From Cocaine Cowboys to Narco-Ranchers
As the drug trade takes over Central America, drug barons have found an increasingly reliable option for laundering their cash: cows.
To hear the Guatemalan government tell it, the Maya Biosphere Reserve, a sprawling national park in the northern department of Petén, is the crown jewel of the Central American park system. Look on a map, and you’ll see the protected area spreads across the northern fifth of the country like a green carpet. Within those borders lie the famous Mayan ruins at Tikal and El Mirador, as well as huge swaths of the Maya Forest, the Americas’ largest tropical rainforest outside the Amazon, an invaluable storehouse of both carbon stocks and rare plants and wildlife, among them Guatemala’s last population of macaws.
But that rosy picture hides a grimmer reality. Journey to these protected areas of northern Guatemala, and you’ll find something resembling an ongoing ecological catastrophe. In Laguna del Tigre National Park, nestled in the heart of the reserve, the tall acacia and mahogany trees have been cut and burned, exiling the macaws to the tiny fringe of forest that remains. You can see this damage on a map included in an annual report published by the National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP), the Guatemalan national park service, in partnership with Western environmental NGOs, and paid for in part by the U.S. Department of the Interior. As the map shows, the Maya Biosphere Reserve is bisected by what appears to be creeping fungus — illegal cattle ranches, which have cleared about 8 percent of the reserve since 2000. These ranches stand as a parable for the drug war. According to Guatemalan park guards, U.N. researchers, and prosecutors alike, the unintended cause of the deforestation is a drug war victory: a successful interdiction campaign that redirected billions of dollars of drug cash across Guatemala, funding a trade that threatens to destroy Central America’s greatest forest.
According to a report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), until the early 2000s, Central America was a relative sideshow in the Western Hemisphere’s cocaine trade. The drug largely moved from Colombia across the Caribbean into either Mexico or the southern United States. But starting around 2002, aggressive U.S. law enforcement and interdiction campaigns closed the Caribbean route, seizing some 200 tons of cocaine. Other victories followed in allied states. Security forces in Mexico largely shut down direct drug flights into the country. In South America, the Colombian government broke the power of the country’s main cartels.
But the drug trade is a river of money stretching from the Andes to North America. Dam it in one place and — as long as there are still users in the United States — it will find another course.
When U.S.-funded army patrols and Roundup-spraying planes destroyed Colombia’s coca fields, Peru’s fields picked up the slack (although Colombia may have just bounced back into the lead). Successful campaigns against shipments to Mexico forced the cartels to expand south. Similarly, when the Caribbean routes closed, according to the UNODC, the trade shifted west and the drug river sloshed across the dirt roads and unguarded land borders of Central America.
The effect was dramatic. According to the UNODC, in the mid-1980s, the heyday of the cocaine cowboys, over three-quarters of cocaine interdicted en route from South America to North America was seized in the Caribbean. By 2010, the numbers had flipped: Over 80 percent of cocaine seized en route to the United States was taken in Central America and less than 10 percent in the Caribbean. (There are, admittedly, problems with using seizures as a proxy for shipments — it’s just as much a measure of government attitudes toward trafficking — but alternative metrics are in short supply.) The cocaine moved by speedboat or small plane to an unguarded patch of Central America — according to the U.N., Honduras became particularly popular after the Manuel Zelaya coup in 2009 — and then went north through Guatemala.
Which meant through Guatemala’s jungles. The Maya Biosphere Reserve, according to the Guatemalan park service report, is full of “extensive zones without [state] presence or control.” The reserve is honeycombed with an estimated 1,400 miles of secret roads; according to CONAP, over 200 routes approach or cross the Mexican or Belizean border. Thanks to Mexico’s membership in NAFTA, that meant that a trafficker had only to cross the forest to have access to thousands of miles of largely open highways stretching all the way to Canada.
According to a 2014 report in Science, a growing body of evidence suggests that the trafficking of drugs, cocaine in particular, “has become a crucial — and overlooked — accelerant of forest loss in the isthmus.” The study’s authors found that the more cocaine flowed into the region’s forests, the more forest was lost, particularly in Guatemala’s Petén, the home of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, where “an unprecedented number of primary cocaine flows into the region coincided with a period of extensive forest loss” from 2006 to 2010.
This “narco-deforestation,” the authors explained, occurred through three interrelated mechanisms. First, narcos cut roads and landing strips from the forest. Second, money and guns spilled over from the drug traffic, destabilizing the frontier. Third, drug traffickers had to launder their cash; using drug money to clear land for commodity production was a smart way to do that. (While clearing forest for cattle or palm in government forests is technically illegal, in practice, these ranchers operate and bring their goods to market just like their legal cousins outside the forest — and there is always the possibility of acquiring a valid title down the road through fraud, bribery, or the intervention of sympathetic officials.) Buying and clearing land “allows dollars to be untraceably converted into private assets while simultaneously legitimizing a [trafficker’s] presence at the frontier (e.g., as a ranching operation).” A big cattle estate, the study notes, is also a strategic ploy to claim territory from rivals.
By 2004, drug cash was funding an illegal land boom across the Maya Biosphere Reserve — from the chainsaws and torches that cleared the trees to the Brahman cattle grazing the pastures, according to CONAP. Known capos like Waldemar Lorenzana (now in prison in the United States) bought spreads in the reserve. “Narco-ranchers,” as the Guatemalans came to call them, claimed plots that would impress a Texan: Members of the park service reported ranches near the Mexican border as large as 10,000 acres.
Members of CONAP report being nearly overwhelmed by the spread of organized crime into the Maya Biosphere Reserve. “The park was abandoned by the state,” said Bayron Castellanos, a former CONAP technical director who now runs Balam, a civil society organization in Petén. “It became a mini-Colombia,” Castellanos added.
In the hinterlands, narco-ranchers seized land from small farmers, bribing officials in Guatemala City to add their illegally purchased properties to the national property registry. Gangs of armed men continue to infiltrate the CONAP posts at El Burral and La Corona, kidnapping and beating park guards. When government police moved late last year to dislodge Maynor Palma, one of the big ranchers on the road to the El Mirador ruins, a gang of armed men allegedly commanded by one of Palma’s friends opened fire on them, wounding 14. And every dry season, gangs of peasants in the pay of the ranchers probe the frontier, clearing and burning the remaining trees.
“If we just had government resources,” said Selwyn Maza, who is on the ground every summer fighting fires for CONAP, “Laguna del Tigre would all have been turned into cornfields, and then cattle.” According to Maza, Castellanos, and others, CONAP lacks the resources to confront the threat from the narcos. The organization is responsible for protecting the reserve with a budget of just $11 million, about one-tenth of a percent of the national budget.
The gap has been largely filled by Europe and the United States, which — through the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Department of the Interior, and the State Department — fund a network of NGOs in Petén that has cooperated with CONAP to repel the narcos. Though they don’t give direct military aid, NGO and international development money paid for the construction of CONAP outposts throughout the park, for the trucks and fuel that move soldiers and park guards to the front and for the beans and tortillas that sustain them while they’re there.
Since 2004, an alliance of NGOs and civil society organizations has lobbied the government to treat deforestation as a law-and-order problem — a strategy that has borne real results. Starting in 2008, under pressure from local civil society organizations and environmental groups, President Álvaro Colom doubled the number of soldiers in the reserve. Otto Pérez Molina, then president, established a special prosecutor’s office in the department — allowing environmental crime to be adjudicated locally, rather than in Guatemala City, helping to eliminate backlogs. And the Guatemalan state prosecutor’s office has moved decisively against narco-ranchers. In mass arrests in April, the state arrested 14 prominent landowners from Petén, including members of the powerful Mendoza crime family, who are accused of drug trafficking and illegal land seizures of some 28 estates worth about $3.6 million. (The state arrested another Mendoza brother, Haroldo, last November.)
The state surge to the Mexican border had dramatic effects on deforestation. By 2012, according to CONAP, deforestation — which had peaked in 2008 at 30,000 hectares per year — fell to 10,000. It was enough that large ranchers began to visit the headquarters of CONAP, seeking to make a deal. In 2012, a representative of Alberto Vargas, another large rancher on the road to El Mirador, came to visit Mariella Alvarez, then head of the northern Guatemala park system. “He said that ‘Uncle Beto’ sent his regards, and he doesn’t want to leave his land,” Alvarez said. “He asked what do I need to leave him alone: Money? A car?”
This offer did not save Uncle Beto from eviction. But progress has been fragile — Guatemalan government officials like Alvarez are largely political appointees, and they and their mandates change with each administration. Local politicians often campaign on promises to legalize the ranchers and their territories. As Guatemala’s government has been toppled by a corruption scandal and the frontier further starved of resources, deforestation has crept back up. And as the authors noted in Science, success in the forest will come with its own price, as the same pattern that pushed trafficking into the Maya Biosphere Reserve will, if the forest routes are closed, simply push it elsewhere.
There is ample history of this. The hammer of drug interdiction fell hard in 2012 on traffickers who had colonized Honduras’s forests. So they moved, carving their bases and airstrips from the even more remote forests of Nicaragua, thus continuing the cycle. If the fight is won in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, it seems likely that trafficking will move ever deeper into ever more virgin forest, spreading waste and destruction in its flight from law and order.
Photo Credit: ORLANDO SIERRA / Staff