For many years, the jungle region known as La Mosquitia in northeast Honduras has been an ideal corridor for international drug trafficking. However, another criminal economy has emerged at the same time: illegal cattle ranching. As a result, the region has been plunged into a state of terror, where criminals threaten the land and the Indigenous communities that inhabit it.

*This article is part of a three-part investigative series, looking at how cattle produced in Central America are smuggled into Mexico and laundered in a variety of ways to enter the legal food supply chain before beef products are consumed in both Mexico and the United States. Read the full investigation here or download the full PDF.

“It’s a dead animal,” Oswaldo, an Indigenous Miskito from the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, assured InSight Crime as we passed an amorphous floating bulge while traveling along the Patuca River.

The Rio Plátano Biosphere Reserve is the largest protected reserve in Honduras. It’s located in a region known as La Mosquitia, covering the departments of Gracias a Dios, Colón and Olancho in the far northeast reaches of the country along the border with Nicaragua. The majority of this area is covered by jungle and ancestral territory for a number of Indigenous communities.

A short while later, after arriving to the town of Krausirpi, Oswaldo explained that the bulge we saw wasn’t an animal. It was a human corpse.

A few days ago, said Oswaldo, around 20 settlers had just finished clearing some land for pasture in the jungle. Instead of paying them, their bosses had them murdered and threw their bodies in the river.

According to the reserve’s Indigenous communities, settlers come to La Mosquitia to find land to raise cattle, which are primarily used for their meat. The settlers ride around openly through the jungle in jeeps, cutting down trees with chainsaws, setting fire to the land and planting pastures to feed thousands of cattle, despite this being a protected area.

SEE ALSO: How ‘Narco-Highway’ in Honduras Became National News 

These individuals also come heavily armed. Oswaldo has learned that it’s better to keep quiet and not ask many questions. For about the last 10 years, he’s lived in a constant state of fear while trying to preserve his own land. He knows this cattle ranching has other purposes: facilitating cocaine trafficking and laundering the illicit proceeds it generates.

The Epicenter of Drug Trafficking in Honduras

To reach La Mosquitia, you first have to fly to Puerto Lempira, the capital of Gracias a Dios department. Despite being the region’s most important city, the runway is made of dirt. The airport looks more like a large ranch, and there is little infrastructure. Between the plane’s cabin and the open booth that serves as the departure gate, a rainstorm could easily become a serious obstacle to boarding and disembarking from any of the three commercial flights that arrive weekly from Honduras’ capital city, Tegucigalpa, and La Ceiba, a port city in the north of the country.

Visitors don’t come to Puerto Lempira for tourism. Instead, they come for the one thing that the multiple languages spoken on the city’s streets – Spanish, English, Miskito, Garífuna and Pech – all refer to in the same way: drug money. In the streets of Puerto Lempira, men speak openly about their work: unloading the cocaine-packed planes from Colombia and Venezuela that “have fallen” here.

La Mosquitia has served as the primary entry point for cocaine coming into Honduras by air, sea and land for at least two decades. Its geographic location is strategic. The region’s border with Nicaragua is porous, and it has an ample Caribbean coastline with dense jungle that’s difficult to access. From here, the main drug corridors begin, stretching to Guatemala, then Mexico and eventually the United States. The near total absence of the state, and the complicity of some of the region’s officials, only enhances La Mosquitia’s attractiveness to the country’s criminal networks.

Historically, a number of Honduran criminal groups have operated in this zone, including some of the most prominent family clans, such as the Cachiros, the Atlantic Cartel and the Amador. Other smaller groups are also present here, receiving the cocaine-laden go-fast boats that arrive all along the coast of Gracias a Dios.

Throughout the last decade, the majority of these networks have been dismantled and their main leaders extradited to the United States. Yet the drugs have kept flowing. In 2021, for example, Honduran authorities destroyed 21 clandestine airstrips in La Mosquitia and seized some 25 tons of cocaine across the country. During field work in the country between 2019 and 2021, InSight Crime found that the heirs of these once-powerful criminal groups had since taken control. Today, they too have corrupt officials, politicians and businessmen operating alongside them.

SEE ALSO: Brothers’ Arrest Displays History of Narco-Politics in Honduras Drug Corridor 

In La Mosquitia, one of the most well-known drug trafficking groups is led by the Paisano Wood brothers, who allegedly dominate the cocaine trade in the municipality of Bus Laguna and the surrounding area. Here, landing strips for narco-flights and informal piers used to receive drug-filled boats abound.

There are also other criminal groups present here, such as the Arrechavala, which work on the border with Nicaragua, as well as remnants of the Amador Clan that operate between Olancho department and the town of Wampusirpi. All of these groups have been tied to the once-mighty National Party, particularly former congressman Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, who is currently serving a life sentence for drug and weapons charges in the United States. His brother, former president Juan Orlando Hernández, was recently extradited to the US to face similar charges.

Narco-Cattle Ranching

Traveling to this isolated region – one of Honduras’ poorest, according to formal economic statistics – is expensive, complicated and risky. In the absence of formal roads the state has failed to construct, transportation is done by air, via small planes landing on dirt runways; by small fiberglass boats moving across rivers, canals and swamps; or on foot through clearings cut into the jungle.

During these trips, it’s common to see deforested land where cattle are being raised illegally. This colonization of the jungle started some 40 years ago, and according to residents in the region, it has grown on par with drug trafficking over the last decade.

Today, the level of deforestation is staggering. Honduras’ Forest Conservation Institute (Instituto de Conservación Forestal de Honduras) estimates that the Rio Plátano Biosphere Reserve has lost some 2,700 hectares, or over 6,100 football fields, of forest cover every year since 2016. Around 90 percent of these losses are tied to illegal cattle ranching, according to a Wildlife Conservation Society investigation.

A number of sources interviewed by InSight Crime in various parts of La Mosquitia said those that own the cattle are not locals, but rather businessmen from departments like Colón and Olancho. They’re suspected of acting as fronts for others involved in drug trafficking. In fact, the ties between drug trafficking and cattle ranching are so intimate in Rio Plátano that locals in this region have called this phenomenon “narco-cattle ranching.”

The locals know exactly who runs these pastures, but they won’t dare identify them by name, instead opting at times to support their operations instead of risking their lives to denounce them.

“Here the narcos make the rules. It’s plata o plomo [bullet or money],” one local from Puerto Lempira, who, like most of those consulted for this investigation, asked to remain anonymous, told InSight Crime.

Cattle ranching acts as a facade for territorial control. Maintaining a presence over such large swaths of land allows drug trafficking organizations to develop the infrastructure needed to receive cocaine shipments arriving via air and sea, and to store them before they are transported to the border with Guatemala.

Cattle ranching has become extremely strategic for Central American drug traffickers, according to Jennifer Devine, a professor at Texas State University who has studied narco-cattle ranching in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere and co-authored studies on this phenomenon in Honduras. Moving their operations into the reserves minimizes the risks posed by authorities.

“Cattle ranching acts as cover for drug traffickers… In this way, they’re perceived as illegal cattle ranchers as opposed to drug traffickers, which receives less attention and response from authorities,” Devine told InSight Crime.

The Texas State professor added that the lands used for cattle ranching require very little physical built infrastructure, which allows the cattle to be easily relocated elsewhere in the jungle if they happen to be displaced by authorities.

As of now, there is no official data on how many cattle there are within the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve. Locals that live on the banks of the Patuca River estimate that between 2,000 and 3,000 cattle roam each plot of land. But some ranchers may have up to 10,000 cattle on a single plot, locals added. In total, using deforestation data as a guide, InSight Crime estimates there could be some 65,000 head of cattle in the entire reserve.

To get the cattle into the reserve, the settlers clear illegal pathways and employ locals to hurry the animals through the jungle in treks that can last up to 15 days. The cattle are brought from the departments of Colón and Olancho, or even from Nicaragua, crossing the Segovia River that divides the Río Plátano reserve from Nicaragua’s Bosawás reserve.

Part of the cattle raised in the Rio Plátano Biosphere Reserve are sent to cities in Olancho and Colón, where they are sacrificed and their byproducts packaged for sale in the local market. Another part enters into a contraband cattle trafficking chain that reaches Guatemala and even Mexico. In this value chain, drug trafficking organizations find another benefit: money laundering.

The buying and selling of cattle is mostly a cash-based business involving various intermediaries. Official controls to confront the trade and trace the true origins of the animals are largely insufficient. In this way, criminal actors can inject dirty money into the supply chain – through buying cattle or supplies for production – and get clean money in return through these sales.

A Reign of Terror 

For locals like Oswaldo, the presence of settlers in La Mosquitia is terrifying. Despite the fact that the majority of this territory was conceded to the Mosquitia people by the government as communal lands for Indigenous communities, the settlers have become the “shot callers” here.

There are constant fights for territorial control between different networks of settlers, according to residents from a number of small villages within the reserve, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. Ranchers have access to high-powered weapons like AK-47s, AR-15s and shotguns. They use these to defend their land and intimidate other ranchers, who sometimes try to steal cattle.

The settlers won’t even let locals pass through in some regions, according to residents who have been refused passage. The locals told InSight Crime that those who want to cross are threatened. As a result, they prefer to avoid these occupied lands, even though it means walking several hours out of the way to reach their destination.

In some cases, locals have even been forced to sell their land to ranchers at low prices, or run the risk of being forced off them. In 2017, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) pointed to organized crime groups dedicated to drug trafficking and illegal cattle ranching as being the main drivers of forced displacement in this region. However, there is no official data on how many people have actually had to abandon their land.

“They [organized crime groups] have to establish ranching operations to justify their presence here. But they’re monitoring everything that impacts their [drug trafficking] interests in our territory,” said one professor who forms part of the Indigenous land council in the area.

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