Authorities in Paraguay have arrested more than a dozen police officers for attempting to steal confiscated wood, underscoring the attractiveness of Latin America's illegal logging industry for opportunistic corrupt law enforcement as well as criminal networks.
An agent from the local prosecutor's office ordered the arrest of 15 police officers from the city of Curuguaty, in Paraguay’s eastern department of Canindeyú along the country’s border with Brazil, for allegedly attempting to steal illegally logged wood that had been seized in an earlier police operation, ABC Color reported.
The officers allegedly contracted a truck driver to steal the wood from the police station while they were on duty, ABC Color reported. However, the individuals fled and left the truck behind after being spotted while attempting to steal the wood.
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The wood -- the type of which wasn't specified but came from the Campos Morombí nature reserve, which has faced serious problems with illegal logging in the past -- had been seized by Paraguay’s environmental prosecutor in a previous operation.
Among those arrested were the local unit’s police chief and the chief of criminal investigations, according to ABC Color.
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The recent arrests in Paraguay highlight a perennial regional problem -- police corruption -- as well as the relatively low risks and high rewards associated with illegal logging in Latin America.
Paraguay’s Campos Morombí nature reserve is notorious for timber trafficking, and this is not the first time that police officers have been accused of trying to steal wood previously confiscated from loggers who illegally removed it from the reserve.
Illegal logging is one of the highest-valued transnational crimes in the world. According to a 2017 report estimating the profitability of transnational crime, illegal logging is the most profitable natural resource crime and worth between $52 and $157 billion annually.
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Aside from the high profits, the risk is also relatively low.
It isn't clear what the police intended to do with the stolen wood, but trafficked timber -- unless sold domestically -- tends to be transported via land and sea to other countries via trucks and containers. Unless authorities are properly trained to identify illegally sourced wood or counterfeit documents, which they often are not, the illegal wood can either be mixed in with legally sourced wood to make it look like the entire shipment is legal, or transported under false documents.
Moreover, despite the fact that authorities in Paraguay did seize this illegal timber, a lack of personnel and resources, dysfunctional operating equipment and corruption all tend to hinder efforts to crackdown on illegal logging, making it all the more attractive for those hoping to get a cut of the profits.
For example, in 2016 authorities in Paraguay’s Campos Morombí nature reserve stopped performing checks at one of the roads used by traffickers transporting illegally logged wood for fear of being attacked after their unit was reduced from 15 officers to just four.