Chihuahua is Mexico’s biggest state, and more than a fifth of its 25,000 hectares is forested, mostly with pine trees of the type that are harvested in vast quantities in this country. Half of those wooded areas are in the Sierra Tarahumara — a chain of mountains focused in the southwestern part of the state that is home to a large Indigenous population known as the Tarahumara and a prized drug trafficking corridor.

In late 2018, InSight Crime traveled to Delicias, a small town 100 kilometers south of Chihuahua City, to visit Cruz Soto and his wife Maria. The two live in a humble house on the outskirts of the town. It wasn’t the couple’s home. They had been forced out of their ranch that lay some 500 kilometers further west in the state of Chihuahua, at gunpoint.

Illegal logging here is common and increasingly overlaps with drug trafficking, according to research and fieldwork by InSight Crime. The illicit timber trade is the primary concern for many of the Indigenous communities in the Sierra Tarahumara, according to a survey carried out in February 2018 by the State Commission for Indigenous Towns (Comisión Estatal para los Pueblos Indígenas — COEPI). The biggest causes of deforestation, the survey respondents said, are corruption, organized crime, the over-exploitation of the forests and legal logging permits, and a lack of legal supervision by the relevant authorities.

“Criminals have entered the wood business,” Refugio Luna García, Chihuahua’s director of forestry development, told local media in September 2019.

Chihuahua has long been prime territory for the Mexican drug trade. The southwestern corner of the state is part of what is known as the Golden Triangle — the biggest drug cultivation area in the country. The climate and conditions there lend themselves to the widespread cultivation of heroin poppy and marijuana. Chihuahua is also highly valued by drug trafficking groups due to its large size, inhospitable terrain, its multitude of roads and shared border with the United States. Ciudad Juárez, which sits on the northern edge of the state, is a major drug plaza and has been the scene of bloody flareups of violence over the last decade as criminal groups spar to control this vital corridor.

*This is the third 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.

Cruz was a tall, broad, handsome man with dark skin and a clear gaze. When we met, he wore a cap and a thick, cream-colored winter coat and jeans. He stood awkwardly, leaning against the refrigerator as we talked in the small kitchen of the house he and his wife Maria were staying in temporarily since they got ran out of their municipality of Guazapares, a part of the Golden Triangle. Maria, short with dark skin and a worried frown, sat on the sofa.

The couple had lived on their ranch, which amounted to some 40 hectares of land with cattle, pigs, chickens and rows of orchards. Cruz’s family also had pull in the community. His brother was what is known as an “ejidatorio,” or a resident of the traditional land cooperatives, known as “ejidos,” that still manage much of Mexico’s land.

SEE ALSO: Mexico Profile

The family’s prominence put them between many competing interests. Mexico has some 65 million hectares of forest, 70 percent of which are controlled by the ejidos; eight of every 10 trees harvested comes from an ejido. The ejidos are also the de facto stewards of intra-family squabbles that often revolve around whether the cooperative should allow timber harvesting and other businesses to use their land. But sometimes, when it comes to illicit business interests, they are not given a choice.

There were hints of this coming conflict. In May 2008, armed men in trucks overran Creel, the unofficial capital of the Tarahumara, a popular tourist destination and a city that sits on one of the most lucrative drug corridors on the planet. The gunmen killed the police chief, two officers and three villagers; they took away another 10 people in their cars, only one of which was found later. Other, small murder sprees followed.

Cruz told us that his family problems turned deadly in July 2014, when his brother, the ejidatorio, was kidnapped and killed by a criminal group. He did not provide many details of the murder, but he did say the criminal group was part of the Sinaloa Cartel, who he claimed was more interested in getting rid of the forest than exploiting it.

“They’re involved in everything — illegal logging, mining, ranching,” said Cruz, who added that they cut down the trees to make way for poppy plantations, the raw material used to make heroin.

The criminal group settled in the area, he said. Cruz described them as men of varying ages who wore bulletproof vests and carried automatic weapons and pistols.

“They’re very well-armed, very well-equipped,” said Cruz. “They just get rid of people who get in their way.”

Cruz said the local criminal group subsequently killed more than a dozen people and eventually ran him and his family off their ranch after a series of death threats. Others also fled.

“They have killed entire families,” his wife, Maria, added.

It was part of a plan, Cruz claimed, to expropriate the ejidos’ land for their own purposes. He said corrupt officials have opened the door to criminal groups and are also making money from their business. Such accusations are common but hard to corroborate.

About a year after InSight Crime interviewed Cruz and Maria, he returned to a town called Témoris, close to where he used to live. His wife told InSight Crime that he went back to get a subsidy the government provided families like Cruz for his agricultural activities. After he’d been given the money, the local police chief, a man identified in public documents only as Paulino M.R., asked Cruz if he could stay for an extra day — Maria never knew why.

But stay Cruz did, and while he was there, he met with officials from the Secretary of Agriculture and Rural Development (Secretaría de Agricultura y Desarrollo Rural — Sagarpa), which helps regulate land use in the area. One of the topics they discussed was the issue of his family’s displacement and land Cruz said was stolen from them.

After the meetings, Cruz, his niece and the husband of another relative were driving when two cars — later identified as a Hummer and a Jeep — caught up and stopped them. Two armed men got out and approached Cruz’s vehicle asking for him by name. Cruz got out of the car and the gunmen ushered him into one of their vehicles. Then they drove away. Five days later, Cruz’s body was found dumped on the side of the road in a different part of the same zone.

Chihuahua – a Constant State of Conflict

Violence in Chihuahua is not new, but it has increased significantly since former president Felipe Calderón announced an offensive against the country’s powerful crime syndicates when he took power in December 2006. Homicides nearly tripled from 593 in 2006 to 1,578 in 2017, and they stood at more than 1,700 for 2018. By May 2020, the homicide rate for the state was one of the highest in the country at 71 per 100,000.

Violence perpetrated by warring criminal factions is not only high but often merciless. Ciudad Juárez, which accounts for about a fifth of the homicides in the state, garners the most attention. But other parts of Chihuahua are just as violent. In November 2019, a criminal group ambushed members of a high-profile Mormon family with prominent business ties in Mexico and connections to the US. The attack occurred where the states of Chihuahua and Sonora meet and left three women and six children of the LeBarón family dead.

The federal government claimed the ambush was a case of mistaken identity and part of a fight between factions of two of the country’s most storied drug syndicates, the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels. Some local press reports backed the government explanation, but Julian LeBarón had his doubts.

“Thus far what the Americans have told us and what the Mexican government has said is that there was a drug trafficking route to the United States that two cartels were fighting over and my cousins happened to drive by in the middle of the conflict,” said LeBarón. “Whether or not they knew who they were attacking is still a question that we have, and we find it incomprehensible that the cartel would make a mistake that big.”

Official explanations for much of the violence in the state and all of Mexico is like the LeBarón massacre: It tends to generate more questions than answers.

The most violent municipalities in Chihuahua are in the west and south, but the nature of the violence in these two zones varies. Violence in the western municipalities tends to be between rival criminal groups, whereas violence in the south of Chihuahua tends to be wreaked by the Sinaloa Cartel against the civilian population, as the case of Cruz and his family shows, according to the state’s Criminal Investigation Agency (Agencia Estatal de Investigación Criminal).

Mexico deforestation map

The convergence of timber and drug trafficking has added another layer to the fighting. The municipalities most affected by illegal logging in Chihuahua are in the state’s south and west: Maguarichi, Guerrero, Uruachi, Ocampo and Madera, as well as Guadalupe y Calvo and Bocoyna, according to the Criminal Investigation Agency. Those areas are also some of the most violent.

Bocoyna is where Creel is located and marks a line between the territory of the two major criminal organizations battling for this trafficking corridor: La Línea, which works with the Juárez Cartel, and the Gente Nueva, which works with the Sinaloa Cartel. Conflict between these two groups has been linked to a fight for control over the illegal wood industry as well as the drug trafficking routes that go through the state.

InSight Crime caught a glimpse of these battles on a morning in late October 2018, when six bodies were dumped just before dawn in front of a gas station on the outskirts of Creel. Wrapped in black bin bags secured with brown masking tape that hugged the neck, waist and ankles of each corpse, the scene was typical of the violence that has played out during Mexico’s more than a decade-long drug war. But the message taped to one of the bodies referred to the control and trafficking of the local illegal wood market, not drug trafficking, according to Hugo Mendoza, an agent from Chihuahua’s Criminal Investigation Agency.

SEE ALSO: Illegal Logging in Chihuahua is Now Mexico Cartel Territory

The fighting that began after Calderón started his offensive in 2006 continued apace through the following administration of Enrique Peña Nieto and into the current administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (also known by his initials AMLO). Years of these battles have atomized organizations like Juárez and Sinaloa, whose factions begat factions who now seek to establish their own revenue streams — illegal wood is one of these.

“El narco has always been here, and everyone learned to live with them. But the drug war prompted them to protect their territories more,” says Isela González, director of the Alianza Sierra Madre. She spoke to InSight Crime in Chihuahua City, where she was under government protection after receiving death threats for her work in environmental issues such as illegal logging.

What’s more, the prices of marijuana and poppy have been dropping steadily, forcing groups to diversify their portfolios or expand their existing ones to make up for the shortfall. Factions of the Sinaloa Cartel, for example, have expanded their marijuana and poppy fields in the area, clear-cutting forests and displacing families like Cruz’s in the process. The timber is not so much the primary objective as much a byproduct of this expansion.

San Juanito – The Wood Processing Hub

About a 30-kilometer drive north of Creel is San Juanito, the wood trafficking hub of this part of the state. It is home to some 25 sawmills that generate, directly and indirectly, hundreds of jobs in the town. They process the wood from the pine forests that coat the hills. The wood is then transported mostly to Chihuahua City but also to Cuauhtémoc and towards the south of the state. The pine is used almost exclusively for domestic use: construction, furniture and paper products. This is true for most of the wood harvested in Mexico. Little of it is exported; the domestic market far outstrips the international one in terms of volume.

Pine has long been illegally-sourced and laundered in San Juanito. The town is home to as many, or more, clandestine sawmills as the legally-established ones. But the arrival of drug traffickers brought with it a new level of violence and reportedly an upheaval in ownership of the sawmills.

The Sierra Tarahumara, in Mexico’s northern state of Chihuahua, has seen widespread deforestation carried out by drug trafficking gangs (Photo: InSight Crime source)

It was around 2015 when these drug trafficking groups first arrived, according to Citlali Quintana, a lawyer working for the Center for Understanding and Defense of Human and Indigenous Rights (Centro de Capacitación y Defensa de los Derechos Humanos e Indígenas), a local non-profit in the region. Quintana described their entry as brusque, literally slash and burn. “The whole area around San Juanito was logged illegally and indiscriminately,” she told InSight Crime. “And afterward they would set fire to the woods and not let people put the fires out.”

But others, such as one person connected to the wood industry in the area, said it was a slightly more subtle process that began with the classic criminal request: pay “piso,” underworld speak for extortion. It was not long before the criminal groups began to see potential profits in the industry itself and started taking over mills or forcing them to process the illegally-sourced wood, industry representatives and non-governmental watchdogs said.

How much of the processing business in the area the criminal faction now controls is in dispute. One local businessman told InSight Crime that half of the sawmills operating in San Juanito could be part of the Juárez Cartel’s network. The other half, the source said, have to pay piso.

Another source gave a starker assessment: “No one is allowed to manage the wood unless they work with the cartel,” a representative of a watchdog group who asked to remain anonymous told InSight Crime.

In either case, according to more than a dozen watchdog groups and industry experts interviewed by InSight Crime, the process plays out similarly. Timber groups connected to drug groups arrive at sawmills with truckloads of raw pine. The mills buy and process the illegally-sourced wood and then launder the processed wood into the legally-sourced timber supply for sale to construction companies and secondary processing plants.

Despite its prevalence, there are no judicial cases, industry studies, non-government estimates or other information that would indicate how prevalent the illicit trade is in this area. Nationwide, however, governmental and non-governmental sources estimate that between 30 percent and 50 percent of all wood harvested in Mexico is illegal. This illegally-sourced wood generates between $106 million and $175 million per year, according to InSight Crime estimates.

Criminal groups have also dragged transport companies and individual truck drivers into the illegal trade, getting them to mix illegally-sourced wood into their own supply. Refusal to participate can be fatal. Just a month before InSight Crime visited the area, a driver was assassinated and his truck and cargo burned.

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

In October 2018, Quintana, the lawyer, drove us from the small city of Creel to the Indigenous village of Bahuinacachi just outside of San Juanito in her four-wheel-drive vehicle. We passed pine forests that had been ravaged by unauthorized loggers. The work was badly done — trees had been left to rot where they had fallen, and some swathes of land had been burned in an attempt to hide the evidence.

Once in Bahuinacachi, residents told InSight Crime how some 40 armed men carrying chainsaws arrived in heavy trucks a few months earlier. They then cut down trees in the pine forests on the outskirts of the town. The men — all of whom appeared to be under 20 years old, according to witnesses — moved dozens of truckloads of wood out of the forests every day for weeks. Villagers said they could hear the chainsaws working from their homes all night long.

At one point, the recently-installed leader of the Juárez Cartel and its armed wing in San Juanito, a man named César Daniel Manjárrez Alonso, alias “el H2,” made an appearance in the town, villagers said. Manjárrez was on the rise. His two bosses, both members of the vaunted group La Línea, had been arrested in the months prior.

La Línea had been created by Chihuahua police years prior and had maintained a line into the police for years following. One of La Línea’s leaders captured prior to Manjárrez’s rise to the top was a former Chihuahua policeman.

Manjárrez and his brothers had taken advantage of the arrests of their bosses, filling the void with new blood and a new name. They called themselves the New Juárez Cartel (Nuevo Cártel de Juárez). In addition to leading the voracious foray for wood in Bahuinacachi, Manjárrez had allegedly masterminded an attack on a state police convoy in San Juanito just a month prior to our visit. The attack, which left four police dead, was supposedly revenge for the arrest of his former La Línea bosses, the local press reported.

Manjárrez was also responsible for the killings that had happened while we were in Creel, according to the Criminal Investigative Agency and local news reports. The press showed a video of the six bodies on the road leading to San Juanito and attributed the murders to “a settling of scores between criminal groups.” The State Prosecutor’s Office subsequently issued a press release. “The incident is linked to organized crime and illegal wood logging between La Línea and the Sinaloa Cartel,” the prosecutor’s office wrote.

The presence of the loggers has deepened the divide in the community. Some have gone to work for the loggers cutting down trees. Others cook for them and sometimes rent them rooms. But other residents are opposed to their presence and the participation of ejido members. According to one resident, who did not wish to be named, one dispute involved an ejidatorio who had offered the criminal group a chance to log on the community’s land without the cooperative’s permission. The criminal group had subsequently completely taken over the land.

Residents also said local police were aiding and abetting the illegal logging of the pine forests in Bahuinacachi. As proof of their claim, they said they had filed a detailed complaint to the state police at the time when illegal loggers invaded a few months prior and logged through the night. The residents said they wanted the report to be anonymous — especially given La Línea’s history of connections to the police — but the officers insisted the crime report carried the names of at least three people making the complaint. Still, when residents followed up a few weeks later, they were told there was no record of a complaint. Shortly thereafter, they said two of the three people who made the complaint were threatened by some of the loggers.

Fear and Displacement

The August before he was killed, Cruz and several others who had been forcibly displaced from Guazapares returned to the area to check on their estates. The group had been recognized as internal refugees by the Chihuahua authorities and went there with a police escort. Cruz had also become an active member of the local human rights organization clamoring for restitution for displaced people from all over the region.

Several families from another area known as Coloradas de la Virgin, which had also denounced illegal logging over the years, were also displaced after at least seven members of their community were murdered between 2013 and 2016, according to a Global Witness report. It was, in other words, a common occurrence in the region.

The violence was having its intended effect. The head of a local human rights organization told InSight Crime that affected communities live in fear due to murders, disappearances and violence.

“[These communities] tend to not report these things and when they do there is very little reaction from the state,” the leader said.

What’s more, when residents do file an official complaint, they often don’t give enough facts, or they don’t know or want to reveal the names and identities of those involved, the leader said. The upshot is there are few official investigations into these cases.

”We try to encourage people to file complaints — in a group, with others. We are trying to get the community to denounce and the state to respond,” the leader added.

With a police escort that August, Soto visited his home without incident. The next day, however, when he returned, he found a body. It was his wife Maria’s cousin. Pinned to his neck was a message directed at Cruz personally for having denounced the activities of organized crime in his area.

The Chihuahua state investigation into the murder eventually led to the arrest of two people who allegedly took part in his abduction and killing. One of them was the police chief, Paulino M.R.

*Additional reporting by Jesús Alarcón.

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