The widespread destruction of habitat and loss of biodiversity in the Americas are rampant, InSight Crime, an organization that studies organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean, says.
In Colombia, “the Clan del Golfo not only engages in narcotrafficking, but also charges commissions to other criminal groups that seek to carry out environmental crimes in its area of influence,” Major Leonardo Correa, deputy chief of the Colombian National Police’s Criminal Investigation Section of the Police and Environmental Protection Directorate, told Diálogo on September 5.
According to Colombian magazine Semana, criminal networks are destroying Colombia’s forests. In the first semester of 2022, environmental crimes caused deforestation on more than 7,500 hectares, while 117 people were prosecuted for environmental crimes.
In Central America, Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve, one of the region’s most extensive protected rainforests, is being cut down and burned to make way for clandestine landing strips for cocaine trafficking, InSight Crime says.
In Honduras’ Río Plátano Biosphere, a vast jungle area on the country’s Caribbean coast, some settlers are cutting down dense jungles with the help of narcotraffickers to sell the illegally extracted timber.
Peru is also facing an increase in the deforestation of its Amazon forests. Criminal groups have been vying for land for mining, cattle ranching, agriculture, coca cultivation, and numerous clandestine airstrips, among others, reported environmental journalism platform Mongabay.
An August 2022 INTERPOL report indicates that organized crime generates hundreds of millions of dollars annually from pollution crimes, with devastating consequences for local communities and the environment.
The report conducted a comprehensive review of 27 cases of pollution crime shared by law enforcement agencies in some of its 194 member countries.
The offenses studied are for waste, marine pollution, fuel smuggling, and illicit trafficking of chemicals and coal. These threaten the environmental sustainability of the planet, public health, and society’s quality of life, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a global network of investigative journalists that specializes in organized crime and corruption, indicated.
Although most of the cases INTERPOL analyzed are from European countries, the research showed that the link between organized crime and pollution crime is a global phenomenon, involving a wide variety of perpetrators, organizations, and criminal activities.
In the cases INTERPOL examined, the proceeds of pollution crime average $19.6 million per case. The proceeds of the 27 pollution crime cases combined are estimated at $500 million.
Other costs to the environment and legitimate economies of the countries analyzed were clean-up and decontamination costs. These costs ranged from $6 million to $37 million for a single case, averaging $15.6 million per case, INTERPOL indicated.
In Colombia “we haven’t come up with a specific way to mitigate this problem. It requires a very large and sustained operational effort,” Maj. Correa said. “From the National Police we do the dissuasive, preventive, and reactive part against criminal organizations.”
The perpetrators systematically commit document fraud, financial crimes, tax evasion, money laundering, bribery, extortion, fraud, and armed violence, INTERPOL says in the report. They also involve centralized mafia or gangs, it adds.
Consolidation among countries
Tackling these global threats is a complex task. It requires international cooperation. For Maj. Correa the connection between organized crime groups and environmental crime “shows us how important the strategic relationship is” at the international level.
“What is important is the support we get from the different U.S. entities, from INTERPOL,” Maj. Correa said. “They are always in contact with us, supporting us, because there is a lot of information that we get from the different investigations […].”
INTERPOL recommends that all nations pay greater attention to pollution crime investigations, integrating the tools and techniques used against organized and financial crime. This could be achieved through multidisciplinary training of investigators or by establishing permanent multi-agency working groups.
“The environmental issue concerns the whole world because there is nothing more democratic in the world than the oxygen we breathe, that is what we have to aim for: to preserve that oxygen, to preserve our natural resources that not only belong to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru or the United States, but to the entire planet,” Maj. Correa concluded.