HomeInvestigationsHow Colombia Regulators Became Purveyors of Illegal Wood

How Colombia Regulators Became Purveyors of Illegal Wood


In Santander, Colombia, timber traders corrupted regulatory, police and judicial systems on their way to trafficking untold amounts of wood from the state.

At the end of 2013, an official from the Yariguíes National Park contacted the Attorney General’s Office. The official told prosecutors that settlers were deforesting parts of the natural reserve to plant coca, the raw material used to make cocaine, and that loggers were illegally harvesting and selling the wood.

The department of Santander, where this natural reserve is located, has three million hectares of land, 800,000 of which are natural forests like those in Yariguíes. There are laws designed to manage these areas within national parks and along their so-called buffer zones, or what are referred to as Special Handling Districts (Distritos de Manejo Especial). Still, so much of the state has been deforested already that some scientists say the erosion of forest cover is causing water shortages in areas of the department.

Specifically, much of these districts have been used for decades by coca growers, local farmers and loggers from the 13 municipalities that share territories with the Yariguíes.

*This is the first chapter of a four-part series on timber trafficking across Latin America, carried out over two years by InSight Crime in collaboration with American University's Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. This investigation involved extensive fieldwork in Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and Peru, during which we interviewed dozens of government officials, members of security forces, academics, smugglers, landowners and local residents, among others. Read the entire series here.

“The great majority, with a few exceptions, have been taken over,” said an official from the Autonomous Corporation of Santander (Corporación Autónoma de Santander -- CAS), referring to the steady spread of illegal logging in these national park and buffer areas and speaking on condition of anonymity.

The CAS was supposed to regulate these difficult areas. It is part of the country’s network of 33 Regional Autonomous Corporations (Corporaciones Autónomas Regionales -- CARs). The CARs are the key regulatory agencies designed to ensure environmentally sustained economic projects such as timber extraction. In practice, however, they have become vehicles for corruption, malfeasance and organized crime. Indeed, in the case in Yariguíes, they would soon become the center of the investigation. What’s more, this was not the first hint that something was wrong in the department’s CAR.

SEE ALSO: Colombia Profile

Two years earlier, in 2011, a highway patrol in Santander had stopped a truck with timber and a false transit permit. During the subsequent interrogation, the driver had given officers the name and cellular telephone number of the person that had given him the permit. Using this information, a prosecutor from Bucaramanga had obtained an order to wiretap the line. The telephone, they soon found by listening to the conversations on it, belonged to a timber trader who was illegally sourcing wood from the department via contacts that could furnish him with timber transportation permits.

A police raid to seize illegally sourced wood in Santander, Colombia (Photo: Colombia's National Police)

The phone intercepts eventually provided authorities with the broader outline of the criminal network and their modus operandi. The network included wood harvesters, transporters and regulatory authorities. They seemed to move the wood in two ways: one using legally-obtained licenses that were recycled through the system; the other via fake licenses issued for the express purpose of laundering illegally-sourced wood. All of these licenses and permits, prosecutors said, were provided by the Corporation for the Defense of the Bucaramanga Plateau (Corporación para la Defensa de la Meseta de Bucaramanga -- CDMB), the other CAR in Santander.

Patronage, Timber Trafficking and the CDMB

The government created the first CAR in the 1960s. Over the years, they grew in number, but they bounced from ministry to ministry until 1993, when they were assigned to the Ministry of the Environment. The corporations are a strange entity. They are regional, based on the idea they should regulate a single ecosystem rather than be confined to a single municipality or state. This gives them jurisdiction over issues in a number of municipalities, making them autonomous to a degree. But they are still beholden to the mayors and governor of the department where they operate, since these mayors and governors select the corporation’s director, manage its board of directors and pay the bills. And in some cases, they have become part of the local political patronage system.

Such is the case of the CDMB. Its first director, Fredy Anaya, spent six years at the helm of the CDMB in the early 2000s and through a kind of bureaucratic osmosis gained de facto control over the department’s sewage company. The two entities gave him large sway over public contracts and land-use permits, the kind of political mojo that can lead to bigger things. Anaya used these levers. In the mid-2010s, he was accused of orchestrating a corruption scheme involving the CDMB and the state sewage company to benefit his relatives, who received numerous state contracts.

The investigation never resulted in charges, but his control over the CDMB and the sewage company positioned Anaya to launch his own political career. Among his political backers were corrupt politicians and at least one former leader of the right-wing paramilitary groups who had committed widespread massacres and trafficked illegal drugs through the 1990s and into the early 2000s.

Anaya also allegedly purchased support from at least one political party. None of the accusations stopped him. In 2014, Anaya won a spot in congress, all the while maintaining control of CDMB and the sewage company via proxies.

The corporation remains one of the department’s largest political fortresses. The CDMB’s budget in 2017 was more than 44 billion pesos (about $13 million), according to the CDMB’s own records, and it manages the environment and land-use in 13 of the department’s 87 municipalities. For a while, Anaya became director again while he ran for mayor of the department’s capital city, Bucaramanga. Anaya lost the election, and in March 2020, in what was seen as a political coup d’etat, he was pushed out of the CDMB and the sewage company.

Throughout this time period, CDMB representatives were helping traffic wood. The wood trafficking scheme uncovered by authorities in the 2011 highway patrol stop, for instance, involved engineers at the corporation, which made sure the permits had the correct species, volume, transport vehicle and name of the driver. In time, the network would take on a name: Los Ingenieros (The Engineers). The most common permits issued to the trafficking network were those that had expired. In all, CDMB officials issued 912 false transportation permits, prosecutors said, all of which were simply old permits that the organization recycled with false information. In one of the wiretapped conversations, a CDMB engineer told an intermediary that he had altered the organization’s system of issuing permits by adding legitimate forestry uses to the permits or by increasing the number of species that were listed on the permit.

CDMB officials also used unwitting accomplices, who were often farmers with little education. In one case, a farmer who did not know how to read or write had 985 false licenses signed under her name. In another example, authorities found land-use licenses located on a farm belonging to a man named Abelardo Serrano. Serrano was not so much vulnerable as prolific. He had had numerous forestry-use licenses issued by CDMB over the years but had not requested any in recent years. So in 2016, when Serrano discovered the CDMB had issued licenses that he had never requested to transport 711 cubic meters of wood from his properties valued at more than 6 billion pesos ($1.7 million), he went to the authorities and filed a complaint.

Through the phone intercepts and interviews, authorities found the network had numerous alternative ways to camouflage illegally-sourced wood, should there be any problems obtaining licenses or during transport. In one intercepted call, for example, a CDMB engineer intervened after a highway patrol pulled over a truck with illegally-sourced timber and a false transportation permit. During the call, the engineer confirmed the information and requested the police officers allow the truck to pass. The engineer later requested a bonus from an intermediary for freeing up this wood from authorities.

The criminal network’s principal intermediary also maintained contact with officials from other regional regulatory corporations, including Cormacarena, Corantioquia and Corchocó, in case he could not get what he needed from the CDMB. Meanwhile, the CDMB increased the number of forestry licenses from the 14 approved in 2016 to 24 in 2018, according to the Attorney General’s Office. And for two years, prosecutors said, the network allegedly moved hundreds of cubic meters of timber belonging to rural landowners without their knowledge. The wood was mostly sold locally in Bogotá and Barranquilla. And according to local media, some of it was exported to China.

The Yariguíes Case

After receiving the information from the park official in the Yariguíes National Park in 2013, the Attorney General’s Office assigned a prosecutor to the case. Established in 2005 as a park, Yariguíes was a common target for traffickers. It is large, ecologically diverse and remote. It has 59,063 hectares of forest spread throughout the mountains, 57 species of mammals, 40 classes of amphibians, 30 reptile species and 200 types of butterflies. There are tropical rainforests, highlands and moorlands. Several rivers begin in the park, including the Opón, Suárez and Sogamoso -- the last two feed the Sogamoso Dam and water reserve, one of the largest in the country.

The park’s unique geography also gives rise to varied tree species such as Colombian oak, Spanish cedar, and Virola calophylla, which is a form of nutmeg. The areas cited by the official were concentrated in some of these aforementioned buffer areas, specifically in the municipalities of Santa Helena Del Opón, Cimitarra, Carmen de Chucurí, San Vicente de Chucurí and the region of Bajo Simacota where traffickers were allegedly harvesting cedar, rosewood, Cariniana multiflora and Virola calophylla, among others.

For a time, the area was also a prime coca-growing region. Although production of coca, the raw material for cocaine, dropped slightly in the most recent US survey of the crop, it is still near record levels in Colombia. The spread of the crop has had a devastating effect on natural forests in Colombia. In 2019, Environmental Minister Ricardo Lozano said about a quarter of all deforestation was a collateral effect of coca production.

According to reports by Colombian authorities between 1998 and 2012, over 608,000 hectares of rainforest were illegally cleared in order to grow coca. This represents an average of 40,500 hectares a year, or 111 hectares a day.

While most of this coca production and deforestation is happening in Colombia’s Amazon basin, the problem also includes Santander and the Yariguíes Park, where police have found significant coca production dating back to at least 2014.

Still, cases were hard to make. The regional prosecutors’ office had no expertise in investigating and prosecuting environmental crimes. They started by studying old cases, detailing locations where arrests for these types of crimes had been made. By mid-2013, 15 people had been captured trafficking wood from the Yariguíes. They combined that information with flyovers where they took aerial photos of the areas most impacted. Soon, they found a disturbing pattern: The areas where there had been arrests and the areas where the flyovers showed there was evidence of illegal logging were not the same. In other words, authorities were concentrating their resources in the wrong places.

At about the same time, the prosecutors’ office received a study financed by the German government. Studies like these can help authorities, especially where they are thin on human resources. The study confirmed much of their preliminary analysis. It also added to their understanding, especially details about where groups were stockpiling wood, what routes they were using to extract it and what destinations it was bound for, including the major cities where it was presumably processed for end-use or export.

“The largest quantity of timber was detected heading for Barranquilla and Bogotá,” explained a detective that supported the prosecutor’s investigative efforts and spoke on condition of anonymity because the detective was not authorized to comment. “They told us that between two and three trucks and tractor-trailers were leaving [per day].”

The information gave prosecutors another avenue of investigation and possible prosecution since any transport also had to have official permission from the local CAR to move the wood. In sum, prosecutors had three investigative avenues: the illegal issuance of logging permits, the illegal transport of this illegally-sourced wood, and possible corruption of government entities who were not prosecuting this crime when they discovered it and were maybe even facilitating it. What they might not have expected was that the network was employing all three methods.

SEE ALSO: How Organized Crime Profits from Deforestation in Colombia

Investigators also soon learned that an intermediary in the region served as the link for businessmen elsewhere to obtain the wood, then transfer and legalize it before it landed in their hands. Intermediaries like this are the lynchpins of the timber trafficking trade. They connect the harvesters to the wholesalers, which often include sawmills and secondary processors. They finance harvesting and often run transport companies. And they obtain the paperwork necessary to bypass regulatory authorities and law enforcement.

To be sure, the intermediary in the Yariguíes case had a contact inside the Autonomous Corporation of Santander (Corporación Autónoma de Santander - CAS), investigators found after they began listening on his telephone calls. The CAS official expedited false transport permits, while the intermediary was in charge of working with highway police in Santa Helena de Opón to secure passage. They coordinated this movement via a cellular phone that the criminal group gave to the police. The information was precise. During some of the calls, prosecutors heard the criminal group telling the police which types of trucks were moving the timber and what time they would be passing the checkpoint.

The bribes paid to the officers were based on the size of the trucks, as well as the volume and species of wood being transported. When there was a mix-up or a truck was detained with illegal timber at another checkpoint where the police had not been informed, the criminal group employed a separate CAS official who would provide false information or adjust the information on the paperwork for the police, so the wood could continue its journey.

Part of the timber, illegally sourced within Colombia, is legalized through fake permits and documents (Photo: Colombia National Police)

The network’s contacts reached other parts of the government as well. After it leaked that an official investigation was underway, the network began moving shipments at night. What’s more, prosecutors soon discovered that illegal wood was transported not just with false CAS permits, but also with false transport permits from the Colombian Agricultural Institute (Instituto Colombiano Agropecuario -- ICA), the entity that regulates commercial timber plantations.

Soon, there were indications that municipal and judicial authorities were connected to the trafficking network as well. Specifically, investigators discovered that, through a group of corrupt police officers, the traffickers bribed an assistant from the prosecutor’s office, who in turn found loopholes in the procedures that forced authorities to return seized cargo and transport trucks. Of particular note were five seized shipments returned by the prosecutor’s office in the municipality of Cimitarra.

“When the police brought cases to the [prosecutor], he said: ‘No, this procedure was not done correctly,’ and forced the police officers to return the vehicles,” the Bucaramanga-based prosecutor told InSight Crime.

In October 2014, after almost two years of investigation, the Attorney General’s Office arrested 55 people, including the intermediary, a group of police officers, two CAS officials and several transporters and charged them with illegal trafficking of wood, trafficking endangered species or species endemic to Colombia, conspiracy, and corruption-related crimes.

The Big Fish Go Free

Despite the arrests in these cases, authorities wanted to reach higher into the distribution chain. Most of the top echelons of these networks, as well as the businesses driving the illegal timber harvest, are never prosecuted. While they work with intermediaries, the businesses are careful to keep themselves at arm’s length from the trade, giving them plausible deniability when the illegal provenance of the wood is discovered. In the Santander cases, authorities thought they might break this pattern.

During their investigation, prosecutors discovered there was a group of businessmen from Bogotá, Bucaramanga and Barranquilla that ordered particular volumes and species of timber through the intermediaries in the Yariguíes case. The buyers did business with the intermediaries in two ways.

One was by demand. Sawmill owners or wood processors that needed wood would request specific amounts from intermediaries. The intermediaries would then obtain the false licenses to harvest, launder and move the wood to the buyers’ processing plants.

The other way buyers obtained wood from the intermediaries was from more of a spot market. The intermediaries illegally gathered supply they knew from experience was commercially viable. Buyers and intermediaries would then buy the illegally-sourced wood from this spot market, arranging the purchases through digital means or in person.

Prosecutors said the network had well-established routes like those between Cimitarra-Bucaramanga, Cimitarra-Vélez-Barbosa-Bogotá, Santa Helena-Bogotá, Landazuri-Vélez-Barbosa-Bogotá and Cimitarra-Barranquilla. Eventually, prosecutors used this information to open cases against various businessmen and local loggers. One of these businessmen was Alexis Pinzón. Based in Bogotá, Pinzón had a strange mix of businesses. He was both a wood purveyor and automobile service agent. Pinzón was found guilty but spent little time in jail.

Prosecutors also indicted a fellow prosecutor and his assistant, as well as a member of the police that tried to subvert the investigation. Still, the Attorney General’s Office has had difficulty bringing several of the officials to court because of bureaucratic delays, and, prosecutors say, political pressure. In the cases being developed against the buyers, prosecutors say they have knowledge of illegal logging networks stretching to Bogotá, Bucaramanga and Barranquilla. What’s more, other buyers have approached prosecutors seeking to arrange plea deals. But none of them will face jail time or significant fines, officials say.

The CDMB case faced similar difficulties. Following Serrano’s complaint, authorities in February 2018 arrested nine members of Los Ingenieros and charged them with selling up to 852 cubic meters of timber from the Yariguíes reserve per month (valued at close to $250,000), as well as conspiracy, falsifying documents, fraud and crimes related to misuse of the online permit system. Among those arrested were three current and two former CDMB officials, including an assistant director, an engineer, and an area contractor.

All of the accused, except one -- the sub-director of environmental evaluation and control at CDMB who police alleged to be behind the scheme -- pleaded guilty to the charges, according to the prosecutor. CDMB Director Martín Camilo Carvajal told the newspaper Vanguardia Liberal at the time that the sub-director would continue in that position in spite of the accusations.

*Additional reporting by Ana Marrugo.

*This is the first chapter of a four-part series on timber trafficking across Latin America, carried out over two years by InSight Crime in collaboration with American University's Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. This investigation involved extensive fieldwork in Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and Peru, during which we interviewed dozens of government officials, members of security forces, academics, smugglers, landowners and local residents, among others. Read the entire series here.

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