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Organized crime in the Americas: bad for the environment, too?

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InSight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Edward Fox's research here.

A recent report on the environmental destruction caused by organized crime in Guatemala sheds light on an often overlooked consequence of criminal activity in the Americas.

The report, published by the online magazine Yale Environment 360, outlines the threat being posed by criminal gangs to Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve in the north of the country, an area of some 2.1 million hectares that covers around 19 percent of the country and half of its northern Peten province.

According to park officials, the western part of the reserve has been worst hit, with Salvadoran, Mexican, and Chinese gangs all operating in the area. The eastern half has been left comparatively untouched.

The destruction is being caused through a range of illicit activities. Mexican and Salvadoran gangs have reportedly cleared vast tracts of land to launder money through cattle ranches, with the former selling cattle on the Mexican side of the border to earn profits. The practice has led Guatemalans to coin the term “narcoganaderia,” or, “narco-ranching,” the report states.

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Mexican cartels are also instrumental in cutting down forest to create airstrips for planes bringing narcotics from South America. This has resulted in the loss of some 40,000 hectares of forest within the last decade, according to the article.

Meanwhile, officials fear that criminals backed by Chinese gangs could be moving into the reserve. Illegal logging has already been carried out by these groups just south of the reserve, according to the National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP), with wood being sent to feed Asia’s market.

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CONAP employees, along with people working with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have been threatened by criminals in the area, with some even being kidnapped or forced to flee for their own safety. If the state is not able to improve its security presence in the area, the ecological destruction by gangs could spread. As it stands, it is a “chain of falling dominoes threatening to sweep eastward all the way to Guatemala’s border with Belize,” WCS director Roan McNab said.

InSight Crime Analysis

Environmental degradation is one of the more overlooked consequences of criminal gang activity in the region. As InSight Crime mapped out prior to the Rio+20 conference on environmental sustainability in June, though, evidence of organized crime’s impact on the environment is abundant.

One of the most obvious offenders are gangs that engage in illegal logging and the trafficking of rare species. From South American countries like Brazil, Colombia and Peru, to Guatemala and Nicaragua further north, there exist incidences of criminal networks pilfering resources from these areas’ diverse eco-systems for sale on the international market.

However, many times, the environmental effects are unrelated to so-called “eco-trafficking,” as the Guatemala report highlights with the example of Mexican cartels clearing forest for airstrips. Illegal mining, oil theft and cocaine production all have disastrous consequences for the environment. In illicit gold mining in particular in Colombia – a crime in which the FARC, Rastrojos, and Urabeños all have a stake – toxic chemicals such as mercury and cyanide are used, contaminating land and water supplies, as Peace Brigades International outlined in a 2011 report.

With regard to cocaine, all stages of production are known to have an impact on the environment thanks to the employment of precursor chemicals and gasoline in make-shift jungle laboratories. The majority of these chemicals simply run off into neighboring waterways and destroy flora and fauna where the labs are located.

Coca eradication efforts have been equally disastrous thanks to the use of aerial fumigation of illegal crops with glyphosphate, harming animals, legal crops and waterways.

Unilateral moves have been made over the past year by governments recognizing the damage being caused. Nicaragua deployed an “eco-battalion” early this year to combat illegal loggers, Brazil has utilized drones to detect environmental crimes and Colombia has created an office to deal exclusively with environmental crime.

However, as destruction in the Maya Reserve, particularly Peten, illustrates, this degradation is often taking place in areas with little state presence and where criminal gangs operate a de facto form of governance. In conjunction with tackling environmental destruction and the crimes causing it, the task of shoring up state presence in remote areas will be integral to combating the issue.

– Edward Fox is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here.

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