bread. God, how he missed his mother’s cooking, especially the steaks. He would have liked to take over the family farm someday, but there was no future for white farmers in South Africa. Attacks against them in the region have become pervasive. Recently some neighbors were hit. A nice old man and his wife, who were tied to chairs in their farmhouse and murdered. Streso’s father was a former Special Forces commando with an arsenal at home, so he could probably endure until selling out or retiring. But Streso had an entire lifetime to think about. He was going to leave the Legion after five years, that was sure. He was willing to settle anywhere to make his life. He said he had heard good things about farming in Botswana.
At dawn, moisture hung in veils over the river. We left in two pirogues and traveled up the Camopi into jungles so steep and remote that even the Wayampi do not penetrate them. Streso came along, as did the Malian, an Ecuadoran, a Chinese, a Brazilian, a Malagasy, a Tahitian, a Croatian with an enthusiasm for fighting Serbs, four native boatmen, three French gendarmes, and the mission’s commander—a middle-aged Belgian named Stevens who had been a legionnaire for years and had recently become a lieutenant. Stevens spoke Dutch, German, English, French, Spanish, Italian, Latin, and ancient Greek. He was a mathematician and ballistics engineer by training but had decided to become a paratrooper instead. He had orders to stop at every Wayampi homestead along the lower Camopi to make friends and collect information. After that, he was to proceed as far upriver as time permitted, to take a look around.
The homestead visits were predictable. “We are here to help you,” Stevens would say. “We know that Brazilians pass by on the river. Have you seen them?”
“Because they are polluting your water with their gold mining.”
Then we moved upstream past rapids deep into the territory where only gold miners go. It would accomplish nothing—or, at least, no more than the imaginary mission in the imaginary helicopter on the farm. The week passed in a compression of extreme physical exertion, in severe effort, slashing at the jungle to bivouac at night, stung by insects, warding off snakes and scorpions, slamming over logs in the creeks, wading, thrashing, constantly wet, moving through the natural ruins of the forest, through swamps, up muddy slopes so slippery and steep that they had to be climbed hand over hand, falling on the down side, breathless, thirsty, swallowing lousy French combat rations, zipped into hammocks to get through the nights, boots turned upside down on stakes, fighting jungle rot, fighting infections from cuts, heavy rain, digging thorns from our hands, heavy rain. In these conditions even the waterproof G.P.S.’s turned soggy. We came upon trails, A.T.V. tracks, smugglers’ campsites, and two abandoned mines. The closest we came to finding anyone occurred when Stevens got lost with a detachment and stumbled onto the campsite of a lookout, who escaped into the forest. The lookout was equipped not only with a radio and food but also with two shotguns designed to be fired by a trip wire.
Streso took it upon himself to befriend me. He stuck with me when I fell behind, helped me with the bivouacs, and quietly made sure that I survived. Mostly he tried to explain a way of thinking. One day, in a small group, after struggling for hours through heavy jungle and having lost the way, I realized that the leadership—the Tahitian, a sergeant—was plunging ahead blindly without reason. I stopped and said to Streso, “What’s he doing up there? I know this is wrong. We need to stop, go back, and figure out where we lost the track. And I know we need to get up on that ridge.”
He said, “You’re right, but don’t bother about it.” He gestured for me to follow. It was simplifying. Forget your civilian reflexes. The task does not require a purpose. Do not ask questions, do not make suggestions, do not even think of that. The Legion is our fatherland. We will accept you. We will shelter you. “We’re in the Legion here,” Streso said. “Just go with the sergeant. Come on, man, you don’t have to think it through anymore.”
vanityfair.com: The Expendables