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Guatemala Combats Forest Fires Caused by Narcotrafficking

Guatemala Combats Forest Fires Caused by Narcotrafficking

By Gustavo Arias Retana/Diálogo
July 17, 2020

Forest fires caused by organized criminal groups have destroyed thousands of hectares of Guatemalan forest. The fires are concentrated in Petén department, on the border with Belize and Mexico.

On July 6, José Cal, a historian and researcher at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala, told Diálogo that the problem with fires is not new; it has increased because there are many key narcotrafficking routes in the area, and the fires are used to clear land for the construction of clandestine airstrips.

“Petén is a transnational commercial corridor; it is a transnational migratory corridor, and it has ultimately become a transnational drug corridor […]. Guatemala is connected to the Caribbean, to the Pacific, to the north, so Guatemala is a transit country […], necessary to transit drugs from South America to transfer station in Mexico, or to stations in the south of the United States,” Cal said.

Guatemala’s Coordination Office for Disaster Reduction reported online that, as of May 28, 1,257 fires had been recorded, which destroyed 8,942 hectares of forest in Petén department. During the 2018-2019 period, forest fires destroyed more than 47,000 hectares of the country’s forests, Guatemalan digital newspaper Prensa Libre reported on April 25.

“Colombian and Venezuelan drug trafficking organizations often partner with Mexican cartels for significant cocaine shipments,” Michael Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, told the Washington Post on July 5. “Guatemalan smuggling groups control a vast array of clandestine airstrips, and they can adjust or redirect landings as needed.”

According to Cal, narcotraffickers burn forests not only to build airstrips, but also to expand their activities, such as livestock farming, because this defines land boundaries in the area and often serves as a front for their criminal activities.

“Livestock farming enables territorial control […]. With the pretext that they are developping this economic activity, criminals select key territories to establish temporary airstrips that can be used for some time, and that has to do with forest fires. At first, it was said that only the communities were burning land, but no; there is a vested interest in opening these airstrips because they are an expeditious way to get the drugs through Petén and then send them by river to Belize and to the south of Mexico,” Cal concluded.