Criminal groups across western Mexico have increased their control of illegal logging by threatening landowners, government officials and even entire communities to ensure near-total impunity.
According to a new study by the University of Guadalajara (UDG), illegal logging is one of the fastest-growing criminal economies in Mexico, with 70 percent of wood cut down between 2017 and 2019 lacking the proper permits. In 2019, the amount of forest destroyed was equivalent to an area twice the size of Mexico City. In 2020, Mexico lost 127,770 hectares of forest, a 12 percent increase on the previous year.
The study revealed how gangs operate in the western Mexican states of Nayarit, Jalisco, Colima and Michoacán. Once they select an area of interest, they make a low offer to the proprietor of the land. If the offer is rebuffed, the gang violently takes over. The main recourse for landowners is to make a complaint to Mexico’s Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection (Procuraduría Federal de Protección al Ambiente - PROFEPA).
But such complaints are often futile. On the rare occasion that federal officials visit the area to follow up on deforestation or land grab complaints, they are threatened or even kidnapped, according to the UDG study.
The academics spoke to local residents and authorities, who said that trucks could be seen carrying illegally felled mahogany, walnut, pine and oak to ports in Colima and Michoacán on a daily basis.
While customs agents have seized large quantities of illegal timber, much of it is still exported, often to China, where demand for wood is constantly growing.
The increase in illegal logging, accompanied by violence and extortion, threatens the livelihoods of 1,300 communities in Mexico that have created forestry companies to produce sustainable timber.
InSight Crime Analysis
The connections between organized crime and illegal logging are growing increasingly strong as criminal groups realize the profits to be made, often in combination with other illicit economies.
In recent years, InSight Crime has reported how the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels have turned to controlling illegal logging in northern Mexico, especially as marijuana profits have dried up.
In western Mexico, federal authorities pointed to the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG) and the Cárteles Unidos as the main culprits for the violence behind illegal logging, as well as La Familia Michoacana. Another smaller group, the Correa, is reportedly actively involved in illegal logging in eastern Michoacán, where it has clashed with the CJNG.
Much of this deforestation is also linked to the avocado industry. Known as “green gold,” avocados are in demand worldwide, and criminal groups are extorting producers and stealing shipments.
A common tactic is to clear the forest, sell the timber and grow avocado trees in its place. Last July, El Financiero reported that 20,000 hectares of forest in southern Jalisco had been cut down and replaced with fields of avocado trees. Criminal groups allegedly forced the landowners to make the switch.
This is not new. “Since 2000, Michoacán has suffered deforestation of close to 100,000 hectares, principally…for avocado cultivation and ranching,” Juan Manuel Barrera Terán, executive director of Community Resilience and Development (Resiliencia y Desarrollo Comunitario), a group fighting deforestation in Mexico, told Proceso.
Frustrated by a lack of federal reaction, some communities are taking action. On November 9, the mayor of the municipality of Zitácuaro in Michoacán declared he was creating an "Environmental Guard" to try and stop illegal logging.
Zitácuaro is famous for being one of the hotspots for the monarch butterfly in Mexico, which has recently seen its numbers plummet due to loss of habitat – again tied to avocado plantations.