back to news Jan. 31, 2014

Drug Traffickers Destroy Central American Forests

Kendra McSweeney, associate professor of geography, is the lead author of a new study published in Science, finding that drug trafficking endangers rainforests in Central America. According to the study, the craving for cocaine in the U. S. is fueling the destruction of rainforests in Central America as narco-traffickers seek new routes to ship their drugs and expand cattle ranches to launder their profits.

“Central America is being ripped apart by narco-fueled violence and corruption,” stated McSweeney. “When drug traffickers move in, they bring ecological devastation with them.”

In Central America, drug traffickers (mainly dealing in cocaine) clear-cut swaths of rainforest—including within protected areas—to facilitate their illegal operations. What was once forest becomes airplane landing strips, roads for importing drugs from South America and fake farms for laundering drug money. Officials, paid off by bribes, look the other way as the protected areas are destroyed and the traffickers expand their operations, while conservationists and tourists who trespass on the areas are often threatened with violence and even death.

“The region has been a conduit for drugs for 40 years, since the disco era when cocaine became widely consumed," McSweeney said. “What's new is the explosion of smuggling operations based in Central America in response to increased anti-trafficking efforts in Mexico.”

Drug traffickers began making a shift from Mexico into more southerly and remote areas of Central America around 2007, most likely in response to the Mexico’s drug crackdown, which was supported by the U.S. When McSweeney, who has done research in Honduras over the past two decades, asked local people what was causing the deforestation, "they would tell us: 'los narcos,' or drug traffickers," she said.

“Indigenous and peasant groups are powerless against the bribes, property fraud and brutality dispossessing them of their lands,” McSweeney said.

After hearing increasing reports that drugs were the culprits behind some of Central America's escalating deforestation, McSweeney and her colleagues decided to examine the issue in depth. They used satellite imaging to compile the area of new clearings in eastern Honduras between 2004 and 2012.

They found that loss of forest in some protected areas occurred at rates of 5 to 10 percent annually. In fact, between 2007 and 2011, they calculated the amount of deforestation in Honduras more than quadrupled. They overlaid those annual deforestation figures with trafficking data from primary cocaine movements. As drug operations waxed and waned, they found forest clearing rose and fell accordingly.

Rather than stamp out drug trafficking, the researchers discovered, the United States’ “war on drugs” efforts merely shifted those activities around.

McSweeney and colleagues support a shift away from the policy of chasing drug traffickers to one focused on the demand side. Such a move is part of policy reform conversations underway at the Organization of American States which released a report in 2013 that examines the shortfalls of the war on drugs.

What the demand-side focus should look like is up for debate, but some form of decriminalization or legalization of drugs should be examined, McSweeney noted. That strategy could take away profits from the traffickers.

"The more money and weapons you throw at trafficking, the higher the rewards for the people who make it through your net," she explained. "As long as the focus is on trafficking, the profits that accrue to successful traffickers are staggering and those profits are what fund deforestation through the laundering, it is what funds the corruption."

“Drug policies are also conservation policies, whether we realize it or not,” said McSweeney. “Rethinking the war on drugs could yield important ecological benefits.”