Update: Guatemalan officials say drug traffickers have razed an area of the country's forest the size of Manhattan this year to make way for plane landing strips, AFP reported June 7, 2016. The following report from Honduras was published July 29, 2015.
EL PINO, Honduras — The jaguar roams jungles and riverbanks from the Amazon to Mexico, and even into the southwestern United States. It’s a powerful and cunning hunter, and a single cat’s territory can stretch hundreds of miles. The Aztecs called their most fearsome warriors “ocelotl” — jaguar soldiers.
But now the jaguar is being defeated by a ruthless, modern-day warrior of a different sort: Powerful drug cartels are carving up its Central American natural habitat. In some areas, particularly in Honduras and Guatemala, the big cats are at risk of disappearing entirely.
“Drug dealing in Honduras is definitely affecting jaguar conservation,” says Jorge Guardia, a conservationist with a major international environmental NGO in Honduras (his name has been changed and his employer’s identity concealed for fears of attacks by narco-traffickers). “Habitat destruction is the number-one threat, and money from drugs is fueling illegal activities in protected areas — mainly cattle ranching.”
Honduras and Guatemala are at the epicenter of the global drug trade. They’ve also experienced some of the most extreme habitat loss in Latin America. In Honduras, the jaguar population is estimated at two per 100 square kilometers (38.6 square miles) of habitat. By comparison, in neighboring Belize the population stands at 11 per 100 square kilometers.
Cocaine and cows may seem like an odd combination, but ranching has proved to be an ideal way to launder drug money.
It’s even happening right inside supposedly protected forests. Locals allegedly help narcos gain turf by selling them land that isn’t legally theirs, and then go on to manage it for them.
Take La Mosquitia, an eastern Honduran wilderness that includes the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “In La Mosquitia there are narco traffickers that are buying huge tracts of land and just clear-cutting primary rain forest,” says James Adams, resident naturalist at the Lodge at Pico Bonito, a jungle hideaway near Pico Bonito National Park in Honduras. “No one is doing anything about it … they’re turning their cash into cattle and they need land.”
Smugglers like to land planes there, too. In 2012, the United States government said 75 percent of cocaine-smuggling flights from South America first landed in Honduras — with the bulk of the drug load headed to the US. The Honduran security forces have identified and blown apart numerous narco landing zones, according to media reports, but local observers say they keep cropping up.
More from GlobalPost: Minnesota dentist who killed Cecil the lion gets mauled on the internet
Similar to Honduras, “there are protected areas by law in Guatemala, but there are things that shouldn’t be there,” says Santiago Ochoa, a conservationist working with the international NGO Rainforest Alliance in Guatemala, whose name has been changed to protect his identity. “There are cattle activities there related to narco-trafficking activity. If you fly over these areas, you can see the airstrips they use.” Once the airstrips begin to appear, the health of the habitat visibly deteriorates.
The connection between the drug trade and habitat loss is simple. Drug traffickers prefer to operate in remote areas away from government control, which often means protected lands. They quickly move in and begin constructing clandestine roads and airstrips, according to Kendra McSweeney, associate professor of geography at Ohio State University and lead author of “Drug Policy as Conservation Policy: Narco-Deforestation,” a 2014 paper published in the journal Science.
McSweeney says Central America's illegally brought-up cattle is often exported to Mexico to meet the country's huge beef demand.
After gaining a foothold, experts and local conservationists say, the traffickers “develop” the land, which entails clear-cutting forest and converting it to ranches. Once this is done, usually by local majordomos, they can profit either by selling the land to unscrupulous developers or by ranching it themselves. That allows them to launder drug money into the real economy.
More from GlobalPost: Cockscomb Basin: Where the big cats are
While local, low-level drug traffickers are the ones cutting down forests and operating the ranches, they are usually “consolidating land on behalf of narcos farther up the chain,” McSweeney says. The locals ultimately wind up working on behalf of wealthy elites in Honduras, Guatemala or internationally “who are investing in land markets like people around the world. They’re basically getting in at the bottom of the speculative land market.”
Ultimately, the destruction of protected forest is “a narco-enabled land takeover by very well-capitalized investors,” McSweeney explains. “Pension funds and hedge funds and everybody else want to invest in flex-crop markets and global land markets and REITs [real estate investment trusts].”
A clear example of this process is in Guatemala’s Peten region, which used to be largely undeveloped rain forest and savannah. In 2004, however, it became a major drug corridor, and it has now been converted in many parts to African oil palm production.
Land theft is eased by rampant corruption, cooperation between politicians and drug cartels, and the use of forged land titles. When accusations of land theft arise, the defense is frequently that it could not possibly be protected habitat because it’s now a ranch.
While the land grabs are sometimes conducted with the help of fake documents, more often than not, Ochoa says, “they just arrive, take the land, convert it to ranches, but never transfer the deeds.”
Conservationists like Ochoa and Guardia can readily identify protected habitat that’s fallen into the hands of drug lords. But they are powerless to do anything about it. Even simple scientific tasks like checking camera traps to keep an accurate count of the jaguar population are fraught with danger.
“Our members have been attacked,” Ochoa says. “They can kill you — there’s always the possibility.”
More from GlobalPost: Into the Costa Rican wild: Jaguars feast on sea turtles
Jose Alexander Gonzalez, a forest ranger, was killed in the middle of a street in Puerto Lempira, Honduras, at 1:30 on a May afternoon last year by unknown killers on a motorcycle. Gonzalez worked in the Rio Platano Biosphere and shortly before his killing, which appeared to have been carried out by professionals, had reported illegal logging within the park.
“The drug war is causing a lot of fear in the people who are supposed to enforce conservation law,” Guardia says. “When rangers go out to pursue an environmental crime, they’re usually going up against drug lords. … You’re going up against a lot of connections in government — congressmen, generals.”
One side effect, Guardia says, is that many government forest patrols have been put on desk duty rather than risk their lives in the field.
The narcos “are winning the war in some ways,” Guardia says. “Sometimes I have felt fear when we are on these patrols. We usually try to bring people from the army,” because park rangers are not allowed to carry guns. “There are some areas that we just don’t go to. There are some areas where if we wanted to enforce environmental law, we would have to bring an entire battalion.”
GlobalPost reached out to the authorities about this situation.
Oscar Rueda, the reforestation coordinator for Honduras’ National Institute of Conservation, says his agency is working to replant deforested areas — already planting trees across 1,500 hectares (3,707 acres) so far this year. However, problems with deforestation, including with narcos seizing protected land, continue. "The government is fighting against this," Rueda says.
The institute is not involved in any kind of enforcement, which is carried about by the army and national police, and Rueda couldn't comment on its extent or effectiveness.
Security officials contacted by GlobalPost did not quite see eye-to-eye with the conservationists on this issue.
“If you're telling us that there are some parts of our forest areas that the army won't go, that would be ungoverned — we don't have that. It's not true,” Maria Estela Martinez Madrid, communications chief for the Honduran Defense Department, told GlobalPost.
She also denies the existence of clandestine airstrips in La Moskitia, saying they were all destroyed two years ago.
In Guatemala, neither the National Council for Protected Areas, which coordinates conservation efforts, nor the army responded to requests for comment.