200 Arrested in Raid on Latin American Wood Mafia

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Aaron Schachter: Drug trafficking in Latin America has been a huge moneymaker for decades, but a recent operation by Interpol spotlighted another growing industry, eco-trafficking. Interpol arrested nearly 200 people from 12 countries for illegal logging and seized millions of dollars worth of timber. Jeremy McDermott is with InSightCrime, a think tank that studies organized crime in the Americas. He's in Medellin, Colombia. Jeremy, drugs can be trafficked in large or small amounts and in a million different ways. How in the heck do you move thousands of truckloads of timber?

Jeremy McDermott: With difficult, that's for certain. It seems that China is the principle market for the exotic woods here, the valuable woods. How is the stuff getting to China? Mainly through shipping. These are the containers of which here in Colombia tens of thousands are leaving every day. If you multiply that through Latin America you'll be hitting perhaps even hundreds of thousands of containers. We suspect that is the main route. It's also a popular route for the movement of drugs.

Schachter: We're calling this illegal timber. What is illegal about it? The cutting down of the trees, the selling of the trees?

McDermott: There's two illegal elements to it. One is that many of these trees are protected. They're in danger of extinction and therefore, the cutting of these trees is tightly controlled. In areas like Brazil where there's an enormous amount of international pressure to maintain the lungs of the planet as the Amazon basin is called, there's very strict controls of any wood. The other illegal element is then the exportation or movement of this timber without it being declared.

Schachter: Right, this is turning into big business, isn't it? I mean anti logging campaigners have been murdered in places like Brazil. How much money are we talking about here?

McDermott: Interpol believe that the timber business is worth $30 billion worldwide. It seems to be after arms trafficking, human trafficking and drug trafficking, one of the most lucrative illegal industries in the world.

Schachter: So, Jeremy, you mentioned that the global trade of woods has an annual worth of something like $30 billion, but how much do these smugglers get from a single haul of wood? What are we talking about money-wise? What makes it worth their while?

McDermott: At the local level the margin is extremely small. The people that are engaged in the illegal logging tend to be extremely poor. The people who are making the big money are those who are delivering the wood to its end market. Impunity in much of Latin America, here in Colombia, is up to 90%. The police are not going to be throwing enormous amounts of judicial resources towards condemning illegal loggers when they've got an enormous backlog of murders and drug traffickers to look at. So while it's of course extremely important that Interpol is shining a light on eco-trafficking, an often overlooked and increasingly lucrative crime, there is not going to be any significant inroads into this crime thanks to this latest operation.

Schachter: Jeremy McDermott with InSightCrime, a think tank to study organized crime in the Americas, thanks for speaking with us.

McDermott: Thank you.