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."
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.
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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.