Criminal groups are burning huge swathes of protected forests in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve to put down more landing strips for moving drugs out of the country, increasing the environmental damage caused by a variety of criminal activity in the zone.
Drug-traffickers, illegal loggers and clandestine cattle ranchers known locally as narco-ranchers (Narco-ganaderos) are behind more than 160 fires in the biosphere in the last few months -- blazes that have destroyed more than 8,000 hectares of protected tropical forest, reports BBC Mundo. Throughout the whole of last year, the zone saw just 12 fires.
Aura Marina López, Guatemala’s public prosecutor for environmental crimes, said that the last time she flew over the nature reserve she spotted three clandestine landing strips – more than she has ever seen during one flight.
The biosphere covers an area of some 2.1 million hectares, around 19 percent of the country and half of its northern Peten province. Luis Chiguichón, Guatemala’s prosecutor for drug-trafficking activity in the Peten department, has characterized the zone as “lawless”.
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The lack of state law enforcement has allowed drug traffickers and illegal loggers to impose their own de facto rules, using local people to start fires and clear spaces, according to Lopez.
Environmental destruction by organized crime in Guatemala’s Peten department is nothing new -- InSight Crime highlighted the damaging effects of illicit activity there back in 2012. But these latest reports suggest that razing of the forests is on the rise, pointing to surge in the use of the area as a major transportation corridor for drugs moving north.
It also points to an increase in the use of cattle farming to launder money.
Some 80 percent of the cocaine headed for the United States passes through Peten, according to the US State Department. It is Guatemala’s most northern province, bordered on two sides by Mexico. The Peten is huge, sparsely populated and mostly covered by lush vegetation.
Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel is reportedly the powerhouse in the region, after fighting off competition from rival Mexican cartel the Zetas. The latter group unsuccessfully tried to take control of trafficking routes in the Peten in 2011 through a violent campaign that included one massacre of 27 farm laborers.
The Sinaloa Cartel has strong relationships there and does business with most of Guatemala's criminal drug transportation networks.
The use of Peten as a major trafficking corridor waned towards the end of the administration of former president Alvaro Colom, picking up again when Otto Pérez Molina took power. The Guatemalan government has had some success in fighting criminal groups operating in Peten -- most notably under the supervision of former Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, who successfully rounded up Zetas and their associates in 2011.
It is a huge challenge for the Guatemalan authorities to control such a vast swathe of territory, especially when locals are complicit in and paid for the environmental destruction.