Lingaraj peered through his open doorway, checking for spies. “Is a tree worth more than a human life?” he whispered after seeing that no one was around to eavesdrop. Outside, livestock ambled over dirt lanes and the midday air was thick with the smell of boiling rice. The Andhra Pradesh village of Devarakonda seemed like any other at first, but it lacked the unhurried manner of the countryside. Ever since the state police shot dead 20 alleged red sandalwood smugglers on April 7 in the sprawling forest that begins just a few kilometers from the aging farmer’s house, the mood in Devarakonda had turned rigid with silence and fear.

“We are scared to venture out at night to bring back the cattle or to turn on the borewell, because you never know when the police will pick you up for smuggling,” said Lingaraj, whose name has been changed to protect his identity.

The smuggling of red sandalwood from Andhra Pradesh has only recently made national headlines. But for decades, Deverakonda and dozens of other villages around the Seshachalem forest, the world’s primary source of red sandalwood, were nodes in a staggeringly lucrative trade fueled by wealthy buyers in China and Japan, who value the tree’s deep crimson hue. Red sandalwood money funded elections, paid officials to look the other way, and recruited thousands of locals as woodcutters or low-level middlemen.

The April 7 encounter – widely believed to have been staged was part of an aggressive crackdown on smuggling pursued by the Telugu Desam government since it came to power in Andhra Pradesh last year. State authorities must take on an entrenched, highly-organised network that starts in Andhra Pradesh but spreads across the country. As the killing of those 20 men shows, their efforts have been heavy-handed at best.

“You want to know who the smugglers are?” Lingaraj asked, while insisting that he personally wasn’t involved. “They’re everybody. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the people were involved. But none of them will admit it. But the police only go after farmers, while leaving the big people alone. Is this justice?”

Red sandalwood trees in the Seshachalem forest.

The dirty business

In Dakkali, a town on the other end of the Seshachalem forest from Devakarakonda, many young men saw timber smuggling as a profitable employment opportunity, according to Srinivas, an engineer in Hyderabad who grew up there. He estimated that for every 100 people in his village, 30 became woodcutters, while another five (usually from wealthier, landowning backgrounds) became the middlemen who ran operations.

“Some of these guys couldn’t even operate an ATM, and yet they were earning and spending money like anything,” recalled Srinivas, whose name has also been changed to protect his identity. “They would sit at a bar in Tirupati and leave a Rs 2,000 tip. They’d drop Rs 15 lakhs in cash on a new car, and spend ten bucks on a Re 1 Xerox.”

His own family, Srinivas added, had to educate children in distant towns to distract them from the temptation of joining the business.

Everybody gets paid, as the saying goes in Tirupati, the pilgrimage city that doubles as the local headquarters for both the smuggling network and the anti-smuggling forces. Only a small number of the people involved with the smuggling ring – and a minuscule fraction of those who are not labourers – have ever been caught by law enforcement. Yet even the limited arrest record reveals a stunning range of participants. On Sunday, police arrested a struggling Tollywood actress in Kurnool who had been on the run. She had allegedly transferred money to red sandalwood smugglers, and was said to have been living with one Mastan Valli, a smuggler-turned-politician and budding film producer who, before those glamorous endeavors, sold lemons.

In January, police arrested 30 bus drivers charged with ferrying woodcutters from Tamil Nadu to the Seshachalem forest. In February, they finally caught Kollam Gangireddy, a smuggling “king pin” also linked to an assassination attempt against Naidu, as he boarded a flight in Mauritius. They have found Rs 4.4 crore of cash in the home of a Tamil folk dancer, and caught college students boarding international flights with suitcases full of wood. A former sub-inspector of police from Tamil Nadu was arrested last September, as were two deputy superintendents – both of whom were on the anti-smuggling detail. Alleged smugglers have been caught in Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore and the Northeast – almost always, it seems, replete with the paraphernalia of crime: bundles of cash, bungalows, gold watches, BMWs, and piles of logs, worth crores of rupees.

“Smuggling had been going on for some time,” said Shekar Kumar Niraj, a former forest officer who now heads the anti-wildlife smuggling group TRAFFIC. “But of late, since say 2005, it has become quite organised in a certain pattern. It has become a little dirty, it has become quite violent at times, and also some bigtime businessmen have started getting involved.”

While the notorious sandalwood smuggler Veerappan ruled over his empire from deep inside the forest, red sandalwood smugglers have preferred a more franchised approach. Police reports and conversations with people who have followed the business paint a picture of well-ordered hierarchy, with woodcutters at the bottom, followed by local middlemen who oversee the cutting and transport out of the forest, and then the bigwigs who ship it internationally. Following an order from an international smuggler, a local middleman sends a team of woodcutters into the forest to retrieve a predetermined quantity of logs – usually around a tonne. They hide the logs in ravines until they are cleared to load them onto transport vehicles, which can range from Tata Sumos to modified fruit trucks.

“We’ve seen them even use ambulances with hidden compartments. Then they turn on the siren like they have a patient,” said M. Ravi Kumar, the chief forest officer in charge of the 5,000-square-kilometer Seshachalem range. In a wooded depot outside his office in Tirupati, hundreds of seized vehicles were in eerie states of disintegration. “They’re so organised that the drivers don’t know the identities of who they’re working with. So even if we catch them we can’t get to the other links in the chain.”

Seized vehicles used in the illegal timber trade at a police depot in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh.

The vehicles usually head for Tamil Nadu, where another group buys the contraband. A series of informants along the way monitor the route for police and forest patrols.

“Those guys know how to blend in,” explained Srinivas, the engineer. “They’ll smoke a cigarette, wear a lungi, and crouch on the side of the road. If the police question them, they’ll say, ‘How can you blame everyone for being a smuggler?’”

The smugglers carry cash for bribes, or they might send a decoy vehicle in advance in case they get caught. Meanwhile, the middleman monitors the show from a distance.

“It’s like in the movies. The guy is in a hotel room somewhere, constantly making calls on multiple cell phones,” Srinivas said. “He’s coordinating with his woodcutters, his informants, his contacts in the police and forest departments, and with his MLA. He’s making sure the right palms are getting greased and that there’s a backup plan if anything goes wrong.”

The higher-level smugglers in cities like Chennai and Delhi ship the logs out, usually to China or Japan. According to journalists I contacted in China, red sandalwood can arrive in the country either via Dubai, Malaysia or Japan – an easier but more expensive option – or via Nepal, along a treacherous route that winds over the Himalayas and crosses the China-Nepal friendship bridge into Tibet. You can buy red sandalwood in bulk on the Chinese e-commerce website Alibaba, where it sells for as much as $245,000 (Rs 1.55 crores) per tonne.

“At every stage huge money is involved,” said Ravi Kumar. “One fellow spends Rs 5 lakhs to give it to the next fellow, who spends another Rs 5 lakhs until the next stage, and so on so a lot of money trickles down. All ports are potential exit points.”

The political hand

On the walls of police stations around the Seshachalem forest hang photographs of local politicians suspected of links with smugglers. But the political patronage, say those familiar with the business, runs deeper, and extends all the way to Hyderabad. Kiran Kumar Reddy, the previous chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, was from Pileru, a town outside Seshachalem that’s known for housing several higher-level smugglers. During last year’s elections, leaders from both Telugu Desam and the YSRCP accused Reddy's brother Kishore of close associations with the racket – a charge that the siblings vigorously denied. But sure enough, when they campaigned in Pileru, they were thrown a warm reception by Gajjala Srinivas, a local don who’d been arrested in the past for smuggling links.

The political patronage runs the gamut of Andhra politics. An amusingly frank exchange occurred in the state assembly in February after Gangireddy’s high-profile arrest in Mauritius. Responding to charges that his party was linked to the smuggler, the YSRCP politician Srikanth Reddy essentially replied, Who isn’t?

“The elections in our area were practically a festival paid for by smuggling money,” said Srinivas. “They pumped huge money into every party, every single campaign.” Elections in Andhra Pradesh are always a lavish affair, especially so in red sandalwood country: even sarpanch candidates reportedly spent upwards of Rs 30 lakhs. “It’s a prestige thing,” he continued. “You’re a smuggler, you’re making crores, you want your guy to be in power.”

Soon after the April 7 encounter, I asked Chevireddy Bhaskar Reddy, an MLA representing the Chandragiri constituency near Tirupati, about the sandalwood trade’s political links. Chevireddy is with the YSR Congress Party in the opposition, so I figured he’d at least shed some light on the involvement of Telugu Desam or Indian National Congress members.

“Red sandalwood? Never heard of it until a few days ago,” he told me, helpfully adding, “But I can ask the police department for the names of the politicians involved.”

That Chevireddy – who represents a constituency where smuggling has thrived – had never even heard of red sandalwood is a remarkable claim, especially since, in 2011, he was booked for assaulting a forest officer who had caught a group of smugglers. The officer alleged that the pugnacious assemblyman attacked him for refusing to release the suspects, but in any case, Chevireddy was let off and has put those charges behind him. Few politicians, if any, have been meaningfully prosecuted for their connections to red sandalwood.

A new offensive

Chevireddy’s remark echoed a silence I often encountered while reporting this story. Police officials and customs agents declined to comment, as did many others living around Seshachalem and in the Tamil Nadu village from where some of the April 7 encounter’s victims came. The omerta appears to be a response to the state’s intensified counter-offensive against smuggling – authorities are making more arrests than ever, and have adopted tactics like wiring the forest with hidden cameras. There has also been more violence than ever before. In December 2013, two unarmed forest rangers were bludgeoned to death by a group of woodcutters. Since then, human rights groups like the AP Human Rights Forum say, police have arrested hundreds of working-class men on murder charges, and – until the incident on April 7 – killed at least seven people in false encounters, all of them Tamil.

“I would say that in the past year, the business has come down to 10 to 20 percent of what it used to be,” Srinivas told me. (Ravi Kumar, the forest official, also said the trade has declined, though he wouldn’t specify the extent.) “A lot of the smugglers are now laying low because of the pressure. The woodcutters are back to looking for work on the fields.”

The most significant new measure was the formation of the Red Sanders Anti-Smuggling Task Force in February, a specially trained patrol force with camouflage and high-powered rifles. Their mandate appears to be the strongest ever for an anti-smuggling force – early this month, the officer in charge of the force requested permission to open fire on smugglers without a warrant. It was the STF that killed those 20 men, and their uniforms make for a fearsome sight in villages like Devarakonda, where they are often mistaken for the army.

The STF, and the Seshachalem encounter, has come to represent the way the state’s enthusiasm to protect its red sandalwood forests has blurred the line between innocence and guilt, and seeded the Seshachalem area with intense paranoia. In the villages around the forest, those who have never been associated with the trade – or who no longer are – say they constantly fear harassment and terrifying fates like those of the 20 dead men. Accusations of smuggling have become a common weapon for settling old scores.

“Tirupati smugglers now hire only Tamilians to do the woodcutting because they no longer trust locals," said K Jayashree, an activist with the Human Rights Forum.

Activists say punishments have also fallen disproportionately on the backs of the poor. According to Ravi Kumar, nearly 6,000 people have been arrested in the past decade for red sandalwood smuggling – but the vast majority of them were woodcutters, mostly from Tamil Nadu. “The laborers are trapped entirely in the smugglers’ hands,” Jayashree added.

A stash of seized red sanders logs at a Forest Department depot in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh.

It had rained fat, heavy drops that morning and Devarakonda was deceptively lush. Andhra Pradesh’s Rayalseema region is hard and prone to drought – all the more reason for people to join the business.

But the business, the villagers say, is now extracting too heavy a toll.

“People have been disappearing,” said Lingaraj. “This killing in the news happened to leak by mistake. But encounters happen all the time.”

Lingaraj’s wife chimed in: she had personally witnessed one of them just two weeks earlier, when she had gone out to the fields not far from their house. The police were burying five men, she said. This was a harrowing accusation – although one I could not confirm with any other sources. At the very least, it reflects the mythology of conflict in Seschalem, reminiscent in some ways of the Maoist-affected districts, where trouble lurks as closely as a slip of the tongue.

A new player

Why has red sandalwood smuggling arrived at such brutality? What lies behind a sudden and powerful counter-offensive? There are no clear answers – although one would hope the pending investigation into the April 7 encounter will clear some of those questions up. While the state administration says it only wants to stop the crime of wildlife smuggling, that claim is hard to believe at face value.

The real question, say conservationists, is why smuggling has been allowed to go on for so long.

“It’s a systemic collapse,” said Praveen Bhargav, a former member of the National Board for Wildlife and currently the managing trustee of Wildlife First. “These are huge logs, not small packets of drugs. We need to ask how they manage to pass several hundred checkposts and get smuggled out of the country. We need to focus on preventing the selling of the red sanders trees themselves.”

State officials argue that their resources are too limited to fight a powerful smuggling ring. “Each guard monitors a 15 square kilometer area of forest. How can he stop a gang?” said Ravi Kumar. “And cutting trees is a bailable offense. So even if we make arrests, someone usually comes and pays the bail.”

There’s no official estimate of how much of the forest has been lost to smuggling – although, given the 15,000 tonnes seized by the government, the number is almost certainly astronomical.

“A rough estimate is that authorities catch one in every six attempts at international smuggling,” said Niraj of TRAFFIC. That would mean, given the 15,000 tonnes of red sandalwood seized by the government, a whopping 75,000 tonnes made it overseas.

But the revenue-starved Andhra government may not be interested in keeping the red sandalwood in the forest at all. In several speeches last year, Naidu raised the possibility of selling red sanders to raise revenue, and has repeatedly mentioned that there were 14 million red sanders trees left in the state – even though Ravi Kumar, the forest officer in charge of Seshachalem, told me that the department didn’t maintain a count. And early in April, not long after the encounter, the Andhra Pradesh government requested the Union forests ministry to remove red sanders from the list of endangered species, hence legalising its sale.

The government plans to auction 3,500 tonnes of seized logs in May. Perhaps there’s a new player in the red sandalwood game: the state of Andhra Pradesh.