HomeNewsAnalysisGuatemala Officials Say Organized Crime Largely Responsible for Forest Fires

Guatemala Officials Say Organized Crime Largely Responsible for Forest Fires


One of the worst fire seasons of the last decade has destroyed huge stretches of protected rainforest and prompted the Guatemalan government to begin developing new, aggressive policies for taking down the organized crime groups responsible.

Conservation officials on the ground told InSight Crime that approximately 16,000 hectares, and most likely more, were destroyed in Guatemala’s northern department of Petén during this year's fire season, which can last from December to May. Many of the fires took place in national parks within the Maya Biosphere Reserve, one of the largest protected rainforests in Central America.

At the end of May, President Alejandro Giammattei attributed 20 of the 23 active fires primarily to land invasions and the clearing of forest cover to build clandestine airstrips for drug planes hidden deep in national parks like Laguna de Tigre and Sierra del Lacandón.

The fires often start when drug traffickers try to quickly clear large swaths of rainforest, and the flames spread out of control due to the dry brush and lack of rainfall. They clear the land for cattle ranching, which they use as a front for money laundering and clandestine airstrips receiving cocaine shipments. Locally, the practice is referred to as "narco-ganaderia," or "narco-cattle ranching."

SEE ALSO: Narco-Planes Leave No Respite for Guatemala

Planes from Colombia and Venezuela, among other drug transit countries, can land in the reserve virtually undetected thanks to the difficulty of patrolling such a large, rugged area. From there, the shipments move into the possession of cartels at the southern Mexico border, sometimes just a few hours' drive through the secluded jungle.

A Texas State University study published in June found that, between 2000 and 2015, approximately 30 percent of forest cover in Laguna del Tigre National Park was converted into agricultural lands, much of it devoted to cattle ranching.

Petén Governor Luis Burgos, who took office this year, said he conducted his first-ever flyover of the area in order to observe April's fire damage. He documented trucks entering Guatemala from Mexico as well as numerous newly cleared airstrips. He described some of the airstrips as "a cemetery of planes," because drug traffickers had destroyed them after landing.

"After that flyover, I got off the helicopter crying," he told InSight Crime.

Burgos said he has started preliminary discussions with the National Council for Protected Areas (Consejo Nacional de Areas Protegidas -- CONAP) to develop new strategies for recuperating the reserve. A CONAP official confirmed the governor's office is supporting conservation efforts but would not comment on any details of future efforts.

Once the coronavirus quarantine measures calm down, Burgos stated he also wanted to use law enforcement to remove land invaders by force -- a strategy already used in the reserve in some instances -- and is planning to solicit additional assistance from the international community.

InSight Crime Analysis

Although it is encouraging that authorities are acknowledging organized crime's role in this year's fires and may take action against these land invasions tied to drug trafficking, bringing about real change is going to be hard to come by.

Powerful criminal networks, as well as families like the Lorenzanas, have all but dominated northern Guatemala for decades, not only clearing land for their illicit activities but also likely buying control of municipal and law enforcement officials, local experts told InSight Crime. The most powerful ones almost never live in the area themselves, according to the Texas State University study. Instead, they live in other departments around the country and assign caretakers to look after their cattle ranches.

Unless the government can target the leadership and funding behind the ranches, attempts to physically remove land invaders may prove fruitless as the caretakers can very easily move to another part of the reserve, clear new land and start over.

SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profile

In 2016, it took 165 law enforcement officers, two helicopters and 18 raids to finally dismantle a Mendoza family criminal operation that had obtained 28 connected plots of land in Petén through intimidation, threats and low-ball offers -- a scheme that did not even rely on hiding out in the jungle.

Sending in even more law enforcement to remove invaders will likely fuel further human rights debates about land rights in national parks. When Guatemala's civil war came to an end in 1996, landless peasants who had been forced from their homes settled in the area unaware that it had been declared a protected area. Others claim to have arrived before the reserve was established, igniting complicated legal battles with some of Guatemala's most vulnerable populations.

Officials in the area often try to differentiate the deforestation caused by informal peasant communities -- whose plots are usually smaller and devoted to farming -- and the massive plots cleared by cattle ranchers. However, the situation is not always so black and white.

Those communities have, also at times, cleared large swaths of land where they are technically squatting. And while conservationists claim clandestine airstrips have popped up nearby, it is very difficult to confirm their connections to illegal activity.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.


What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.


Related Content


A US court has convicted two sons of a top Guatemala crime figure on international drug trafficking charges, heightening the…

BRAZIL / 12 APR 2018

The 2018 Summit of the Americas will likely see many uncomfortable conversions between nervous politicians -- and perhaps a heavy…


While pushing a hardline approach to crime, Guatemala’s new President Otto Perez has revealed himself as an unlikely advocate for…

About InSight Crime


Guatemala Social Insecurity Investigation Makes Front Page News

10 DEC 2021

InSight Crime’s latest investigation into a case of corruption within Guatemala's social security agency linked to the deaths of patients with kidney disease made waves in…


Venezuela El Dorado Investigation Makes Headlines

3 DEC 2021

InSight Crime's investigation into the trafficking of illegal gold in Venezuela's Amazon region generated impact on both social media and in the press. Besides being republished and mentioned by several…


Gender and Investigative Techniques Focus of Workshops

26 NOV 2021

On November 23-24, InSight Crime conducted a workshop called “How to Cover Organized Crime: Investigation Techniques and A Focus on Gender.” The session convened reporters and investigators from a dozen…


InSight Crime Names Two New Board Members

19 NOV 2021

In recent weeks, InSight Crime added two new members to its board. Joy Olson is the former executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America…


Senate Commission in Paraguay Cites InSight Crime

12 NOV 2021

InSight Crime’s reporting and investigations often reach the desks of diplomats, security officials and politicians. The latest example occurred in late October during a commission of Paraguay's Senate that tackled…