‘A wildlife reserve that has become a criminal playground’: The narco secrets of the Guatemalan rainforest

It's not just wildlife and Mayan ruins at the heart of this remote part of Central America – abandoned jets full of cocaine litter the lush jungle, writes Kevin Sieff

Monday 13 July 2020 14:08 BST
Soldiers investigate poles built to claim a land lot in Guatemala’s Laguna del Tigre National Park in March 2020
Soldiers investigate poles built to claim a land lot in Guatemala’s Laguna del Tigre National Park in March 2020

The makeshift airstrips are sliced into the jungle, clearings carved out of the oaks and palms wide enough to land jets full of cocaine.

The planes arrive in the middle of the night, their lights off, guided by drones, unsteady under the weight of the drugs. They descend over Mayan ruins, over camps of jaguar researchers and ornithologists, over illegal settlers and ranchers.

The cat-and-mouse game between the United States and the leaders of Latin America’s drug trade has shifted to this wild stretch of Guatemala, one of the most inhospitable landscapes in the western hemisphere. Jets can carry more than $100m worth of cocaine, to be ferried swiftly out of the jungle, through Mexico and on to the United States.

Over the 50-year US drug war, one truth has prevailed: when one trafficking route closes, another emerges to take its place.

Not long ago, cartels moved more drugs in submarines and fishing boats through the Pacific Ocean. US Coast Guard vessels narrowed that route. Cocaine-filled jets once flew mainly to Mexico and Honduras, until those countries developed aerial interdiction teams.

But Guatemala’s northern border remains a no man’s land, a wildlife reserve that has become a criminal playground. This newest route runs through the largest rainforest in Central America, an expanse the size of Delaware that was once the cradle of Mayan civilization.

Guatemalan security forces last year found 50 abandoned narco jets in the country. Dozens more landed and then flew away, authorities say. Ninety per cent of the cocaine now consumed in the United States transits through Guatemala.

The coronavirus pandemic has had a mixed impact on drug trafficking in the Americas. The increased difficulty of moving the product across locked-down borders has crashed the price of coca leaf in South America. But cocaine seizures in the United States have been largely flat.

In this undefended stretch of Guatemala, authorities here say, the planes have kept coming. A slick twin turboprop was found in a clearing in the jungle on 21 June. The burnt remains of a jet, apparently set on fire by traffickers after the drugs were removed, were found two days earlier. Another crashed south of the Laguna del Tigre National Park in April, scattering thousands of pounds of cocaine in tightly wrapped bricks throughout the brush.

Guatemalan army members patrol Laguna del Tigre National Park in March 2020

In recent months, the park has been ravaged by more than a dozen largescale fires, many set by drug traffickers who are burning tracts of jungle to build “illicit landing strips for the transportation of drugs”, President Alejandro Giammattei said in an address to the nation this spring. A team of firefighters was captured in the park this month by a group of armed men.

But even as Guatemalan officials acknowledge the transformation of this protected land into a drug trafficking corridor, its security forces say they are outmatched by the far better resourced cartels. On a flight over Laguna del Tigre earlier this year, a Washington Post journalist counted more than a dozen landing strips across the park – and several jets sitting on them.

“We are talking about an industry that has enough money to abandon million-dollar planes in the jungle,” Guatemalan army colonel Juan de la Paz says. “Their resources are infinite, and we are just trying to keep up.”

Many of the jets come from Venezuela. Between 2012 and 2017, cocaine moving through the country rose by 57 per cent, according to the US government’s consolidated counter-drug database; the Justice Department this year charged President Nicolás Maduro with narco-terrorism. Still more cocaine comes from Colombia and Ecuador.

“Colombian and Venezuelan drug trafficking organisations often partner with Mexican cartels for significant cocaine shipments,” says Michael Miller, a spokesperson for the US Drug Enforcement Agency. “The cocaine shipment is most often destined for Guatemala.”

The Pentagon sent navy and Coast Guard ships to the Caribbean this year in its largest ever deployment to confront the drug trade there. But attorney general William Barr has acknowledged: “Our pressure has led to an attempt for an air route out of Central America.”

A makeshift landing strip in the east side of Guatemala’s Laguna del Tigre National Park 

That air route has proved more difficult to block. Enforcement in Guatemala’s remote corners is almost nonexistent and access to Mexico’s porous southern border is unobstructed.

“Guatemalan smuggling groups control a vast array of clandestine airstrips, and they can adjust or redirect landings as needed,” Miller says. “It does not appear that one cartel controls one airstrip.”

The United States, worried about the threat of aerial trafficking, donated six helicopters to Guatemala’s “air interdiction fleet” in 2013. By 2016, they were grounded due to poor maintenance, a State Department inspector general reported. That left Guatemala without the ability to confront the narco jets, even when the United States was tracking them.

The 15,000-square-mile department of Peten is protected by a brigade of 1,200 soldiers with no air support, De la Paz says. By the time soldiers bushwhack through the jungle, the planes have departed or been destroyed.

“It’s an impossible task,” says one soldier, who was not authorised to speak to journalists. “We hear the planes fly in and we just say, ‘There goes another one’.”

The illicit airstrips are built near massive ranches carved into the jungle. Drug profits are often laundered through the purchase of cattle sold across the border in Mexico

In one rare case in January, in the village of Las Cruces, just south of the park, Guatemalan soldiers managed to confront the traffickers while they were still unloading their drugs. A shootout ensued. The traffickers had seven vehicles and more than a dozen assault rifles, de la Paz says. They eventually sped off towards Mexico.

No one was arrested. But the incident offered Guatemalan forces a rare view into the operation. The soldiers cautiously approached the plane, a Hawker Siddeley 125, marketed as a “midsize business jet”. It was pristine, with green and blue stripes beneath its wing.

The troops climbed the stairs and found 1,700 individually wrapped kilos – roughly 3,700lbs – of pure cocaine. It would be worth roughly $160m in the United States.

A joint force of 30 soldiers, police and park rangers set out one morning in February to patrol the outskirts of a village called La Florida.

By 8am, it was almost 100F (37C). The men move slowly through the tall grass. They weren’t looking for traffickers – they didn’t have the equipment or the mandate. Their mission was to catch illegal ranchers.

But they know the line between illegal ranching and the drug trade is blurry. The illicit airstrips are built near massive ranches carved into the jungle. Drug profits are often laundered through the purchase of cattle sold across the border in Mexico.

“The narcos use the fincas [farms] to justify their presence,” De la Paz says.

The unit has been patrolling for less than an hour when they see a man in a green shirt on horseback, riding on a narrow path in the jungle. The nearest illicit airstrip was just a few miles away.

“Did you see that guy?” one soldier says.

“He took off,” says another.

One soldier tries to take a picture with his phone, but the man soon disappears from view.

“We’ll send a report to the justice department,” a ranger says.

Asked if he thought the report would prompt any action, the ranger laughs.

“Not a chance.”

About once a week, soldiers and rangers say, they hear drones fly over their jungle base. Then, often in the middle of the night, the planes arrive.

Some appeared to be almost new. Guatemalan officials say pilots are paid up to $500,000 per flight – a wage that appeared to take the risk into account. De la Paz says Guatemalan forces last year recovered the bodies of 10 pilots killed in crashes. One crashed into the getaway vehicle waiting next to the airstrip.

In Flores, the capital of Peten, the United States helped start Guatemala’s first environmental court. It was meant to pursue ranchers destroying protected land to graze cattle and hunters who trafficked wildlife in the biosphere. But officials quickly came to realise that environmental crimes in Laguna del Tigre were inextricably linked to drug trafficking.

Judge Karla Hernandez was held hostage for three days in 2018. She’s been assigned two bodyguards.

In 2018, Hernandez sentenced Lester Ovidio Gallegos Mayorga to four years in prison for illegal cattle grazing in Laguna del Tigre. The next year, police charged him with transporting 70 kilos of cocaine through the park in a pickup.

Other cases have exposed links between drug trafficking and influential families.

One ranch in Laguna del Tigre was long registered to Waldemar Lorenzana, a well-known recipient of government contracts, even as he ran one of the country’s largest cocaine trafficking organisations. Extradited to the United States in 2014, he was eventually convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced this year to 23 years in federal prison.

US authorities said Lorenzana’s organisation worked with traffickers in Colombia and Mexico to transport cocaine by boat and aeroplane to El Salvador and Guatemala for distribution in the United States. The Justice Department said Lorenzana had “significant ties” to the Sinaloa Cartel, once led by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman.

Dozens of airstrips identified by the Guatemalan military remain active, fuelling suspicions of government complicity or participation in the trafficking. In some cases, the military has refused to destroy the airstrips until it receives dynamite from the Guatemalan Justice Department.

“Guatemalan forces disabled 16 suspected clandestine airfields in 2019, though many returned to operational use within days or weeks,” the State Department reported this year. The DEA has found that air traffic controllers have been bought off by drug traffickers.

Rony DuVon is the leader of the Lagunita village and teaches in a primary school in the national park

“It’s a combination of official corruption and a lack of institutional capacity,” says Stephen McFarland, a former US ambassador to Guatemala. “There’s money to do more, but there’s not a political will.”

As ambassador from 2008 to 2011, he says, he passed intelligence on drug trafficking targets on to Guatemalan security forces.

“While they made some significant seizures, they would often come back and say, ‘We wanted to, but we didn’t have the fuel.’ Or ‘We couldn’t reach the naval base commander to get permission.’

“There was never a good answer.”

Two millennia before Laguna del Tigre came under the control of drug traffickers, it was the cradle of the Mayan civilization, home to a road network that linked hundreds of Mayan cities in an ancient jungle metropolis.

“This was New York City at the time of Jesus Christ,” says Roan McNab, the Guatemala programme director for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, as he flew over the jungle. Below him was the Mirador basin, where archaeologists are uncovering signs of one of the world’s most sophisticated pre-modern civilizations. A pyramid swelled in the jungle, larger than the Egyptian pyramid of Giza.

With US funding, McNab and his organisation have worked for years to protect the park and its wildlife. One biologist studies the park’s jaguar population. Another incubates eggs of the imperilled scarlet macaw. Another helps train the park’s rangers.

Those rangers have focused on preserving one 143,000-acre tract of the park, about a sixth of its total area, because they don’t have the resources to protect more. Criminal organisations have razed much of the land outside that area. In the past year, McNab says, manmade fires have swept through tracts roughly twice the size of the District of Columbia.

We are here because we believe as Guatemalans we have a right to live and farm here, and it’s the conservationists who are against our rights

“Demand for cocaine in the northern hemisphere leaves a trail of wreckage across the Americas,” McNab says. “The ecological devastation of Laguna del Tigre is just one example. Farther south, other Mesoamerican protected areas face similar challenges.”

The US government, through the Rainforest Alliance, helps communities manage legal forest concessions granted by the Guatemalan government east of Laguna del Tigre. That effort is intended in part to restrict the movement of drug traffickers; in 2015, Guatemalan security forces destroyed several illicit landing strips in the area, under pressure from the United States.

At nearby El Mirador, a towering Mayan ruin deep in the jungle, archaeologist Richard Hansen has hired a 28 private armed guards to fend off traffickers. Much of his funding comes from private donors, including actors Mel Gibson and Morgan Freeman. Senators James Inhofe (Republican, Oklahoma), Tom Udall (Democrat, New Mexico), and James Risch (Republican, Idaho) introduced a bill last year that would devote $72m to fund “archaeological research, law enforcement, and sustainable tourism” around the ruins.

Hansen envisions trains full of tourists winding through the jungle to the remote site.

“We have to outsmart the narcos,” he says.

The drug trade has had a devastating environmental impact, a phenomenon Science magazine dubbed “narco-deforestation.” Laguna del Tigre has lost more than a fifth of its tree cover since 2000.

Rarely have US-funded conservationists worked so dangerously close to some of the world’s most powerful traffickers.

Cattle in the region is often linked to narco activity, according Guatemala authorities

The unarmed park rangers in Laguna del Tigre come face to face with them regularly. A group of 30 men arrived on horseback in one of the rangers’ camps last month and ordered them to stop patrols, McNab says. Rangers have been kidnapped and beaten. Last week, armed men carjacked a park ranger’s government vehicle and left it torched in the brush.

At least 12,000 people live illegally in the park. Many were displaced during the country’s long civil war. Others came in search of land, rare in a country where vast amounts of property are controlled by a small political and economic elite.

But many end up working the illegal cattle farms of wealthy landowners, many of them linked to the drug trade. Informal settlements inside the park have grown into small towns, with schools and clinics and convenience stores. Many are close to illicit airstrips. But residents insist that they are poor farmhands, not traffickers.

“We see the planes fly over, but we don’t know who they belong to,” says Rony DuVon, 38, a teacher in the settlement of Lagunita. “We are here because we believe as Guatemalans we have a right to live and farm here, and it’s the conservationists who are against our rights.”

The rangers have a different view. They say Lagunita is a cog in the machinery of the park’s criminal network.

McNab says the traffickers have “considerable economic and coercive capabilities”.

“Absent state and civil society support, the area’s landless poor have few options for support aside from the powers active in the park,” he says.

Guatemalan officials say they are getting another helicopter fleet up and running. The president is pleading for foreign help in putting out the fires. McNab’s group is trying to preserve the part of the reserve that remains intact.

McNab thinks often about the Mayan empire. It collapsed in part because it overused the forest’s resources. But after that collapse, the forest slowly returned to life.

“Maybe that’s what happens here again,” McNab says. “The jungle returns to life after mankind is forced to leave.”

© The Washington Post

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