Latin America’s forests are being cut down at an accelerating rate. Asian markets are driving a trade in wildlife products, while wildcat miners decimate Amazon jungle from Peru to Guyana in search of gold.
Not all environmental crime is driven by organized crime: farmers clear forests for their cattle, and local communities exploit small gold deposits. The trade in wildlife largely begins with local trappers, many of them impoverished Indigenous and rural people who are employed for their knowledge of the terrain.
But as criminal groups diversify across the Americas, no longer solely dependent on drug revenues, they are finding more opportunity in environmental crime, which allows them some legal cover along with lucrative returns. Widespread habitat destruction and loss of crucial biodiversity are now rampant.
The presence of violent criminal syndicates in rural and remote regions also brings them into conflict with anyone who would defend natural resources. The result has been a shocking death toll for environmental activists in Latin America, one without equal in any other region of the world.
Here, InSight Crime provides a primer on how organized crime acts as a motor for environmental crime and violence in Latin America.
1. Organized Crime Groups Branch Out
Criminal groups once solely dedicated to the trafficking of drugs, arms and people have branched out into illegal logging, mining, and wildlife trafficking, often using well-trodden routes to their advantage. As a result, deforestation is soaring.
In Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia — FARC) once served as a check on deforestation, restricting logging to preserve forest cover in an effort to conceal their presence. Though the FARC were far from conservationists —they were willing to take in revenue from coca and gold mining — its demobilization in 2016 left a power vacuum in the country's hinterlands.
Now criminal groups of all stripes, including drug gangs and a resurgent National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional — ELN) guerrilla force, have laid siege to Colombia's rural landscape. Dissident FARC cells led by Miguel Botache Santillana, alias “Gentil Duarte,” have ordered local communities to cut and burn trees in protected areas to make way for coca crops.
Illegal logging also increasingly overlaps with drug trafficking in Mexico. A fight for control of Chihuahua's illegal wood industry has sparked conflict between factions of the Sinaloa Cartel and Juárez Cartel.
In Central America, Guatemala's Maya Biosphere Reserve, one of the largest protected rainforests in the region, is being slashed and burned to make way for landing strips for a new rash of drug flights. During dry seasons, burnings quickly spread out of control. In May of last year, some two dozen forest fires were attributed to land invasions and the clearing of forest cover to build clandestine airstrips deep in national parks like Laguna de Tigre and Sierra del Lacandón.
In Honduras' Río Plátano Biosphere, a vast jungle region on the country's Caribbean coast, impoverished settlers clear dense forest with the support of drug trafficking groups. The illegally harvested timber, in turn, is then trafficked under the aegis of the same groups, which take a cut.
Irregular armed groups have also entered the illegal gold trade as prices skyrocket to record levels. Rebels with the ELN have set up clandestine gold mining facilities along Venezuela's Caura River, while the Urabeños have been shaking down illegal miners in Colombia's department of Nariño.
Metals likes coltan and tungsten — used in electronics — are also mined illegally in lawless regions along the Venezuela-Colombia border. Such mining, overseen and taxed by armed groups, spreads toxic mercury across Latin America, polluting land and rivers in Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.
The mining of jade — a gemstone used for millennia by the ancient Mayans that has increased in value in China — is undergoing a boom in eastern Guatemala, a region through which drugs are also smuggled.
While less profitable than illegal mining and logging, wildlife trafficking has also caught the attention of Mexican drug gangs that supply Asian black markets with the valuable bladders of totoaba fish. Conservationists seeking to protect this species have been increasingly targeted with violence as a result.
2. Corruption Underpins Environmental Crime
Often, the same agencies tasked with safeguarding endangered species of animals and wood, as well as protected territories and precious minerals, are susceptible to bribes and coercion.
Illegal loggers obtain permits from corrupt officials to harvest and transport protected wood. In Bolivia, forestry officials have facilitated illegal timber harvests. Such officials have signed off on falsified plans with no repercussions in Peru. Meanwhile, front companies in Peru have been used to source contraband gold from Ecuador and Bolivia.
Timber, gold ore and wildlife products headed overseas are often laundered under the guise of legal export. This requires falsification or even outright manufacture of documents as well as the means to ship such materials.
Illegal catches of ornamental fish sourced from the Amazon are mixed in amid captive-bred specimens before being shipped overseas. Timber illicitly sourced from Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador floods into Peru, where it is laundered by mafias working with corrupt officials to clone transport permits. And suspect gold ore is mixed with legal extracts, which is then bought by industrial refineries in the United States and Switzerland.
The illegal appropriation and sale of protected land in Colombia, Peru and Brazil has also been fueled by corruption. Wealthy land grabbers illegally occupy state-owned lands by collaborating with corrupt judges who "legalize" the illicit claims, which are then sold privately at a high fee or converted to valuable agricultural lands.
3. Environmental Crime Feeds International Markets
Environmental crime largely feeds international markets. Sophisticated logistical expertise and contacts are required for Latin America based traffickers to move illegally sourced materials to markets in Europe, the United States and Asia. Intermediary actors willing to work between buyers and suppliers; robust means of transportation; and significant levels of corruption are all essential.
Criminal groups continue to be drawn in by the high profits and low risks such markets can offer. Interpol values the illegal global timber industry alone at around $152 billion annually, with wildlife crime worth up to $20 billion each year.
Latin America is home to a wide variety of land and marine species highly coveted in Asian black markets. Products from big cats — jaguar paste, pelts and claws — are smuggled to China, where they are sold for medicinal purposes. Meanwhile, illegally trafficked turtles, shark fins and totoaba fish sent to Asia in bulk quantities reel in thousands, if not millions, of dollars.
Frogs, snakes, spiders and other insects from the likes of Paraguay and Costa Rica have been trafficked overseas to collectors' markets in the United States and Europe, where consumers are willing to pay top prices.
Criminal networks taking advantage of thriving demand have also supplied Asian markets with exotic species of timber. Rosewood from Guatemala, Honduras and Panama has been illegally sent to China and Hong Kong. And vast swaths of forest are being targeted by timber mafias in Ecuador, which seek to profit from China's balsa boom.
Illegally extracted minerals also filter into international markets. Venezuela's stolen gold has been traced to Turkey, Uganda and beyond, while gold illegally mined in neighboring Colombia is also known to reach international markets in Europe and the United States.
4. Environmental Crime Drives Bloodshed
Crime groups competing for lucrative natural resources stoke violence.
The ELN, criminal gangs known as sindicatos, and dissident FARC cells have all battled for control of Venezuela's gold mining region. State security forces are also part of the deadly mix. Residents are caught in the middle of violent disputes, according to a 2019 International Crisis Group report. Chaos and violence have also spilled over into neighboring Guyana, as such groups push into the region.
Ecuador, which has largely managed to avoid the violence associated with drug trafficking in neighboring countries, has seen thousands of gold seekers descend on remote border region after the discovery of a large deposit. The vein has also attracted armed groups and criminal gangs, which have come into conflict in their efforts to control illegal mining.
And the murder of environmental defenders is a stain on Latin America that grows larger every year. Environmental defenders working against the interests of criminal groups are being brazenly killed in Peru, Honduras, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico. Park rangers face increasing dangers, patrolling natural reserves where armed groups also roam.
Global Witness reports that Colombia is the world’s most dangerous country for environmental defenders, with 64 reported deaths in 2019. Cases are often never solved, and the masterminds of the killings are rarely prosecuted. In Mexico, protesters of energy and mining projects are gunned down, including by security forces.
Latin America has been the deadliest region on earth for environmental activists since Global Witness started publishing an annual report on the matter in 2012. And while the dynamics of organized crime and environmental crime remain enmeshed, the bloodshed will only continue.