Los Zetas is contributing to deforestation in Central America: report

By Dialogo
February 21, 2014

International drug trafficking and money laundering have caused a sharp increase in the destruction of environmentally sensitive forest areas in Central America, according to a report that was recently released. k The report, “Drug Policy as Conservation Policy: Narco-Deforestation,” was published in the January issue of the U.S.-based magazine Science.
The report describes a striking correlation between the increased use of Honduras and Guatemala as conduits for South America-produced drugs and the deforestation of large swaths of previously virgin forest lands. Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel, which is led by fugitive kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, are among the transnational criminal organizations which smuggle drugs through Honduras and Guatemala.
“Mounting evidence suggests that the trafficking of drugs (principally cocaine) has become a crucial – and overlooked – accelerant of forest loss in the (Central American) isthmus,” the report states.

Using forests for drug trafficking

International drug trafficking in Central America causes environmental damage and forest loss in two primary ways, according to the Science report.
First, operatives for transnational criminal organizations destroy forest areas to create to create clandestine aircraft landing strips and roads, the report said. Drug traffickers use the landing strips and roads to transport cocaine from South America to Mexico, the United States, Canada, Europe, and Africa. Drug traffickers typically build landing strips and roads in remote and inaccessible forest areas, such as Guatemala’s Peten department, located on the Mexican border. Such areas are most susceptible to environmental damage, according to the report.
Drug traffickers also smuggle large numbers of weapons into forest areas and intimidate indigenous small land owners who are the primary defenders of the forest. Drug traffickers launder some of their enormous drug profits by destroying forest land and creating agribusinesses, according to the report.
“The vast profits that traffickers earn from moving drugs appear to create powerful new incentives for (drug traffickers) themselves to convert forest to agriculture (usually pasture or oil palm plantations),” the report states. “Buying and “improving” remote land (by clearing it) allows dollars to be untraceably converted into private assets, while simultaneously legitimizing a (drug trafficker’s) presence at the frontier.”

Deforestation in eastern Honduras

Organized crime groups have had a dramatic impact on forests in Guatemala and Honduras in a short amount of time, according to the report.
In eastern Honduras, for example, deforestation rates had been on a slight decline until 2007, when Mexican organized crime groups, such as Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel, increased their operations in the area, according to the report.
The rate of forest loss increased dramatically. Between 2007 and 2011, forest loss in environmentally sensitive areas in eastern Honduras increased nine-fold, from approximately 20 square kilometers in 2007 to approximately 180 square kilometers in 2011, according to the report.
The problem became so severe that in 2011 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Honduras’ Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, one of the few remaining tropical rainforests in Central America, as a “World Heritage in Danger” zone, largely because of the damage caused by drug traffickers in the area. Meanwhile, in Guatemala’s Laguna del Tigre National Park and other environmentally sensitive protected areas, the presence of drug traffickers has coincided with an annual forest loss rate of between 5 and 10 percent.
Although such conversions of forest to agriculture are often illegal, the willingness of organized crime groups to use violence, intimidation, and bribery makes it difficult to combat the process. The violent nature of drug traffickers also makes it difficult and dangerous for researches and conservation organizations to investigate and document the deforestation process.

Drug traffickers are like a “cancer”: analyst

The devastation of the environment by drug trafficking organizations is a problem throughout Latin America, said Jesus Aranda Terrones, a researcher at the Collective for the Analysis of Security with Democracy (CASEDE) in Mexico City.
“It is a global phenomenon,” Aranda Terrones said. “The drug traffickers are everywhere. They are like a snowball or a cancer everywhere multiplies uncontrollably and autonomously.
“The level of deforestation in the green areas of Guatemala, Honduras and other countries is alarming. In an effort to smuggle tons of cocaine to the international markets, drug traffickers are killing large areas of forest and green areas.”
The destruction of forests “is part of their criminal operations,” the security analyst said.
Drug traffickers are terrorizing villagers and conservationists as they destroy large amounts of forest, including land that is on federal reserves, Aranda Terrones said.
“Drug cartel leaders do not care about the repercussions they are causing to the environment,” Aranda Terrones said. “Unfortunately this criminal phenomenon has grown in recent years . It is a problem that has not received attention and unfortunately will generating such impunity that organized crime in this setting influence in these forest regions are often remote areas.”
Authorities in Central America should train security forces to work to prevent deforestation, the security analyst said. International cooperation is important in the fight against transnational criminal organizations, he added.

Other causes of deforestation

Not all of the deforestation is attributable to drug traffickers, according to the Science report. Non-drug related commercial logging, agribusiness and other factors also are major causes of Central American deforestation. But the report states that “the trafficking of drugs has intensified these processes and has become a powerful deforestation driver in its own right.”
The Science report was primarily authored by Kendra McSweeney of the Ohio State University Department of Geography. Co-authors were Erik Neilsen, Matthew Taylor, David Wrathall, Zoe Pearson, Ophelia Wang and Spencer Plumb.
Julieta Pelcastre contributed to this report. .