Wildlife traffickers thrive on Guatemala’s murky border with Belize

  • Guatemala’s environmental prosecutor has revealed the existence of “criminal structures” involving farmers, intermediaries from Guatemala and Belize, public officials, and financiers from Asia.
  • According to experts and authorities, the long-running border conflict between the two countries has led to the unchecked extraction of natural resources.
  • Scarlet macaws and parrots are smuggled across the border and sold on the local black market and in Mexico. Rosewood, a precious tree species that is often shipped to Asia, is also a target for illegal harvest and trade.

The siege by wildlife traffickers in the forests on the border between Guatemala and Belize has become so intense that local environmentalists have resorted to extreme measures. Some under trees, keeping watch over the nests of scarlet macaws (Ara macao), and other residents have taken on the responsibilities of law enforcement officers in the area while calling for an increase in the security presence.

Although official figures indicate that poverty levels approach 60 percent in the border region between the two countries, some individuals here make vast amounts of money by illegally trading in local wildlife and plant species, selling them internationally to the highest bidder. But wildlife trafficking is not the only illicit trade in the area: Locals also report a near-constant flow of drugs along the length of the 965-kilometer (600-mile) border.

What exactly is going on in this border region? Mongabay Latam spoke to various Guatemalan officials, who pointed to what they called criminal “structures” involving farmers, intermediaries in cities and towns, public officials, and Asian financiers.

The experts and officials consulted for this article all agreed that the problems in the adjacency zone — a 1-kilometer (0.6-mile) band on each side of a contested stretch of the border — could be summed up under three main themes: poverty, corruption, and a long-running border dispute between the two countries over the possession of 12,000 square kilometers (4,600 square miles) of territory.

“Combating wildlife trafficking is difficult because of the power and influence of those who control it,” Aura Marina López Cifuentes, from the environmental crimes division of Guatemala’s public prosecutor’s office, said in an interview with Mongabay Latam. López Cifuentes’s unit is the highest authority for the investigation of environmental crimes in the country.

A seizure of wild animals carried out last year on the border between Guatemala and Belize. Image courtesy of the Guatemalan Environmental Ombudsman’s Office.

Rafael Manzanero, executive director of the organization Friends for Conservation and Development in Belize, shares the Guatemalan prosecutor’s concern. Manzanero described the border problem between Guatemala and Belize as an obstacle to combating illicit trade in the region.

“There is a wave of destruction in the adjacency zone. It’s a cross-border threat, a dispute that obstructs environmental protection measures,” he said. “Because of this, we are very limited in what we can do to combat wildlife trafficking.”

The landscape features remnants of majestic sites where the Maya civilization once flourished. Such places are protected by legislation intended to halt the rapid pace of deforestation. People here live in precarious housing with earthen floors and roofs made of a kind of palm called guano, in a place where wildlife trafficking is one of the few ways to make a decent income.

A member of Asociación Balám, an organization that carries out undercover work to gather information on the mafia that traffic wildlife in the adjacency zone, agreed to speak to Mongabay Latam on condition of anonymity, and described “whole populations [of people] dedicated to trafficking.”

This illegal activity is especially concentrated around the southern part of the border, which has experienced a surge in deforestation. According to Terra-I, a British organization that monitors deforestation in Latin America, 85 percent of forest loss in Belize was concentrated in the border districts of Cayo, Orange and Toledo between 2004 and 2010. Over the same period in Guatemala, 74 percent of the country’s deforestation happened in the department of Petén, which sits on the border with Belize.

In the space of six years, Belize lost a total of nearly 64 square kilometers (25 square miles) of forest in the aforementioned districts. In Guatemala’s Petén, 958 square kilometers (370 square miles) of forest were lost. Julio Morales of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) of Guatemala said the surge in deforestation occurred in tandem with an increase in wildlife trafficking.

Parches deforestados como este grafican el avance de la deforestación en la zona de adyacencia entre Guatemala y Belice. Foto: Asociación Balám.
The advance of deforestation in the adjacency zone between Guatemala and Belize has left patches of deforested ground like this one. Image courtesy of Asociación Balám.

The non-existent border

The problem starts in Melchor de Mencos. The town, located in Petén, is on the border running north-south between the two countries. It is a mountainous area, where residents claim the Guatemalan state does not have enough resources to maintain patrols. López Cifuentes, the country’s environmental prosecutor, recognizes that the area is “uncontrolled.”

“The problem we are experiencing now with Belize is that demarcation is not clear enough for our armed forces to distinguish between the two territories,” she said. “Units cross over from one side to the other, and we don’t always know whether we have jurisdiction.”

The anonymous source from Asociación Balám backed up López Cifuentes’s assessment. They also explained how they had participated in various operations where it was very difficult to follow wildlife traffickers because they did not know the precise location of the border.

Loros hallados camuflados dentro de cajas de cartón que fueron incautados por las fuerzas del orden guatemaltecas. Foto: Cortesía Fiscalía Ambiental de Guatemala.
These parrots were hidden in cardboard boxes and seized by Guatemalan law enforcement agencies. Image courtesy of the Guatemalan Environmental Ombudsman’s Office.

José María Castillo, coordinator of Asociación Balám’s environmental security and protection program, said wildlife trafficking was a “complex problem” not only for governments but also for communities in the adjacency zone.

According to WCS’s Morales, many poachers capture wildlife in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, located north of the border zone in Guatemala. These illicit activities also occur in southern Belize, in the area around Chiquibul National Park. Poverty is rife in the regions around these protected areas, Morales said; federal authorities are also absent and the population lacks basic services. Consequently, people frequently turn to illegal activities to supplement their income.

El tráfico de flora se da principalmente con el Rosul, una madera preciosa codiciada especialmente en China y otros países asiáticos, de acuerdo a hallazgos recientes de las autoridades guatemaltecas. Foto: Cortesía Fiscalía Ambiental de Guatemala.
According to recent investigations by Guatemalan authorities, one of the most frequently trafficked plant species is rosewood, a precious wood highly sought after in China and other Asian countries. Image courtesy of the Guatemalan Environmental Ombudsman’s Office.

“The disputed area has turned into a conflict zone,” Morales said. “This has created many problems. Guatemalans come in from the south [to extract wildlife resources] and Belizeans from the north. It’s a curious arrangement.”

In April last year, Guatemala held a referendum asking citizens if they agreed to an appeal to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), also known as the Hague Court, over the border dispute with Belize. The majority of the population voted “yes,” demonstrating their agreement with the way the dispute was resolved.

Belize will carry out its own referendum in April 2019. Proponents of the measures hope that this will settle a border dispute that began at the end of the 18th century, when Great Britain and Spain controlled Belize and Guatemala, respectively.

Belize gained independence in 1981. Ten years later, Guatemala claimed roughly half of Belize’s territory (more than 12,000 square kilometers). Tensions led to the signing of the Agreement on Confidence Building Measures in 2000. The negotiations established an adjacency zone, a region currently home to 5,000 people who live in precarious conditions while natural resources are illegally extracted every day.

López Cifuentes said the absence of a real border complicated the work of the soldiers in charge of patrolling the region. She said the soldiers were at risk of being attacked by armed groups from Belize while carrying out their duties and tracking traffickers in this area.

Fiscal ambiental Aura López Cifuentes explica las dificultades que existen para implementar las acciones de control en la zona de frontera. Foto: Cortesía Fiscalía Ambiental de Guatemala.
Environmental prosecutor Aura Marina López Cifuentes said there were difficulties in implementing controls in the border area. Image courtesy of the Guatemalan Environmental Ombudsman’s Office.

“There are soldiers from the other side of the border stationed in the area,” López Cifuentes said. “Anybody who tries to do anything there, even if they are going after a criminal, runs a risk, and this undermines our work. The border needs to be clearly demarcated.”

Manzanero, of Friends for Conservation and Development in Belize, said there were no figures for the numbers of plants and animals taken from the border area in Belize. In Guatemala, the public prosecutor’s office estimates that each year between 75 and 100 birds are confiscated by authorities, most of them scarlet macaws and parrots (the latter being more likely to survive in captivity); but the office has no exact figures.

The call of crime

Poverty creates a breeding ground for trafficking. People who work in wildlife trafficking often go into communities in the adjacency zone and make attractive propositions to the locals. They promise to pay for their food for four days if they go into the forest and bring back a macaw, said Ronaldo Chacón, a management and development researcher for Guatemala’s Asociación Balám.

“The people there don’t have anything to eat,” said Chacón, basing his opinion on his experience of field work in these border communities. “So they go into the forest and bring back macaws, xate [an ornamental palm], parrots, rosewood and gold.”

Cocodrilo de Morelet o cocodrilo mexicano (Crocodylus moreletii) frecuntemente usados como mascotas. Foto: Cortesía Fiscalía Ambiental de Guatemala.
The Morelet’s, or Mexican, crocodile (Crocodylus moreletii) is a popular pet. Image courtesy of the Guatemalan Environmental Ombudsman’s Office.

The United Nations’ Human Development Index rates Guatemala (with a score of 0.492) as one of the least developed countries in Latin America, placing it above only Guyana, Honduras and Haiti.

Within Guatemala, the department of Petén’s index is even lower, at 0.458.

For Chacón, poverty is the main reason why it is hard to get the people living in the adjacency zone to care about the environment.

“You can’t ask the communities to understand. Economic necessity and weakness of the state forces farmers to get involved in illicit activities,” Chacón said. He added that the problem was exacerbated by recent incidents in which Guatemalan authorities were found to be involved in wildlife trafficking.

The anonymous source from Asociación Balám, who tracks wildlife traffickers, said the goods were taken “from the forest to the ports.” This is especially true of consignments of rosewood (Dalbergia tucurensis), a highly valued tree species. The source also said the monetary value of the wood or specimens increases as they change hands within the “structure” of illegal trafficking.

The interviewee cited entire communities in Guatemala that live off the sale of macaws, parrots, cedar, rosewood, xate and drugs.

The source and a small group of researchers work with various hard-to-reach communities in the forests of the adjacency zone, accessible only by dirt roads. Landowners here live off extensive cattle ranching, and the landscape is formed of dried-up streams and bare hillsides, resulting from changes in land use and trade in a range of illicit goods.

Hidden inside the modest houses are stacks of wood, macaws and even gold, all awaiting the arrival of a buyer. At this point in the trade network, the buyer is usually an intermediary from the capital, Guatemala City, who works for someone higher up in the chain of illegal trafficking.

Farmers go out into the forest in search of valuable specimens, especially in Belize. They go into Chiquibul National Park on the border with Guatemala in the south of Petén department. This park is where people can be seen guarding trees to prevent the theft of scarlet macaw chicks from their nests. The same thing happens on the Guatemalan side, in the Chiquibul Maya Mountains Biosphere Reserve.

These two protected areas are connected by the Chiquibul River, which winds its way in and out of the two countries and is mistaken by some as the border.

In 2014, Guatemalan authorities estimated that seizures in the area around Chiquibul amounted to the flow of approximately 2.5 million quetzales ($324,000), destined for the pockets of mafia members. It is believed that this cash influx represents 15 percent of the money in circulation each year. The figures far exceed legal sources of income in the region, which largely consist of the meager earnings from subsistence farming by families who attempt to live off the land.

Cocodrilo de Morelet decomisados en la zona de adyacencia. Foto: Cortesía Fiscalía Ambiental de Guatemala.
Morelet’s crocodiles that were confiscated in the adjacency zone. Image courtesy of the Guatemalan Environmental Ombudsman’s Office.

Mafia structures

Last year, with a team of 14 assistant prosecutors, the Guatemalan Environmental Ombudsman’s Office obtained evidence that led them to suspect that five shipping containers supposedly filled with rubber were in fact carrying illegal rosewood extracted from the adjacency zone.

One of the containers was already in Hong Kong, but several had not yet reached port. So the environmental ombudsman’s office asked the shipping company to turn them back, risking millions of dollars in a potential civil lawsuit if its suspicions turned out to be false.

The four containers were duly returned. “As we opened each one, we prayed that they had rosewood in them, and they did,” López Cifuentes said. “One had already reached the shore and couldn’t be returned by the shipping company, so it stayed there.”

En el caso del Rosul, el informante de la Asociación Balám ha detectado estructuras delictivas bastante grandes que comienzan con los lugareños y que llegan hasta los puertos de Guatemala donde se trafican influencias. Foto: Asociación Balám.
Rosewood trafficking reportedly begins with locals and goes as far up as the Guatemalan ports, where more powerful people are involved. Image courtesy of Asociación Balám..

The anonymous source from Asociación Balám says that products obtained on the black market, like Chinese cigarettes, contraband alcohol, drugs and wild animal species, are all taken across the border, “along with anything else that can be smuggled.” In the case of rosewood, the source said the smuggling network is “huge,” starting in the forest with locals and farmers and going as far as the Guatemalan ports, where more powerful people are involved. The source described encountering the same networks on the ground that were discovered by the environmental ombudsman.

Even with checkpoints and patrols supported by armed units along with other strategies, it is estimated that only 15 percent of the black-market timber leaving Guatemala is confiscated.

According to López Cifuentes, three structures dedicated to trafficking rosewood extracted from the adjacency zone have been identified. All of them involve someone from an Asian country who funds operations for the wood to be transported from the forest, through Guatemalan ports and on to the final destination.

These three structures, López Cifuentes said, were identified after the confiscation of containers supposedly carrying packing material, rubber resin, scrap metal and even pieces of furniture — which turned out to be made of rosewood.

“I use the term ‘structures’ because the Guatemalan police and even customs officials are involved in some cases,” López Cifuentes said. She added that there were investigations underway into each of the structures, “and almost all of those involved in one of the structures are either in prison or have a criminal case pending against them. We have not identified them as drug traffickers. These structures focus almost exclusively on forest products.”

She said she could not provide more details, because investigations were still ongoing.

The mafias dealing in forest products are the same ones who traffic in scarlet macaws, most of which are destined for Mexico. They leave the country through Guatemala’s border with Mexico to the northwest, or through Belize to the northeast. In both cases, traffickers look for gaps where it’s not clear who has jurisdictional authority.

Loros decomisados este año en la zona de adyacencia, al sur de departamento de El Petén. Foto: Cortesía Fiscalía Ambiental de Guatemala.
Parrots confiscated last year in the adjacency zone in the southern part of the department of El Petén in Guatemala. Image courtesy of the Guatemalan Environmental Ombudsman’s Office.

“We’ve established that most of the goods end up in Mexico, even those that go through Belize,” López Cifuentes said. “They are taken through one of the many blind spots on the border, which exist because there is no clear demarcation of national territory. This is the reason why the specimens are trafficked through this area.”

She added that the trafficking of both rosewood and macaws out of the country was due in part to institutional weakness, which works in favor of the traffickers.

An investigation carried out by institutions in Guatemala and Belize highlights the problem of animal trafficking with shocking figures: “Scarlet macaws, which used to be widespread across the whole of Central America, have now been reduced in number to less than 1,000 individuals,” the authors write.

The document reveals that scarlet macaws and parrots — the two most trafficked species in the adjacency zone — are also in demand in European and U.S. markets. In Guatemala, there are just 300 macaws still living in the wild, while in Belize there are approximately 200 left, according to the report.

Mongabay Latam asked the environmental prosecutor about the discovery of two scarlet macaws in the house of Roxana Baldetti, the former vice president of Guatemala, who resigned from her post in May 2015 after she was embroiled in a tax fraud scandal. López Cifuentes said the presence of the macaws in Baldetti’s home was just another example of the corruption threatening wildlife in the region.

“This episode began with a raid carried out by another unit. The unit informed us of the birds being there, so we went to the house, but when the environmental prosecutor arrived to document the case, the macaws were no longer there,” López Cifuentes said.

“They disappeared in the interim between one prosecutor leaving and the other arriving. We found cages, food, and the animals’ droppings, but the animals themselves had gone. It was the result of institutional weakness. The original prosecutor should not have left the premises before the other authorities arrived. This happened in the space of two or three hours.”

Se calcula que en Guatemala quedan unas 300 guacamayas viviendo en la vida silvestre, y que en Belice tan solo quedan alrededor de 200. Foto: Cortesía Fiscalía Ambiental de Guatemala.
It is estimated that there are only 300 scarlet macaws still living in the wild in Guatemala, and 200 in Belize. Image courtesy of the Guatemalan Environmental Ombudsman’s Office.

The prosecutor told Mongabay Latam that she suspected it was CONAP, the National Council for Protected Areas, itself that supplied the undocumented specimens, because Baldetti was the vice president. CONAP depends on the vice president, so they wouldn’t dare deny her anything, López Cifuentes said.

“If she wants a macaw, she gets one,” she said. “There are no records. The public prosecutor’s office couldn’t trace the existence of the specimen because it wasn’t documented.”

Mongabay Latam tried several avenues to speak with a representative from CONAP for this article, but there was no response by the time this article was published. Authorities from Petén said they didn’t have data on seizures of trafficked wildlife in the region.

What happened in Roxana Baldetti’s house is the same as what happens all around Guatemala’s border, according to the environmental prosecutor and WCS staff. It is particularly common in the adjacency zone, the patchiest and most conflict-prone stretch of border in the country. Those involved in the battle against the illicit trade of wildlife and natural resources face situations they do not have the resources to deal with, while environmental organizations work to highlight the urgency of eradicating trafficking and deforestation in the region.

This article was first published by Mongabay Latam here. Edits by John C. Cannon.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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