Illegally harvested lumber in Buenaventura, Colombia

Colombia's Coast Guard has said that paramilitary successor groups, known as BACRIMs, may be getting increasingly involved in timber trafficking on the Pacific coast as they seek new sources of revenue outside drug trafficking.

Colombian Coast Guard officers Carlos Estevez and William Javier Palomino told told El Pais that there is suspicion that the gangs are behind much of the illegal logging in the region.

Illegal logging is common along Colombia’s densely forested Pacific coast, much of which has little state presence. Even companies that have permits to conduct logging legally frequently ignore restrictions on the amount of lumber they can harvest and the areas they can work in.

So far in 2012, the Coast Guard has seized 3,500 cubic meters of illegal timber in the area of the coast between Tumaco and Buenaventura.

InSight Crime Analysis

There is debate about how far illegal logging in Colombia is carried out by organized criminal groups, and how far it is the work of local people who use the trees themselves or sell them on a small scale. In 2009, Colombia's then-environment minister said that there were no big mafia groups involved in the illegal logging business, and that most of it was carried out by locals. However, current President Juan Manuel Santos has said that the illegal timber trade is a source of funding for mafia groups, and that it would be a high value target for the government.

It would make sense for BACRIM groups like the Rastrojos and Urabeños to get involved in the timber trade -- they have also been expanding their revenue streams to take in activities like illicit mining. The business is estimated to be worth as much as $200 million a year, making it an attractive source of profits for these gangs.

In January, the government announced the creation of a special prosecutor’s office tasked with investigating “environmental crimes,” including contamination, misuse of protected land and unlicensed exploitation of natural resources. It remains to be seen, however, whether the office will be able to effectively prosecute crimes like logging, which often occur in very remote areas.