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Why Traffickers Use Politicians, Celebrities to Brand Drugs

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Cápsula de MDMA con la forma del rostro del presidente estadounidense Donald Trump

From US President Donald Trump to Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi, well-known visages are used by drug gangs to not only mark their product but to stand out from the crowd.

Images of politicians appear to be a perennial favorite. This summer, a drug raid in São Paulo seized packets of cocaine bearing the face of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. The stickers were used to indicate to consumers that the drugs were of superior quality, according to police sources quoted by news portal UOL, although there was no real difference in purity.

In March 2019, Bolsonaro’s face was also found adorning marijuana packets sold in São Paulo.

Packets of marijuana with stickers of President Jair Bolsonaro found in São Paulo (Source: Brazilian Police)

Orange-tinged Donald Trump-shaped MDMA pills have surfaced in various countries. First seized in 2017 in Germany, pills in Trump’s likeness were discovered in the United States in 2019, and in Chile and the UK this year.

It is unknown if these were the work of one manufacturer or several, but some appear to have been produced in the Netherlands. A British police spokesman told the Guardian after the most recent seizure that “the Donald Trumps are dangerous tablets that contain extremely high levels of MDMA and could put anyone taking these in serious harm.”

SEE ALSO: Coverage of NarcoCulture

The political leaders change with the times. In 2009, then-US President Barack Obama also saw his face stamped on ecstasy pills.

A large number of marijuana packets with the face of Pablo Escobar was found in Cauca, Colombia in 2019. (Source: Cauca Police)
The late Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar (Source: Cauca Police)

Infamous faces also have been used, like Osama Bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader and mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. In 2019, police seized nearly two tons of “creepy” marijuana packages in Colombia bearing the photos of Medellín Cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar. Cauca police commander Fabio Alexander Rojas García told the press that the Escobar “brand” was used by groups “to catalogue and sell” the drugs.

Cocaine packets caught in Callao, Peru, with the image and name of Lionel Messi (Source: Peruvian Police)

Athletes and singers have also been favoured. Soccer star Lionel Messi decorated a large cocaine shipment found in Peru’s port of Callao that was bound for Belgium in 2017. Though his image is popularly associated with cannabis, Bob Marley appeared on cocaine seized in Paraguay in June this year.

InSight Crime Analysis

Though the technique of using unique stamps to identify drug packages emerged in the time of Pablo Escobar and is primarily for logistics, the use of famous faces also provides a certain cultural cachet and irony.

At a time when record amounts of cocaine are being produced, drug trafficking groups can rely on these markers to distinguish their product from from that of rivals. In some cases, they help those handling the drugs to guarantee the place of origin or the destination of a shipment.

SEE ALSO: Mexico, Colombia Drug Raids Reveal Human Skulls, Saints, and Spells

But this strategy can backfire. These markers have also helped authorities track specific drug trafficking gangs with greater ease. “We are seeing a series of dolphins always appearing on drugs seized in Bolivia. These dolphins … are reappearing on seizures outside the country, so we see that there is a network operating in this area,” Thierry Rostan, representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Bolivia, told local media last February.

Another senior Bolivian police officer told the press that such marks were also placed on drug shipments from different groups when drugs were stored together.

For synthetic drugs, the use of celebrity images can also boost sales.

According to a Daily Mail report, the Donald Trump ecstasy tablets proved particularly popular among UK party-goers for their shape.

“It’s getting to be a game of ‘who’s got the coolest pill,'” one source told the paper.

Peru’s Patrones and Their Patrons

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The Patrones de Ucayali, a criminal network led by a former police officer, illegally felled the forests of eastern Peru to feed domestic and international black markets. This extensive enterprise involved dozens of loggers, transporters and middlemen who brought the timber out of the jungle and took it to Lima, as well as government officials and moneymen who legalized the shipments by falsifying official permits. 

Nearly eight months after the wiretaps were installed, the conversations on the phones suddenly changed. The talk of logging, laundering and shipping illegal wood stopped. Instead, the voices talked of destroying evidence and ditching phones. They knew who was listening.

By the time prosecutors executed their arrest warrants, the leaders of the network they had dubbed the “Patrones de Ucayali,” or the “Bosses of Ucayali,” had disappeared. And the first organized crime case to be brought against Peru’s timber mafias was left with the dregs of the organization, the lowly criminals that took bribes, forged paperwork and cut down trees.

*This is the fourth chapter of a four-part series on timber trafficking across Latin America, carried out over two years by InSight Crime in collaboration with American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. This investigation involved extensive fieldwork in Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and Peru, during which we interviewed dozens of government officials, members of security forces, academics, smugglers, landowners and local residents, among others. Read the entire series here.

The prosecutors investigating the Patrones de Ucayali were well aware the name they had given the network was a misnomer: In reality, the Patrones were a common mid-level trafficking network, not capos of Peru’s multimillion-dollar illegal timber trade. But they had hoped the case would send a message to those higher up, those who pulled the strings of the Peruvian state and packaged off illegal wood for international consumption. They wanted the real “patrones” of Peru’s timber mafia to know that the era of impunity had ended. Instead, they received a message in return: “We have the power.”

The Llancari Network

The investigation into the Patrones network began when police intelligence made contpaact with prosecutors in Ucayali’s capital city and Peru’s main timber trafficking hub, Pucallpa. They had come across some suspicious paperwork, specifically a series of what are known as Timber Transport Permits (Guias de Transporte Forestal — GTF), which had been used to move wood along the highway connecting Pucallpa to the capital city Lima.

Prosecutors formally opened an investigation in 2015. Working with the police, they sent out surveillance teams who tracked down logging camps, clandestine sawmills and storage yards. They copied documents and photographed suspects exchanging money and papers. And they tapped phones, and they listened.

As investigators connected the dots, a network began to take shape. At the head was Juan Miguel Llancari Gálvez, a former policeman and loan shark. At his side was his right-hand man, Jorge Edilberto Alvarez Choquehuanca, better known as “El Chino” — roughly translated, “the Chinese man.” Below them were teams of loggers, forgers, transporters, corrupt officials and frontmen.

In order to sell wood illegally logged from the Peruvian Amazon, the network established two supply chains: one real, the other existing only on paper.

Securing the supply was the easy part. First, El Chino recruited loggers from the near bottomless pool of local informal labor in underdeveloped Amazonian communities.

Using the financing model common to Peru’s illegal logging sector — known as habilitación — he provided them with fuel and supplies upfront for the operations, discounting the costs from the price paid for the wood. However, unlike many facilitators who use such arrangements to trick loggers into debt peonage or renege on deals when the wood is delivered, he was good to his word.

“El Chino negotiated hard, he always looked for a very low price, but in the end, he always delivered on the payments for the wood,” said Julio Reátegui, the Ucayali organized crime prosecutor who led the investigations.

The loggers were dispatched with orders to seek out and cut down “shihuahuaco” and “estoraque” — the common Peruvian names for Dipteryx micrantha and Myroxylon balsamum — tropical hardwoods prized as flooring and decking, especially by importers from Peru’s biggest international timber trading partner, China.

SEE ALSO: Peru News and Profiles

From the camps deep in the forests, the crews shipped logs down the river on barges, processed them using illegal portable sawmills and stockpiled them in their three clandestine storage yards.

The first part of the journey by road then had to be completed without documents, so El Chino and Llancari made arrangements with trusted transport companies. El Chino would pay the truck drivers not only transport costs but also the bribe money needed to pay the police.

The network also had three police officers on their books, who would escort the shipments on their way, distributing bribes at roadside checkpoints and alerting El Chino and the transporters to the presence of patrols that were not friendly.

Once the trucks reached the Federico Basadre highway leading to Lima, El Chino would hand the drivers documents ostensibly proving the timber’s legal origins. They were then free to continue on to the waiting exporters.

How to Get the Paperwork

Obtaining those documents and establishing the paper trail that made them seem legitimate were more complex tasks for the Patrones. This was the key to the whole operation — and to the Peruvian timber trafficking industry as a whole: laundering the illegal wood into the legal supply chain.

First, they needed to set up the companies that would pose as the legal loggers and traders of the timber. One of these shell companies was registered in the name of Llancari’s wife. The rest, though, used frontmen, described in the accusation as “men of a young age, without economic means nor real guarantees to justify either capital or commercial operations of economic significance.” The company “offices” were rundown houses in the poor part of town.

“They were ghost businesses, they only existed on paper,” said Reátegui.

Llancari also used shell companies to launder payments from the exporters. The money would arrive at the company bank accounts, then the frontmen would withdraw it in cash and hand it to El Chino. In return, they received between one and 200 soles (around less than one USD and $60 USD) for each transaction.

“They were receiving payments of 50,000, 100,000 soles [between $15,000 and $30,000 USD] every month but living in situations that did not match that much money,” said Reátegui.

Next, the Patrones needed to get their hands on the right documents. For this, they tasked a specialist forger named Norma Chuquipiondo Carillo, alias “Tia Norma,” or “Aunt Norma.” The police raid on Tia Norma’s house showed the tools of her trade: falsified logging contracts, books of blank but signed processing reports from sawmills, official stamps from the forestry authorities, invoices, bank receipts and a stack of cash.

Tia Norma sourced these documents and the others she needed from corrupt contacts in legal sawmills, which function as wood laundering centers, and the General Forestry and Wildlife Directorate (Dirección General Forestal y de Fauna Silvestre — DGFFS) — the deeply corrupt local government body responsible for authorizing and monitoring timber extraction, movement and sale.

The Ucayali River is the main mode of transport for one of the most sophisticated timber trafficking networks in Peru (Photo: Peru Attorney General’s Office)

“The sawmills sell these documents to whoever wants to buy them and the engineers are corrupt,” said Reátegui. “The system is so corrupt that they do it openly, they’re not hiding it.”

By the time, Tia Norma had painstakingly constructed her paper trail, each shipment had a GTF, which showed the wood was extracted from an Indigenous community with permission to sell wood in their territory — even though the communities and their leaders had never heard of Llancari or the front businesses he operated through.

Each GTF was stamped by DGFFS engineers to show its passage through control points between those communities and the city of Pucallpa — even though the wood never came within a hundred kilometers of Pucallpa.

The GTF was also accompanied by processing documents registering its passage through Pucallpa sawmills, which were stamped by DGFFS officials to say they had inspected the shipments after processing — even though the wood was processed by portable saws in faraway clandestine storage yards.

All that remained then was for El Chino to take the documents to the crossroads where the road from the jungle met the highway to Lima, and the trucks of illegal timber met the legal paper trail.

The prosecutors and police spent over a year gathering evidence and mapping out the Patrones network. But when the phones fell dead, they were in a bind. Someone, either from the police or the prosecutor’s office, both notoriously corrupt institutions, had tipped Llancari off. But what to do?

“We decided to stop everything and wait so they would think it is a false alarm,” said Reátegui. It was the wrong move. “When we carried out the operation, none of the leadership was there.”

The Bozovich Connection

The investigations into the Patrones network stopped with Llancari. But the illegal wood they were extracting from the Amazon continued going to Peru’s principal exporters — and to the true patrons of Peru’s timber trade.

The phrase is littered over and over again throughout the indictment, “con destino Bozovich” — destination Bozovich — the oldest, most famous name in the Peruvian wood trade. However, at no point does the Bozovich family or the parent company of their business empire, Bozovich SAC, officially become part of the criminal investigation.

The reason why is made clear in the investigators’ notes from communications intercepted from July 13.

“Llancari says the truck has arrived to Lima, the volume [falsified logging permission] has come from a native community that is inspected by [logging supervisory body] OSINFOR and so, in BOZOVICH, they can’t receive the shipment with that documentation,” the notes read. “Chino says he is going to ring the guy. Llancari says to ring him and he gives him the phone number. It is a young guy that is going to answer, because the shipment has arrived, but the documentation is no good.”

It is the same protection mechanism exporters and other end users hide behind throughout the industry: As long as the documents say it is legal, and the state forestry agencies haven’t proven otherwise, then they are “good faith buyers.”

“Bozovich has the perfect cover because if they are investigated, they are going to say, ‘Well, I buy the wood from companies that are legally formed and constituted, and everything was properly accounted for so I have no responsibility.'” said the prosecutor Reátegui. “This is the scheme they use all across the country.”

The bad faith of the good faith argument was laid bare in 2017 in an undercover investigation by Global Witness. In the report, exporters who were being secretly filmed admitted they were aware the documents showed to them to secure the purchase had been falsified.

Among those exposed by Global Witness was William Castro, a timber baron who numerous inside sources say has close ties to Bozovich, and whose company is currently under investigation for timber trafficking, according to Peruvian investigative website Ojo Público.

“They present the stamped papers, you look and you buy, but what is the guarantee? The stamp of these regional governments has no guarantee,” Castro said.

However, purchasing wood from networks such as the Patrones represents just a fraction of these exporters’ business. Much of their wood comes from elaborate and sometimes transnational networks of companies set up by associates and lawyers that keep their hands — and their money — clean.

These networks of logging companies, timber traders, sawmills, machinery rental companies, storage yards and transport companies allow big companies to directly finance illegal loggers and move the timber they produce along the supply chain, but all from a safe distance.

“The loggers work for the exporters and for the intermediate companies, which are also connected to the exporters,” said Daniel Linares, Chief of Operational Analysis of Peru’s Financial Intelligence Unit (Unidad de Inteligencia Financiera — UIF), which has turned its sights on money laundering in the timber trade in recent years.

The investigation carried out by Peruvian authorities into the network known as “Los Patrones de Ucayali,” never reached its most powerful members (Photo: Peru Attorney General’s Office)

“[The exporters] have people in the zones where extraction is prohibited, but there is wood they are interested in exporting. Once they find it, they invest with machinery, personnel, and in the logging activities to extract the wood and convert it into exportable pieces.”

These investments are funneled as payments made to the front companies, says Rolando Navarro, the former president of the Agency for Supervision of Forest Resources (Organismo de Supervisión de los Recursos Forestales — OSINFOR), the state body that inspects logging operations and investigates violations of forestry law. The exporters then coordinate activities from forest to port using their own agents, who appear on company books disguised by vague accounting terms like “personnel services,” he says.

“They put their people in the field to guarantee the wood leaves and arrives at its final destination,” Navarro explained. “[The exporter] has to have a chain of custody and personnel in the field that are constantly informing them how many trees have been cut down, which species, which ones are in which storage yards, so that they can project when this wood is going to be in their hands and they can program their exports. They work like this at a national level.”

Investigators began to expose the workings of these networks in the multi-agency anti-illegal timber operation known as Operación Amazonas in 2014 and 2015, which Navarro helped lead. Investigators’ analysis of certain export companies uncovered internal movements of cash and wood disguised as external dealings by networks of what appear to be independent timber traders, sawmills and service providers. When they looked more closely at these businesses, they found shell companies whose offices were houses or even ramshackle shacks, who shared managers, legal representatives and directors, and whose capital flows stood in stark contrast to their declared capitalization.

The Bozovich Network

While allegations of illegal timber trading have swirled around Bozovich for more than 15 years, the family has never faced criminal charges. However, InSight Crime’s investigations into the Bozovich network reveal a profile strikingly similar to what investigators describe.

With the aid of investigators from Global Witness, the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), InSight Crime obtained documents detailing the movement of over 8,000 timber shipments belonging to Bozovich within Peru covering the years of 2006 to 2016, and over 400 exports from 2015.

The data shows hundreds of shipments of wood harvested from logging concessions on OSINFOR’s Red List, which flags timber sources that had undergone or were undergoing sanctions for falsification of data or other forestry law infractions, and many more that had undergone no inspections at all.

However, the data also shows something else: a paper trail leading to a circular supply chain in which a handful of names and addresses appear over and again in businesses connected to Bozovich.

Nearly 70 percent of the 2015 exports were of wood coming from just two companies that dealt only with Bozovich: EP Maderas, and Comercial AJAE. InSight Crime traced a further 1,011 timber shipments moved from EP Maderas and AJAE to Bozovich. Of these shipments, 49 percent came from logging zones on OSINFOR’s Red List, while a further 13 percent had not been inspected at all. The same year, AJAE was twice sanctioned for trading illegal wood.

When InSight Crime visited the address listed as the Lima offices of AJAE, we found an apartment in a residential compound registered to a local family. EP Madera’s address, meanwhile, is registered to the legal practice of Bozovich’s lawyer, and the lynchpin of their network, José Alfredo Biasevich Barreto.

A closer examination of the companies reveals their position in a labyrinthine network connected to Bozovich. Among EP Maderas’ legal representatives are Pedro Jose Cuestas Torres, who holds positions in seven further timber companies, and Juan Armando Angulo Davila, who also happens to be general manager of AJAE and legal representative for three of the same companies where Cuestas Torres’ name appears.

SEE ALSOTimber Laundering in Peru: The Mafia in the Middle

One of these timber companies is another Bozovich supplier that appears in the Callao data. That company shares an address with yet another timber company, whose executive manager is José Alfredo Biasevich Barreto. AJAE’s legal representative, meanwhile, also happens to be a legal representative of one of the two Bozovich subsidiaries that hold forestry concessions, whose other legal representatives include the Bozovich brothers themselves and José Alfredo Biasevich Barreto.

The Bozovich business loop extends transnationally. The family own timber import businesses in both the United States and Mexico. And they own offshore businesses in tax havens managed by Mossack Fonseca, the law firm made notorious by the “Panama Papers” leaks for its ability to hide stolen money, corruption proceeds and drug trafficking profits.

Reports by Peruvian investigative website Ojo Público uncovered suspicious financial transactions funneled through these offshore businesses. Once again, the paper trail leads back to José Alfredo Biasevich Barreto.

Biasevich is listed as the general manager of Latitud 33, a company whose commercial address is his law office, even though it is registered on the island of Niue. According to Ojo Público’s Panama Papers investigation, in 2008, offshore money transfers were used for Latitud 33 to buy the shares of the sawmill Industrial Satipo for $499,000 — a purchase that raised suspicions as Biasevich had also been an executive of Industrial Satipo, and because just one year later the company was shut down by tax authorities.

The money for the purchase was transferred to Oswaldo Frech Loechle, another legal representative of the two Bozovich forestry concessions, as well as a transport company. And the loop continues: the legal representative of the transport company is the general manager of a machinery rental company. And the legal representative of the machinery rental company is also a legal representative of the two Bozovich forestry concessions and the same string of timber companies where the names Biasevich, Cuestas Torres, Angulo Davila and others appear over and over again.

It is the transnational wing of the Bozovich empire that could represent their biggest vulnerability. In 2017, Ojo Público revealed that Peruvian prosecutors were investigating Mossack Fonseca and their Peruvian clients, including the Bozovich family, for money laundering. The family’s US subsidiary, meanwhile, could also leave them exposed to prosecution under the Lacey Act — a US law that closes the “good faith” loophole by stating that simply possessing documents that say your wood is legal is no excuse for trading illegal timber.

The Business of Power

The Bozovich family is not only in the wood business. It is also in the power business.

The timber industry has co-opted the Peruvian state from local governments and congressmen in logging hotspots to the state agencies responsible for protecting Peru’s forests and regulating the sector. And the Bozovich sit at the center of this industrial-political axis.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the Mesa Forestal — the roundtable where key actors from the public and private sector meet. At the Mesa Forestal, the private sector is represented by two men: the president of Peru’s Exporters Association (Asociación de Exportadores — ADEX), and the president of the wood industry committee of the National Society of Industries (Sociedad Nacional de Industrias — SNI), who is also, as of April 2018, a member of international sustainable forestry certifiers the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The first of these is Eric Fischer, a Bozovich executive. The second is José Alfredo Biasevich.

Industry insiders and both current and former officials, speaking anonymously to InSight Crime, say Fischer and Biasevich set the Mesa Forestal agenda and, with the complicity of forestry officials and even ministers that attend meetings, have diverted it away from discussions of industry regulation.

Instead, the Bozovich agents, their fellow timber baron representatives and their state cohorts turned their sights on OSINFOR, the institution that has exposed the scale of illegality in Peru’s timber supply chain and threatens to do what they fear most: prove that traceability in Peru’s timber trade is possible.

“We had a clear confrontation with all the mafia and corruption networks from all over the country, but the hardest and most upsetting thing was that from the day I entered OSINFOR, this same conflict also came from within the state,” said Navarro, who was controversially removed from his position in 2016 after a top-level political intervention by timber barons and their political allies.

Fallen logs in Ucayali, Peru (Photo: Peru National Police)

The latest move against OSINFOR came in late 2018. The government pushed through controversial reforms that would end the institution’s autonomy and independence from political meddling by bringing it under the control of the Ministry for the Environment; at the time headed by Fabiola Muñoz, a minister with a history of intervening in investigations on behalf of timber companies. The push for the reforms, according to Ojo Público’s investigations, was led by Eric Fisher and José Alfredo Biasevich.

However, in April 2019, the government performed a U-turn, annulling the reforms following a public outcry and, critically, intense pressure from the US government, which said the measures violated conditions laid out in trade agreements between the countries. For campaigners, the reprise was a welcome sign that the power of the timber lobby can be curbed. But the feeling that OSINFOR is under siege remains.

“This what they are looking to do — enter OSINFOR, capture OSINFOR and once it is captured, control the discourse among all the sectors of the state,” said Navarro.

Bozovich declined repeated requests for an interview with InSight Crime and did not respond to written questions.

The Case Unravels

The prosecutor that carried out the Patrones investigation is well aware that the case left the upper echelons of the illegal timber trade untouched.

“Llancari was mid-level,” said Reátegui. “There are much bigger players but they are legal, formal businesses, and they move a lot more money, so they have much more protection from the politicians and the judges.”

Despite this, and despite the fact there was still no sign of Llancari, his wife and El Chino, the case represented a first opportunity at bringing a successful organized crime prosecution of a timber trafficking network, which would represent a landmark achievement in tackling Peru’s illegal wood trade.

The case began a tour of Peru’s courts — shunted from Pucallpa to the environmental court of Huanaco and then to the national organized crime court of Lima.

The judge’s ruling came in July 2018. But instead of the blow against timber trafficking prosecutors had hoped for, it was a blow struck for impunity: The judge absolved everyone. Not because they were innocent of the accusations, but because the judge decided that the prosecutors had not proven that any crime had been committed.

The ruling was a mess of contradictions and legal contortions.

Specifically, the judge argued, Peru’s forestry law only prohibits trafficking protected species such as mahogany and cedar, ignoring that the law had changed in September 2015 — eight months before the arrests — to include any and all tree species. The judge also refused to allow as evidence the seized wood, saying it could not be taken into account as it had not been tested to prove its species, and that prosecutors had not proven it was illegal because they had not shown where it had actually come from.

The judge also disregarded the conspiracy charges. The defendants cannot be convicted of the crime of “facilitating, acquiring, collecting, storing, transforming, and transporting wood of illegal origin,” he declared, as none of them had done each one and every one of those activities.

The ruling stunned both Reátegui and the Lima prosecutor who took on the case, Irene Mercado. Both are guarded in their conclusions, but their suspicions are thinly concealed.

“I’m very worried because I do not believe that a judge would make such an evaluation lightly,” said Mercado.

Mercado immediately drafted an appeal. She argued that even though the investigation had begun before the new law came into effect, the Patrones had continued to traffic wood for eight months afterwards, and that, besides, logging any species without permission was a crime under the old law, even if trafficking them wasn’t. The appeal also asked why the dispute over the trafficking law would also lead to the bribery and corruption charges being dropped.

The tone of the appeal was one of astonishment at the judge’s reasoning.

“The judge cannot demand the Attorney General’s Office specify the origin of the illegal wood given that this is impossible; it would be the same as requiring that it is specified where a rock of illegal gold came from or which part of the sea every single fish from an illegal fishing operation came from,” it reads. “If the exploitation of the wood were legal it would not have been necessary to doctor the timber transport permit nor bribe engineers nor police at control points.”

However, the appeal never got filed. Instead, the Superior Prosecutor decided the failure lay with the case the prosecutors had built and so they would accept the first ruling. The decision left Mercado deeply frustrated.

“Let’s go to appeal. Let the court decide if I’m right or not, but let’s go to appeal and debate it,” she said. “But unfortunately, we didn’t get the chance.”

Peru’s first organized crime timber trafficking case had failed. However, for the prosecutors, this setback has not spelled the end of attempts to treat the illegal timber trade as an organized crime problem, and several more cases are currently working their way through the courts. None of them, however, reach the timber barons at the end of the supply chain.

“In Pucallpa, everyone handles illegal wood, absolutely everyone,” said Reátegui. “And the bigger they are, the more protected they are. That is the reality.”

*Additional reporting by Adriana Léon.

*This is the fourth chapter of a four-part series on timber trafficking across Latin America, carried out over two years by InSight Crime in collaboration with American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. This investigation involved extensive fieldwork in Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and Peru, during which we interviewed dozens of government officials, members of security forces, academics, smugglers, landowners and local residents, among others. Read the entire series here.

How Drug Cartels Moved into Illegal Logging in Mexico

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Chihuahua is Mexico’s biggest state, and more than a fifth of its 25,000 hectares is forested, mostly with pine trees of the type that are harvested in vast quantities in this country. Half of those wooded areas are in the Sierra Tarahumara — a chain of mountains focused in the southwestern part of the state that is home to a large Indigenous population known as the Tarahumara and a prized drug trafficking corridor.

In late 2018, InSight Crime traveled to Delicias, a small town 100 kilometers south of Chihuahua City, to visit Cruz Soto and his wife Maria. The two live in a humble house on the outskirts of the town. It wasn’t the couple’s home. They had been forced out of their ranch that lay some 500 kilometers further west in the state of Chihuahua, at gunpoint.

Illegal logging here is common and increasingly overlaps with drug trafficking, according to research and fieldwork by InSight Crime. The illicit timber trade is the primary concern for many of the Indigenous communities in the Sierra Tarahumara, according to a survey carried out in February 2018 by the State Commission for Indigenous Towns (Comisión Estatal para los Pueblos Indígenas — COEPI). The biggest causes of deforestation, the survey respondents said, are corruption, organized crime, the over-exploitation of the forests and legal logging permits, and a lack of legal supervision by the relevant authorities.

“Criminals have entered the wood business,” Refugio Luna García, Chihuahua’s director of forestry development, told local media in September 2019.

Chihuahua has long been prime territory for the Mexican drug trade. The southwestern corner of the state is part of what is known as the Golden Triangle — the biggest drug cultivation area in the country. The climate and conditions there lend themselves to the widespread cultivation of heroin poppy and marijuana. Chihuahua is also highly valued by drug trafficking groups due to its large size, inhospitable terrain, its multitude of roads and shared border with the United States. Ciudad Juárez, which sits on the northern edge of the state, is a major drug plaza and has been the scene of bloody flareups of violence over the last decade as criminal groups spar to control this vital corridor.

*This is the third chapter of a four-part series on timber trafficking across Latin America, carried out over two years by InSight Crime in collaboration with American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. This investigation involved extensive fieldwork in Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and Peru, during which we interviewed dozens of government officials, members of security forces, academics, smugglers, landowners and local residents, among others. Read the entire series here.

Cruz was a tall, broad, handsome man with dark skin and a clear gaze. When we met, he wore a cap and a thick, cream-colored winter coat and jeans. He stood awkwardly, leaning against the refrigerator as we talked in the small kitchen of the house he and his wife Maria were staying in temporarily since they got ran out of their municipality of Guazapares, a part of the Golden Triangle. Maria, short with dark skin and a worried frown, sat on the sofa.

The couple had lived on their ranch, which amounted to some 40 hectares of land with cattle, pigs, chickens and rows of orchards. Cruz’s family also had pull in the community. His brother was what is known as an “ejidatorio,” or a resident of the traditional land cooperatives, known as “ejidos,” that still manage much of Mexico’s land.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profile

The family’s prominence put them between many competing interests. Mexico has some 65 million hectares of forest, 70 percent of which are controlled by the ejidos; eight of every 10 trees harvested comes from an ejido. The ejidos are also the de facto stewards of intra-family squabbles that often revolve around whether the cooperative should allow timber harvesting and other businesses to use their land. But sometimes, when it comes to illicit business interests, they are not given a choice.

There were hints of this coming conflict. In May 2008, armed men in trucks overran Creel, the unofficial capital of the Tarahumara, a popular tourist destination and a city that sits on one of the most lucrative drug corridors on the planet. The gunmen killed the police chief, two officers and three villagers; they took away another 10 people in their cars, only one of which was found later. Other, small murder sprees followed.

Cruz told us that his family problems turned deadly in July 2014, when his brother, the ejidatorio, was kidnapped and killed by a criminal group. He did not provide many details of the murder, but he did say the criminal group was part of the Sinaloa Cartel, who he claimed was more interested in getting rid of the forest than exploiting it.

“They’re involved in everything — illegal logging, mining, ranching,” said Cruz, who added that they cut down the trees to make way for poppy plantations, the raw material used to make heroin.

The criminal group settled in the area, he said. Cruz described them as men of varying ages who wore bulletproof vests and carried automatic weapons and pistols.

“They’re very well-armed, very well-equipped,” said Cruz. “They just get rid of people who get in their way.”

Cruz said the local criminal group subsequently killed more than a dozen people and eventually ran him and his family off their ranch after a series of death threats. Others also fled.

“They have killed entire families,” his wife, Maria, added.

It was part of a plan, Cruz claimed, to expropriate the ejidos’ land for their own purposes. He said corrupt officials have opened the door to criminal groups and are also making money from their business. Such accusations are common but hard to corroborate.

About a year after InSight Crime interviewed Cruz and Maria, he returned to a town called Témoris, close to where he used to live. His wife told InSight Crime that he went back to get a subsidy the government provided families like Cruz for his agricultural activities. After he’d been given the money, the local police chief, a man identified in public documents only as Paulino M.R., asked Cruz if he could stay for an extra day — Maria never knew why.

But stay Cruz did, and while he was there, he met with officials from the Secretary of Agriculture and Rural Development (Secretaría de Agricultura y Desarrollo Rural — Sagarpa), which helps regulate land use in the area. One of the topics they discussed was the issue of his family’s displacement and land Cruz said was stolen from them.

After the meetings, Cruz, his niece and the husband of another relative were driving when two cars — later identified as a Hummer and a Jeep — caught up and stopped them. Two armed men got out and approached Cruz’s vehicle asking for him by name. Cruz got out of the car and the gunmen ushered him into one of their vehicles. Then they drove away. Five days later, Cruz’s body was found dumped on the side of the road in a different part of the same zone.

Chihuahua – a Constant State of Conflict

Violence in Chihuahua is not new, but it has increased significantly since former president Felipe Calderón announced an offensive against the country’s powerful crime syndicates when he took power in December 2006. Homicides nearly tripled from 593 in 2006 to 1,578 in 2017, and they stood at more than 1,700 for 2018. By May 2020, the homicide rate for the state was one of the highest in the country at 71 per 100,000.

Violence perpetrated by warring criminal factions is not only high but often merciless. Ciudad Juárez, which accounts for about a fifth of the homicides in the state, garners the most attention. But other parts of Chihuahua are just as violent. In November 2019, a criminal group ambushed members of a high-profile Mormon family with prominent business ties in Mexico and connections to the US. The attack occurred where the states of Chihuahua and Sonora meet and left three women and six children of the LeBarón family dead.

The federal government claimed the ambush was a case of mistaken identity and part of a fight between factions of two of the country’s most storied drug syndicates, the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels. Some local press reports backed the government explanation, but Julian LeBarón had his doubts.

“Thus far what the Americans have told us and what the Mexican government has said is that there was a drug trafficking route to the United States that two cartels were fighting over and my cousins happened to drive by in the middle of the conflict,” said LeBarón. “Whether or not they knew who they were attacking is still a question that we have, and we find it incomprehensible that the cartel would make a mistake that big.”

Official explanations for much of the violence in the state and all of Mexico is like the LeBarón massacre: It tends to generate more questions than answers.

The most violent municipalities in Chihuahua are in the west and south, but the nature of the violence in these two zones varies. Violence in the western municipalities tends to be between rival criminal groups, whereas violence in the south of Chihuahua tends to be wreaked by the Sinaloa Cartel against the civilian population, as the case of Cruz and his family shows, according to the state’s Criminal Investigation Agency (Agencia Estatal de Investigación Criminal).

The convergence of timber and drug trafficking has added another layer to the fighting. The municipalities most affected by illegal logging in Chihuahua are in the state’s south and west: Maguarichi, Guerrero, Uruachi, Ocampo and Madera, as well as Guadalupe y Calvo and Bocoyna, according to the Criminal Investigation Agency. Those areas are also some of the most violent.

Bocoyna is where Creel is located and marks a line between the territory of the two major criminal organizations battling for this trafficking corridor: La Línea, which works with the Juárez Cartel, and the Gente Nueva, which works with the Sinaloa Cartel. Conflict between these two groups has been linked to a fight for control over the illegal wood industry as well as the drug trafficking routes that go through the state.

InSight Crime caught a glimpse of these battles on a morning in late October 2018, when six bodies were dumped just before dawn in front of a gas station on the outskirts of Creel. Wrapped in black bin bags secured with brown masking tape that hugged the neck, waist and ankles of each corpse, the scene was typical of the violence that has played out during Mexico’s more than a decade-long drug war. But the message taped to one of the bodies referred to the control and trafficking of the local illegal wood market, not drug trafficking, according to Hugo Mendoza, an agent from Chihuahua’s Criminal Investigation Agency.

SEE ALSO: Illegal Logging in Chihuahua is Now Mexico Cartel Territory

The fighting that began after Calderón started his offensive in 2006 continued apace through the following administration of Enrique Peña Nieto and into the current administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (also known by his initials AMLO). Years of these battles have atomized organizations like Juárez and Sinaloa, whose factions begat factions who now seek to establish their own revenue streams — illegal wood is one of these.

“El narco has always been here, and everyone learned to live with them. But the drug war prompted them to protect their territories more,” says Isela González, director of the Alianza Sierra Madre. She spoke to InSight Crime in Chihuahua City, where she was under government protection after receiving death threats for her work in environmental issues such as illegal logging.

What’s more, the prices of marijuana and poppy have been dropping steadily, forcing groups to diversify their portfolios or expand their existing ones to make up for the shortfall. Factions of the Sinaloa Cartel, for example, have expanded their marijuana and poppy fields in the area, clear-cutting forests and displacing families like Cruz’s in the process. The timber is not so much the primary objective as much a byproduct of this expansion.

San Juanito – The Wood Processing Hub

About a 30-kilometer drive north of Creel is San Juanito, the wood trafficking hub of this part of the state. It is home to some 25 sawmills that generate, directly and indirectly, hundreds of jobs in the town. They process the wood from the pine forests that coat the hills. The wood is then transported mostly to Chihuahua City but also to Cuauhtémoc and towards the south of the state. The pine is used almost exclusively for domestic use: construction, furniture and paper products. This is true for most of the wood harvested in Mexico. Little of it is exported; the domestic market far outstrips the international one in terms of volume.

Pine has long been illegally-sourced and laundered in San Juanito. The town is home to as many, or more, clandestine sawmills as the legally-established ones. But the arrival of drug traffickers brought with it a new level of violence and reportedly an upheaval in ownership of the sawmills.

The Sierra Tarahumara, in Mexico’s northern state of Chihuahua, has seen widespread deforestation carried out by drug trafficking gangs (Photo: InSight Crime source)

It was around 2015 when these drug trafficking groups first arrived, according to Citlali Quintana, a lawyer working for the Center for Understanding and Defense of Human and Indigenous Rights (Centro de Capacitación y Defensa de los Derechos Humanos e Indígenas), a local non-profit in the region. Quintana described their entry as brusque, literally slash and burn. “The whole area around San Juanito was logged illegally and indiscriminately,” she told InSight Crime. “And afterward they would set fire to the woods and not let people put the fires out.”

But others, such as one person connected to the wood industry in the area, said it was a slightly more subtle process that began with the classic criminal request: pay “piso,” underworld speak for extortion. It was not long before the criminal groups began to see potential profits in the industry itself and started taking over mills or forcing them to process the illegally-sourced wood, industry representatives and non-governmental watchdogs said.

How much of the processing business in the area the criminal faction now controls is in dispute. One local businessman told InSight Crime that half of the sawmills operating in San Juanito could be part of the Juárez Cartel’s network. The other half, the source said, have to pay piso.

Another source gave a starker assessment: “No one is allowed to manage the wood unless they work with the cartel,” a representative of a watchdog group who asked to remain anonymous told InSight Crime.

In either case, according to more than a dozen watchdog groups and industry experts interviewed by InSight Crime, the process plays out similarly. Timber groups connected to drug groups arrive at sawmills with truckloads of raw pine. The mills buy and process the illegally-sourced wood and then launder the processed wood into the legally-sourced timber supply for sale to construction companies and secondary processing plants.

Despite its prevalence, there are no judicial cases, industry studies, non-government estimates or other information that would indicate how prevalent the illicit trade is in this area. Nationwide, however, governmental and non-governmental sources estimate that between 30 percent and 50 percent of all wood harvested in Mexico is illegal. This illegally-sourced wood generates between $106 million and $175 million per year, according to InSight Crime estimates.

Criminal groups have also dragged transport companies and individual truck drivers into the illegal trade, getting them to mix illegally-sourced wood into their own supply. Refusal to participate can be fatal. Just a month before InSight Crime visited the area, a driver was assassinated and his truck and cargo burned.

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

In October 2018, Quintana, the lawyer, drove us from the small city of Creel to the Indigenous village of Bahuinacachi just outside of San Juanito in her four-wheel-drive vehicle. We passed pine forests that had been ravaged by unauthorized loggers. The work was badly done — trees had been left to rot where they had fallen, and some swathes of land had been burned in an attempt to hide the evidence.

Once in Bahuinacachi, residents told InSight Crime how some 40 armed men carrying chainsaws arrived in heavy trucks a few months earlier. They then cut down trees in the pine forests on the outskirts of the town. The men — all of whom appeared to be under 20 years old, according to witnesses — moved dozens of truckloads of wood out of the forests every day for weeks. Villagers said they could hear the chainsaws working from their homes all night long.

At one point, the recently-installed leader of the Juárez Cartel and its armed wing in San Juanito, a man named César Daniel Manjárrez Alonso, alias “el H2,” made an appearance in the town, villagers said. Manjárrez was on the rise. His two bosses, both members of the vaunted group La Línea, had been arrested in the months prior.

La Línea had been created by Chihuahua police years prior and had maintained a line into the police for years following. One of La Línea’s leaders captured prior to Manjárrez’s rise to the top was a former Chihuahua policeman.

Manjárrez and his brothers had taken advantage of the arrests of their bosses, filling the void with new blood and a new name. They called themselves the New Juárez Cartel (Nuevo Cártel de Juárez). In addition to leading the voracious foray for wood in Bahuinacachi, Manjárrez had allegedly masterminded an attack on a state police convoy in San Juanito just a month prior to our visit. The attack, which left four police dead, was supposedly revenge for the arrest of his former La Línea bosses, the local press reported.

Manjárrez was also responsible for the killings that had happened while we were in Creel, according to the Criminal Investigative Agency and local news reports. The press showed a video of the six bodies on the road leading to San Juanito and attributed the murders to “a settling of scores between criminal groups.” The State Prosecutor’s Office subsequently issued a press release. “The incident is linked to organized crime and illegal wood logging between La Línea and the Sinaloa Cartel,” the prosecutor’s office wrote.

The presence of the loggers has deepened the divide in the community. Some have gone to work for the loggers cutting down trees. Others cook for them and sometimes rent them rooms. But other residents are opposed to their presence and the participation of ejido members. According to one resident, who did not wish to be named, one dispute involved an ejidatorio who had offered the criminal group a chance to log on the community’s land without the cooperative’s permission. The criminal group had subsequently completely taken over the land.

Residents also said local police were aiding and abetting the illegal logging of the pine forests in Bahuinacachi. As proof of their claim, they said they had filed a detailed complaint to the state police at the time when illegal loggers invaded a few months prior and logged through the night. The residents said they wanted the report to be anonymous — especially given La Línea’s history of connections to the police — but the officers insisted the crime report carried the names of at least three people making the complaint. Still, when residents followed up a few weeks later, they were told there was no record of a complaint. Shortly thereafter, they said two of the three people who made the complaint were threatened by some of the loggers.

Fear and Displacement

The August before he was killed, Cruz and several others who had been forcibly displaced from Guazapares returned to the area to check on their estates. The group had been recognized as internal refugees by the Chihuahua authorities and went there with a police escort. Cruz had also become an active member of the local human rights organization clamoring for restitution for displaced people from all over the region.

Several families from another area known as Coloradas de la Virgin, which had also denounced illegal logging over the years, were also displaced after at least seven members of their community were murdered between 2013 and 2016, according to a Global Witness report. It was, in other words, a common occurrence in the region.

The violence was having its intended effect. The head of a local human rights organization told InSight Crime that affected communities live in fear due to murders, disappearances and violence.

“[These communities] tend to not report these things and when they do there is very little reaction from the state,” the leader said.

What’s more, when residents do file an official complaint, they often don’t give enough facts, or they don’t know or want to reveal the names and identities of those involved, the leader said. The upshot is there are few official investigations into these cases.

”We try to encourage people to file complaints — in a group, with others. We are trying to get the community to denounce and the state to respond,” the leader added.

With a police escort that August, Soto visited his home without incident. The next day, however, when he returned, he found a body. It was his wife Maria’s cousin. Pinned to his neck was a message directed at Cruz personally for having denounced the activities of organized crime in his area.

The Chihuahua state investigation into the murder eventually led to the arrest of two people who allegedly took part in his abduction and killing. One of them was the police chief, Paulino M.R.

*Additional reporting by Jesús Alarcón.

*This is the third chapter of a four-part series on timber trafficking across Latin America, carried out over two years by InSight Crime in collaboration with American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. This investigation involved extensive fieldwork in Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and Peru, during which we interviewed dozens of government officials, members of security forces, academics, smugglers, landowners and local residents, among others. Read the entire series here.



The Logging Barons of Catacamas, Honduras

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Catacamas is the largest municipality in Central America, home to thousands of square kilometers of pristine forest. Political elites in this remote part of Honduras have maintained a profitable relationship with timber traffickers for decades. Their power, cemented by allowing corporations to pillage Catacamas’ natural wealth and their government connections, has allowed them to murder those who speak out against them, grow rich off the deforestation of cedar, mahogany and pine trees, and even possibly assist drug traffickers.

César Luna’s three bodyguards have left the room. He wants to speak freely. Sitting in the dining room of his house alone, Luna takes out his phone and prepares to play an audio clip that changes his life. Luna returned to the town in 2016 after going into self-imposed exile to protect his family. But while the Honduran government has assigned him protection, Luna remains under threat: He does not stay more than a week in the same place. He visits his family only occasionally, and he is always armed.

Prior to sitting down in the dining room, Luna started to make coffee and placed his 9mm pistol in the next room. While he waits for the water to boil, he puts his cellular phone on the table and searches for an audio file that is over 20 years old. The audio is a central part of the story of why his father was killed. After a minute or so, Luna finally finds it and presses the play button.

*This is the second chapter of a four-part series on timber trafficking across Latin America, carried out over two years by InSight Crime in collaboration with American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. This investigation involved extensive fieldwork in Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and Peru, during which we interviewed dozens of government officials, members of security forces, academics, smugglers, landowners and local residents, among others. Read the entire series here.

“It is dangerous that, in Catacamas, we have not put up a barrier to defend our ecological reserves,” the faint voice of Carlos Luna can be heard telling the local Radio América. “This is the main entrance for groups of ranchers who have the habit of saying they are going to build a farm. Building a farm for them involves carrying a dozen chainsaws, clearing hectares of land and setting fire to them. Many of these people, and here we must speak clearly — there have been army colonels, there have been deputies from the National Congress … There is no hope they will make any laws to protect the forest because they themselves are predators.”

It was a bold, death-defying assertion. But Carlos Luna continued. Specifically, he denounced two people who he said were profiting from the Olancho forest around Catacamas: Freddy Salgado, then the mayor of Catacamas; and Lincoln Figueroa, a farmer who became wealthy off timber trafficking in the northern mountains of Honduras before becoming a congressman with the National Party (Partido Nacional — PN) in 1998.

By then, the logging mafia led by Salgado and Figueroa had usurped numerous properties that border Olancho’s pine, cedar and mahogany forests. This was, according to a 2013 report by the United Kingdom, a typical way for these traffickers to expand their holdings. “Many large property owners were able to increase the size of their properties through economic, political and even coercive pressure,” it read, without making direct reference to Figueroa and Salgado.

Carlos Luna, a Honduran environmental activist murdered in 1998 (Photo: Luna family)

Days later, César went to his father’s office to bring him lunch. Minutes later, two gunmen killed Carlos Luna as he walked out Catacamas mayor’s office.

“I was a witness to the murder,” César says as the audio of his father goes silent.

The investigation into the murder was handled by the Honduran justice system and then by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Both investigations zeroed in on Figueroa and Salgado, who they believed had ordered the hit. In 1999, Figueroa was named as a suspect by the Honduran Attorney General’s Office. And in 2004, a hitman was sentenced to 20 years in prison for killing Luna, but not before naming former mayor Freddy Salgado as one of those responsible.

But the inquiry was, in the end, a tragic farce, a report by the IAHCR showed. Prosecutors and judges assigned to the case were frequently swapped. The witness who named Salgado was shot dead in 2008. Political pressure and threats abounded. And Figueroa and Salgado never formally faced any charges.

Catacamas – A Logging Mecca

Catacamas is pivotal to the country’s illegal logging industry. The town of 45,000 people in the department of Olancho serves as a transport hub, a political power base and an access point to the vast forest reserve bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and Nicaragua.

All goods, both legal and illegal, produced inside the Río Plátano Biosphere, the Tawahka Reserve and the Patuca River National Park — the principal hubs of forest reserves in Honduras — pass through Catacamas. Highway RN83 connects the town to Dulce Nombre de Culmí, an enclave of the protected areas where prized trees grow. This road has become a major avenue for the moving of illegal timber, as the particularly coveted pines grow just 15 kilometers outside of town.

Jorge Yánez, an environmental activist and current councilman in Catacamas, was an ally of Carlos Luna and has taken up much of his fight. He says Figueroa and other members of the ruling National Party are closely connected to illegal logging across Olancho. In some cases, these networks control the entire distribution chain for the timber, as Carlos Luna told Radio América before being murdered.

The Rio Plátano Biosphere, in northeastern Honduras, has seen numerous pine trees felled illegally (Photo: Catacamas municipal mayor’s office)

Yánez and César Luna told InSight Crime that, in Catacamas, the trafficking follows a pattern: Landowners and town officials team up to buy small plots of land, clear the forest cover and sell the wood, then use the area to raise cattle. Most of this wood, they say, is illegally-sourced.

To launder the wood, the loggers doctor or just ignore logging permits issued by Honduras’ Institute of Forest Conservation (Instituto de Conservación Forestal de Honduras — ICF). In practice, this means the loggers simply cut more timber than is registered on the permit. If they think the harvested wood might be inspected, the landowner simply falsifies the original permit to make it coincide with the total amount of timber being harvested.

Honduras’ National Commission for Human Rights has also reported that fake property claims are being used to access new plots of land. This is an important source of wood since most of the timber harvested in Honduras comes from private property. Along the way, the loggers bribe police and local officials, who allow them to expand their operations into new plots of land and sometimes provide them with the documentation to do it.

According to Yánez, this illicit association benefits other criminal economies, such as cattle rustling, illegal cattle grazing and drug trafficking. An hour’s drive from Dulce Nombre de Culmí, the dirt road narrows and the pine forest thickens near a settlement called Pisijines. But beyond that, near another settlement known as Marañones, the rows of pines gradually peter out and are replaced by green pastures cleared by the logging mafia and populated by cattle.

“There are no more woods there,” he said. “Inland, it’s only cattle…They’ve killed the forest.”

Carlos Luna – a Marked Man

Lincoln Figueroa had a strange path to congress. In the 1980s, Figueroa left his home village of Manto and moved to Río Blanco, near Catacamas. He found work on the land of Reinaldo Antonio Sánchez, a cattle farmer who later sent Figueroa to develop a logging business on some nearby land.

Figueroa soon developed a profitable business model: buy land, clear it of forest and sell it on to large landowners in the area. One of Figueroa’s first business partners was José Ángel Rosa, known around Catacamas as “Chango”. The two opened a sawmill where they processed the wood.

The illegal logging caught Carlos Luna’s attention and in 1994, the then-Catacamas councilman filed a formal complaint with Clarisa Vega, Honduras’ environmental prosecutor at the time, alleging that Chango and Figueroa were illegally sourcing timber to process and launder into the legal supply chain. (InSight Crime could not get a copy of the complaint but spoke with Vega in 2018, who confirmed that Luna had filed it.)

In 1998, Mayor Freddy Salgado appointed Carlos Luna to head up the town’s environmental commission in a move that surprised even Luna himself. Luna used his new platform to continue denouncing illegal logging in Catacamas, mostly via Radio América, but also via other media. Unhappy with the results, Luna eventually went to the Attorney General’s Office in Tegucigalpa.

He also began targeting specific companies involved in the logging, including Productos Forestales Figueroa (PROFOFI), IMARA y La Fosforera, for allegedly creating logging cooperatives that only responded to the interests of Figueroa and other Catacamas’ barons in order to launder wood that was illegally harvested from Olancho. The Figueroa in PROFOFI was because Lincoln Figueroa was its owner. InSight Crime tried to contact mayor Figueroa to get his comments for this report but received no answer.

By 1998, Chango was one of the most powerful cattle ranchers in Catacamas and Carlos Luna was on his radar. On February 26, the two crossed paths and Rosa allegedly threatened Luna, putting a gun to his head and then firing into the air, according to the IACHR report.

César Luna recalled the incident happened at a tire shop and that Rosa had tried to scare his father. Carlos Luna reported the event to a prosecutor, who tried a reconciliation process. During a meeting, Rosa accepted he had threatened Luna but apologized, claiming to have been drunk. It appears the prosecutor took the matter no further.

And in March 1998, Carlos Luna told El Heraldo newspaper that he had received new threats because reports he had issued regarding Rosa’s trafficking operations.

But Rosa kept coming. On April 10, 1998, he called Carlos Luna and said he had “the money, the weapons and the people to kill him and his family,” according to the IACHR report.

Luna soon expanded his list of targets and simultaneously the list of those who wanted him killed. On April 21, shortly after Salgado named Luna to be in charge of environmental affairs, Luna began an investigation into deforestation and timber trafficking in an area known as Quebrada de Catacamas where two other loggers in the region, Jorge Adolfo Chávez and Roberto Núñez, were operating. And on May 13, five days before Luna was killed, Chávez allegedly crossed paths with him and pointed a gun at him.

“He [Luna] doesn’t know who he’s messing with,” Chávez reportedly told one of his relatives shortly after the encounter with Luna, according to testimonies recorded for the IACHR. “I was a soldier.”

César Luna told the IACHR that Salgado then tried to bribe his father into dropping all investigations. Luna declined. Instead, he scheduled a press conference for May 20. The press conference never happened.

SEE ALSO: How Drug Traffickers Became Masters of Honduras’ Forests

On May 18, at about 11 a.m., just after a Catacamas city council meeting, Carlos Luna and two colleagues were walking outside of City Hall when two young men approached them and opened fire. Carlos pulled his weapon and returned fire, but one bullet hit him in the back. Another councilwoman, Silvia González, was hit in the head.

Carlos’ friends scrambled, including Mayor Salgado who loaned them his car. Luna was still conscious when his friends drove them to a hospital in Catacamas. His son, César, who had come to City Hall to bring his father lunch, jumped in the car with them.

But the hospital was closed, and the car was running out of gas, so they scrambled to switch to another car and drove to the city of Juticalpa, an hour away. There, they were rushed into surgery but by then Luna was dead. González was in critical condition.

Before turning over Luna’s body to his family, a doctor gave César Luna the bullet that had killed his father.

Illegal Loggers Become Drug Traffickers

In October 2016, Honduran authorities mounted a huge operation in the hills of Olancho, beyond Catacamas and Dulce Nombre de Culmí. There they dismantled a clandestine runway, seized 2,000 board feet of timber and raided 45 properties. Most of the assets belonged to a family known as Los Amador, according to agents quoted by Honduran media.

The links between timber and organized crime ran deep within the Amador, all the way back to the murder of Carlos Luna in 1998. One of the men who shot Luna was Ítalo Iván Lemus, who, according to a former prosecutor who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity for his personal safety, worked for the Amador family.

A key witness in the 2001 trial of Jorge Chávez, another alleged planner of Luna’s killing, said that Lemus was one of the killers. In 2004, that same witness had been hired by Chango Rosa, among others, to commit the crime. Lemus was initially acquitted but later sentenced to 18 years in prison for the murder.

But Chango Rosa would live to regret getting involved with the Amador family. On June 30, 2008, he was shot dead outside his house in Catacamas. One Honduran official who has long investigated timber and drug trafficking in Olancho told InSight Crime Los Amador killed Chango, as he had begun to move drugs inside the Río Patuca reserve.

In Olancho, the name Amador is more closely tied to drug trafficking. While less powerful but equally violent as Honduras’ most notorious drug trafficking clans — Los Cachiros and Los Valles — Los Amador have a peculiar characteristic: before being drug dealers, they were loggers.

The Amador family began building their domain in Catacamas and the mountains of Olancho by buying land from small farmers along the Patuca and Tawahka natural reserves, much like Lincoln Figueroa did.

“They bought land in Manto, in Najao and in Cuyamal,” one local anti-drug investigator told InSight Crime regarding where Los Amador expanded the territory that would soon be used for drug trafficking.

The investigator, who asked for anonymity due to his long involvement in anti-drug operations in northern Honduras, said that once Los Amador had established routes over land and by river, they quickly began using them to move shipments of cocaine that landed on clandestine landing strips.

“These routes stretch to Nicaragua, they are used to move wood and drugs alike through the rivers and mountain paths,” the investigator explained.

In 2015, the police captured Moisés Aguinaldo Amador Godoy, sparking a feud between Los Amador and other criminal groups they believed had worked as informants for the Honduran police and army. But before the feud could speed up, the Amador were neutralized following the arrests of key leaders.

Still, Ítalo Iván Lemus, the member who was paid to kill Luna, never went to jail. He is technically a fugitive from justice. Apart from a brief unsuccessful attempt to arrest him in 2016, driven by César Luna demanding justice, Lemus has been untroubled.

For his part, Figueroa has plenty more enemies who have formally accused him of a range of crimes. The politician has always denied these claims. Of his chief critic, César Luna, he says he is jealous. And to date, the charismatic politician has been able to survive these accusations, maintain his status within the National Party and keep his tight grip on Catacamas.

To be sure, for over twenty years, attempts to prosecute Figueroa have been unsuccessful. His critics say this is because Figueroa has built up a strong network of supporters. These supporters include Reinaldo Sánchez Rivera, the son of Reinaldo Antonio Sánchez who was the rancher who gave Figueroa his start as a logger. Sánchez Rivera was a private secretary to former president Porfirio Lobo (2010-2014) and later became the minister of development. He is now the president of the ruling National Party.

“Lincoln has led the agricultural devastation of pine woods, [which have been] turned into pastures,” Luna insists. “He is the biggest logger in Catacamas.”

César Luna has continued the environmental fight his father led for two decades in Honduras (Photo: César Luna)

Back at his house in Catacamas, Luna says goodbye. The next day, he says he will travel to another city, where his family has made their home since his father was killed. Having never found justice in the courts, he hopes to find it in politics. Like his father, he is now a town councilor for Catacamas.

*Additional reporting by Wendy Funes.

*This is the second chapter of a four-part series on timber trafficking across Latin America, carried out over two years by InSight Crime in collaboration with American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. This investigation involved extensive fieldwork in Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and Peru, during which we interviewed dozens of government officials, members of security forces, academics, smugglers, landowners and local residents, among others. Read the entire series here.

How Colombia Regulators Became Purveyors of Illegal Wood

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In Santander, Colombia, timber traders corrupted regulatory, police and judicial systems on their way to trafficking untold amounts of wood from the state.

At the end of 2013, an official from the Yariguíes National Park contacted the Attorney General’s Office. The official told prosecutors that settlers were deforesting parts of the natural reserve to plant coca, the raw material used to make cocaine, and that loggers were illegally harvesting and selling the wood.

The department of Santander, where this natural reserve is located, has three million hectares of land, 800,000 of which are natural forests like those in Yariguíes. There are laws designed to manage these areas within national parks and along their so-called buffer zones, or what are referred to as Special Handling Districts (Distritos de Manejo Especial). Still, so much of the state has been deforested already that some scientists say the erosion of forest cover is causing water shortages in areas of the department.

Specifically, much of these districts have been used for decades by coca growers, local farmers and loggers from the 13 municipalities that share territories with the Yariguíes.

*This is the first chapter of a four-part series on timber trafficking across Latin America, carried out over two years by InSight Crime in collaboration with American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. This investigation involved extensive fieldwork in Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and Peru, during which we interviewed dozens of government officials, members of security forces, academics, smugglers, landowners and local residents, among others. Read the entire series here.

“The great majority, with a few exceptions, have been taken over,” said an official from the Autonomous Corporation of Santander (Corporación Autónoma de Santander — CAS), referring to the steady spread of illegal logging in these national park and buffer areas and speaking on condition of anonymity.

The CAS was supposed to regulate these difficult areas. It is part of the country’s network of 33 Regional Autonomous Corporations (Corporaciones Autónomas Regionales — CARs). The CARs are the key regulatory agencies designed to ensure environmentally sustained economic projects such as timber extraction. In practice, however, they have become vehicles for corruption, malfeasance and organized crime. Indeed, in the case in Yariguíes, they would soon become the center of the investigation. What’s more, this was not the first hint that something was wrong in the department’s CAR.

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles

Two years earlier, in 2011, a highway patrol in Santander had stopped a truck with timber and a false transit permit. During the subsequent interrogation, the driver had given officers the name and cellular telephone number of the person that had given him the permit. Using this information, a prosecutor from Bucaramanga had obtained an order to wiretap the line. The telephone, they soon found by listening to the conversations on it, belonged to a timber trader who was illegally sourcing wood from the department via contacts that could furnish him with timber transportation permits.

A police raid to seize illegally sourced wood in Santander, Colombia (Photo: Colombia’s National Police)

The phone intercepts eventually provided authorities with the broader outline of the criminal network and their modus operandi. The network included wood harvesters, transporters and regulatory authorities. They seemed to move the wood in two ways: one using legally-obtained licenses that were recycled through the system; the other via fake licenses issued for the express purpose of laundering illegally-sourced wood. All of these licenses and permits, prosecutors said, were provided by the Corporation for the Defense of the Bucaramanga Plateau (Corporación para la Defensa de la Meseta de Bucaramanga — CDMB), the other CAR in Santander.

Patronage, Timber Trafficking and the CDMB

The government created the first CAR in the 1960s. Over the years, they grew in number, but they bounced from ministry to ministry until 1993, when they were assigned to the Ministry of the Environment. The corporations are a strange entity. They are regional, based on the idea they should regulate a single ecosystem rather than be confined to a single municipality or state. This gives them jurisdiction over issues in a number of municipalities, making them autonomous to a degree. But they are still beholden to the mayors and governor of the department where they operate, since these mayors and governors select the corporation’s director, manage its board of directors and pay the bills. And in some cases, they have become part of the local political patronage system.

Such is the case of the CDMB. Its first director, Fredy Anaya, spent six years at the helm of the CDMB in the early 2000s and through a kind of bureaucratic osmosis gained de facto control over the department’s sewage company. The two entities gave him large sway over public contracts and land-use permits, the kind of political mojo that can lead to bigger things. Anaya used these levers. In the mid-2010s, he was accused of orchestrating a corruption scheme involving the CDMB and the state sewage company to benefit his relatives, who received numerous state contracts.

The investigation never resulted in charges, but his control over the CDMB and the sewage company positioned Anaya to launch his own political career. Among his political backers were corrupt politicians and at least one former leader of the right-wing paramilitary groups who had committed widespread massacres and trafficked illegal drugs through the 1990s and into the early 2000s.

Anaya also allegedly purchased support from at least one political party. None of the accusations stopped him. In 2014, Anaya won a spot in congress, all the while maintaining control of CDMB and the sewage company via proxies.

The corporation remains one of the department’s largest political fortresses. The CDMB’s budget in 2017 was more than 44 billion pesos (about $13 million), according to the CDMB’s own records, and it manages the environment and land-use in 13 of the department’s 87 municipalities. For a while, Anaya became director again while he ran for mayor of the department’s capital city, Bucaramanga. Anaya lost the election, and in March 2020, in what was seen as a political coup d’etat, he was pushed out of the CDMB and the sewage company.

Throughout this time period, CDMB representatives were helping traffic wood. The wood trafficking scheme uncovered by authorities in the 2011 highway patrol stop, for instance, involved engineers at the corporation, which made sure the permits had the correct species, volume, transport vehicle and name of the driver. In time, the network would take on a name: Los Ingenieros (The Engineers). The most common permits issued to the trafficking network were those that had expired. In all, CDMB officials issued 912 false transportation permits, prosecutors said, all of which were simply old permits that the organization recycled with false information. In one of the wiretapped conversations, a CDMB engineer told an intermediary that he had altered the organization’s system of issuing permits by adding legitimate forestry uses to the permits or by increasing the number of species that were listed on the permit.

CDMB officials also used unwitting accomplices, who were often farmers with little education. In one case, a farmer who did not know how to read or write had 985 false licenses signed under her name. In another example, authorities found land-use licenses located on a farm belonging to a man named Abelardo Serrano. Serrano was not so much vulnerable as prolific. He had had numerous forestry-use licenses issued by CDMB over the years but had not requested any in recent years. So in 2016, when Serrano discovered the CDMB had issued licenses that he had never requested to transport 711 cubic meters of wood from his properties valued at more than 6 billion pesos ($1.7 million), he went to the authorities and filed a complaint.

Through the phone intercepts and interviews, authorities found the network had numerous alternative ways to camouflage illegally-sourced wood, should there be any problems obtaining licenses or during transport. In one intercepted call, for example, a CDMB engineer intervened after a highway patrol pulled over a truck with illegally-sourced timber and a false transportation permit. During the call, the engineer confirmed the information and requested the police officers allow the truck to pass. The engineer later requested a bonus from an intermediary for freeing up this wood from authorities.

The criminal network’s principal intermediary also maintained contact with officials from other regional regulatory corporations, including Cormacarena, Corantioquia and Corchocó, in case he could not get what he needed from the CDMB. Meanwhile, the CDMB increased the number of forestry licenses from the 14 approved in 2016 to 24 in 2018, according to the Attorney General’s Office. And for two years, prosecutors said, the network allegedly moved hundreds of cubic meters of timber belonging to rural landowners without their knowledge. The wood was mostly sold locally in Bogotá and Barranquilla. And according to local media, some of it was exported to China.

The Yariguíes Case

After receiving the information from the park official in the Yariguíes National Park in 2013, the Attorney General’s Office assigned a prosecutor to the case. Established in 2005 as a park, Yariguíes was a common target for traffickers. It is large, ecologically diverse and remote. It has 59,063 hectares of forest spread throughout the mountains, 57 species of mammals, 40 classes of amphibians, 30 reptile species and 200 types of butterflies. There are tropical rainforests, highlands and moorlands. Several rivers begin in the park, including the Opón, Suárez and Sogamoso — the last two feed the Sogamoso Dam and water reserve, one of the largest in the country.

The park’s unique geography also gives rise to varied tree species such as Colombian oak, Spanish cedar, and Virola calophylla, which is a form of nutmeg. The areas cited by the official were concentrated in some of these aforementioned buffer areas, specifically in the municipalities of Santa Helena Del Opón, Cimitarra, Carmen de Chucurí, San Vicente de Chucurí and the region of Bajo Simacota where traffickers were allegedly harvesting cedar, rosewood, Cariniana multiflora and Virola calophylla, among others.

For a time, the area was also a prime coca-growing region. Although production of coca, the raw material for cocaine, dropped slightly in the most recent US survey of the crop, it is still near record levels in Colombia. The spread of the crop has had a devastating effect on natural forests in Colombia. In 2019, Environmental Minister Ricardo Lozano said about a quarter of all deforestation was a collateral effect of coca production.

According to reports by Colombian authorities between 1998 and 2012, over 608,000 hectares of rainforest were illegally cleared in order to grow coca. This represents an average of 40,500 hectares a year, or 111 hectares a day.

While most of this coca production and deforestation is happening in Colombia’s Amazon basin, the problem also includes Santander and the Yariguíes Park, where police have found significant coca production dating back to at least 2014.

Still, cases were hard to make. The regional prosecutors’ office had no expertise in investigating and prosecuting environmental crimes. They started by studying old cases, detailing locations where arrests for these types of crimes had been made. By mid-2013, 15 people had been captured trafficking wood from the Yariguíes. They combined that information with flyovers where they took aerial photos of the areas most impacted. Soon, they found a disturbing pattern: The areas where there had been arrests and the areas where the flyovers showed there was evidence of illegal logging were not the same. In other words, authorities were concentrating their resources in the wrong places.

At about the same time, the prosecutors’ office received a study financed by the German government. Studies like these can help authorities, especially where they are thin on human resources. The study confirmed much of their preliminary analysis. It also added to their understanding, especially details about where groups were stockpiling wood, what routes they were using to extract it and what destinations it was bound for, including the major cities where it was presumably processed for end-use or export.

“The largest quantity of timber was detected heading for Barranquilla and Bogotá,” explained a detective that supported the prosecutor’s investigative efforts and spoke on condition of anonymity because the detective was not authorized to comment. “They told us that between two and three trucks and tractor-trailers were leaving [per day].”

The information gave prosecutors another avenue of investigation and possible prosecution since any transport also had to have official permission from the local CAR to move the wood. In sum, prosecutors had three investigative avenues: the illegal issuance of logging permits, the illegal transport of this illegally-sourced wood, and possible corruption of government entities who were not prosecuting this crime when they discovered it and were maybe even facilitating it. What they might not have expected was that the network was employing all three methods.

SEE ALSO: How Organized Crime Profits from Deforestation in Colombia

Investigators also soon learned that an intermediary in the region served as the link for businessmen elsewhere to obtain the wood, then transfer and legalize it before it landed in their hands. Intermediaries like this are the lynchpins of the timber trafficking trade. They connect the harvesters to the wholesalers, which often include sawmills and secondary processors. They finance harvesting and often run transport companies. And they obtain the paperwork necessary to bypass regulatory authorities and law enforcement.

To be sure, the intermediary in the Yariguíes case had a contact inside the Autonomous Corporation of Santander (Corporación Autónoma de Santander – CAS), investigators found after they began listening on his telephone calls. The CAS official expedited false transport permits, while the intermediary was in charge of working with highway police in Santa Helena de Opón to secure passage. They coordinated this movement via a cellular phone that the criminal group gave to the police. The information was precise. During some of the calls, prosecutors heard the criminal group telling the police which types of trucks were moving the timber and what time they would be passing the checkpoint.

The bribes paid to the officers were based on the size of the trucks, as well as the volume and species of wood being transported. When there was a mix-up or a truck was detained with illegal timber at another checkpoint where the police had not been informed, the criminal group employed a separate CAS official who would provide false information or adjust the information on the paperwork for the police, so the wood could continue its journey.

Part of the timber, illegally sourced within Colombia, is legalized through fake permits and documents (Photo: Colombia National Police)

The network’s contacts reached other parts of the government as well. After it leaked that an official investigation was underway, the network began moving shipments at night. What’s more, prosecutors soon discovered that illegal wood was transported not just with false CAS permits, but also with false transport permits from the Colombian Agricultural Institute (Instituto Colombiano Agropecuario — ICA), the entity that regulates commercial timber plantations.

Soon, there were indications that municipal and judicial authorities were connected to the trafficking network as well. Specifically, investigators discovered that, through a group of corrupt police officers, the traffickers bribed an assistant from the prosecutor’s office, who in turn found loopholes in the procedures that forced authorities to return seized cargo and transport trucks. Of particular note were five seized shipments returned by the prosecutor’s office in the municipality of Cimitarra.

“When the police brought cases to the [prosecutor], he said: ‘No, this procedure was not done correctly,’ and forced the police officers to return the vehicles,” the Bucaramanga-based prosecutor told InSight Crime.

In October 2014, after almost two years of investigation, the Attorney General’s Office arrested 55 people, including the intermediary, a group of police officers, two CAS officials and several transporters and charged them with illegal trafficking of wood, trafficking endangered species or species endemic to Colombia, conspiracy, and corruption-related crimes.

The Big Fish Go Free

Despite the arrests in these cases, authorities wanted to reach higher into the distribution chain. Most of the top echelons of these networks, as well as the businesses driving the illegal timber harvest, are never prosecuted. While they work with intermediaries, the businesses are careful to keep themselves at arm’s length from the trade, giving them plausible deniability when the illegal provenance of the wood is discovered. In the Santander cases, authorities thought they might break this pattern.

During their investigation, prosecutors discovered there was a group of businessmen from Bogotá, Bucaramanga and Barranquilla that ordered particular volumes and species of timber through the intermediaries in the Yariguíes case. The buyers did business with the intermediaries in two ways.

One was by demand. Sawmill owners or wood processors that needed wood would request specific amounts from intermediaries. The intermediaries would then obtain the false licenses to harvest, launder and move the wood to the buyers’ processing plants.

The other way buyers obtained wood from the intermediaries was from more of a spot market. The intermediaries illegally gathered supply they knew from experience was commercially viable. Buyers and intermediaries would then buy the illegally-sourced wood from this spot market, arranging the purchases through digital means or in person.

Prosecutors said the network had well-established routes like those between Cimitarra-Bucaramanga, Cimitarra-Vélez-Barbosa-Bogotá, Santa Helena-Bogotá, Landazuri-Vélez-Barbosa-Bogotá and Cimitarra-Barranquilla. Eventually, prosecutors used this information to open cases against various businessmen and local loggers. One of these businessmen was Alexis Pinzón. Based in Bogotá, Pinzón had a strange mix of businesses. He was both a wood purveyor and automobile service agent. Pinzón was found guilty but spent little time in jail.

Prosecutors also indicted a fellow prosecutor and his assistant, as well as a member of the police that tried to subvert the investigation. Still, the Attorney General’s Office has had difficulty bringing several of the officials to court because of bureaucratic delays, and, prosecutors say, political pressure. In the cases being developed against the buyers, prosecutors say they have knowledge of illegal logging networks stretching to Bogotá, Bucaramanga and Barranquilla. What’s more, other buyers have approached prosecutors seeking to arrange plea deals. But none of them will face jail time or significant fines, officials say.

The CDMB case faced similar difficulties. Following Serrano’s complaint, authorities in February 2018 arrested nine members of Los Ingenieros and charged them with selling up to 852 cubic meters of timber from the Yariguíes reserve per month (valued at close to $250,000), as well as conspiracy, falsifying documents, fraud and crimes related to misuse of the online permit system. Among those arrested were three current and two former CDMB officials, including an assistant director, an engineer, and an area contractor.

All of the accused, except one — the sub-director of environmental evaluation and control at CDMB who police alleged to be behind the scheme — pleaded guilty to the charges, according to the prosecutor. CDMB Director Martín Camilo Carvajal told the newspaper Vanguardia Liberal at the time that the sub-director would continue in that position in spite of the accusations.

*Additional reporting by Ana Marrugo.

*This is the first chapter of a four-part series on timber trafficking across Latin America, carried out over two years by InSight Crime in collaboration with American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. This investigation involved extensive fieldwork in Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and Peru, during which we interviewed dozens of government officials, members of security forces, academics, smugglers, landowners and local residents, among others. Read the entire series here.

Indigenous Leaders Slain in Peru Amid Pandemic

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he amazon region of Madre de Dios -- a hotspot for illegal gold mining and the site of a recent murder of an Indigenous environmental activist

Four Indigenous leaders in Peru’s Amazon have been murdered since the government declared a state of emergency over COVID-19, revealing how their opposition to illegal logging, mining and drug trafficking leaves them continuously exposed when focus is elsewhere.

On September 11, the body of Roberto Carlos Pacheco Villanueva was discovered in Madre de Dios, an Amazon forest region where he and his father had long fought vast illegal gold mining. The latest threat on his life came in April, according to a tweet by the account of Peru’s National Coordinator of Human Rights (Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos – CNDDHH), “but authorities did very little to protect him.”

Pacheco’s slaying was the fourth of an Indigenous leader in the seven months since the nation declared a state of emergency and lockdown in March to combat the coronavirus. The government recently prolonged the lockdown until the end of September in some of the worst-affected areas, AFP reported.

SEE ALSO: Peru News and Profile

Lorenzo Wampagkit Yamil, who served for eight years a land defender in the Chayu Nain reserve, was killed in July. Gonzalo Pio Flores, head of the asháninka ethnic group, was murdered in May.

In April, Arbildo Meléndez Grandes, head of the indigenous Unipacuyacu community, was shot dead in Puerto Inca. Meléndez Grandes had long sought the title to tribe’s lands, which borders Ucayali y Huánuco, and fought illegal activity there.

Land in remote areas around Puerto Inca is invaded for the cultivation of illegal coca, said Sandra Jesús Olivera Lara, legal advisor to the Aidesep Ucayali Regional Organization (Organización Regional Aidesep Ucayali – ORAU) on the Meléndez Grandes case.

“The central axis of this case is land trafficking and drug trafficking,” she told environmental news outlet Mongabay.

InSight Crime Analysis

The recent killings of Peru Indigenous leaders raise concerns that the pandemic has left them even more vulnerable to attacks by criminal groups.

Twenty environmental activists have been killed in Peru since 2013, of whom 12 were Indigenous leaders in the Amazon region, according to OjoPúblico, citing data from the CNDDHH.

The last time this many activists were killed in a year was in 2014, when five were murdered. Four were gunned down on their way to a meeting about illegal logging, in a massacre that caused international outrage. During the next five years, just two Indigenous leaders were killed, according to OjoPúblico,

SEE ALSO: Peru Running Out of Ideas to Stop Illegal Mining in Madre de Dios

No convictions have been secured for any of the 12 murders, though prosecutors have charged five men in the timber industry in the 2014 massacre. A key witness in one of the cases was even murdered in 2018.

September’s brazen assassination of Pacheco Villanueva in Madre de Dios indicates that illegal gold mining remains as entrenched as ever there, even after the government’s massive military efforts to drive miners out last year. Miners recently returned to the Amazon region, emboldened by weak controls and soaring gold prices.

The country in Latin America most afflicted by the deaths of social leaders is neighboring Colombia, which saw a staggering 872 killings between January 2016 and September 2019. According to the Bogotá-based Institute of Studies for Development and Peace (Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz – INDEPAZ), the nation has already seen approximately 214 social leaders and human rights defenders killed this year alone.

Yucca Cacti Theft Illuminates Mexico’s Hidden Plant Trafficking Problem

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Yucca cactus theft accelerates in Mexico's state of Baja California

Theft of yucca cacti from indigenous communities in Mexico’s northwestern state of Baja California for export is reportedly accelerating, underscoring the silent issue of plant trafficking in the country.

Indigenous communities in the municipality of Ensenada have raised alarm about the continuing theft of yucca, a plant on which they are economically reliant, from reserves, according to El Universal. Representatives of the Kumiai, Cucapás, Kiliwas and Paipai communities met with federal officials to report the systematic plundering of yucca allegedly carried out by armed “mafias” for years and sold illegally in the port of Ensenada at greatly lowered prices.

The Kiliwas chief and representative at the meetings, Elías Espinoza Álvarez, stated that the community sells yucca at $450 a ton for use in a number of industries but that the thieves sell it on at just $100 a ton.

SEE ALSO: Coronavirus Has Not Slowed Looting of Latin America’s Maritime Species

It was announced by federal authorities that a permanent checkpoint would be set up in the area to be manned by National Guard troops and police in order to stop trucks carrying yucca out of the Indigenous reserve. To date, however, this checkpoint has still not been established. Furthermore, the Kiliwas claim their community has set up patrols in the past to no avail, since captured thieves are allegedly quickly released without charge by public prosecutors.

While yucca theft has not been widely reported on in Mexico, it is not a new phenomenon. The Federal Prosecutor’s Office for Environmental Protection (Procuraduría Federal de Protección al Ambiente – PROFEPA) has tracked numerous seizures of illegally cut yucca in the municipality of Ensenada over the years. In 2016 alone, it reported a total 71 tons of yucca (28 tons in April, 6 tons and 11 tons in October and 26 tons in December).

But according to Espinoza, the problem has only worsened since 2018, the same year that the legal global trade in medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPs) reached a record-high of $3.3 billion, having almost tripled in two decades.

InSight Crime Analysis

The smuggling of Mexican cacti is a multimillion-dollar industry, leading some conservationists to rank cacti “just below drugs and guns as the most popular goods smuggled out of Mexico.”

While this is probably an exaggeration, it does attest to the relative importance of illegal plant trafficking, which is often ovoerlooked in Mexico when compared to the trafficking of wildlife such as totoaba fish, sea cucumbers and crocodiles. But conservationists argue the illicit trade in flora can be just as environmentally harmful as that of fauna.

Most cacti grow extremely slowly and are near-exclusive to the Americas, creating an imbalance between surging global demand and limited regional supply. As with other commodities, this imbalance significantly raises their monetary value, creating an incentive for smugglers.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Environmental Crime

Yet while the smuggling of cacti, including yucca, often seems to be structured, it is unlikely to be the work of sophisticated criminal groups. Dr. Tanya Wyatt, a professor of criminology at Northumbria University in the UK, Mexico’s illegal wildlife trade displays “limited evidence of widespread involvement of organized crime.” That is not to say, however, that “these groups would not move into trafficking of yucca or other plants when the risk is low and the profits are high,” she told InSight Crime.

This idea has precedent. For example, the Sinaloa Cartel and Juarez Cartel have in recent years become involved in illegal logging in Chihuahua, using their territorial control to profit from a secondary industry besides drug trafficking.

Similarly, the municipality of Ensenada, from where the yucca is stolen and smuggled, serves both as a drug trafficking hub — due to its strategic proximity to Tijuana and the US border, as well as its importance as a maritime nexus — and fertile terrain for poppy and marijuana plantations. As a result, both the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación — CJNG) have a presence in the municipality.

Costa Rica Boosts Plan to Track Vessels, Combat Illegal Fishing

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Costa Rica is providing satellite information on its fleets to combat illegal fishing

By providing satellite data on its fleets, Costa Rica is the latest country in Latin America to take on illegal fishing, which costs billions of dollars and taxes already over-exploited waters.

In July, the Costa Rican Institute for Fisheries and Aquaculture (INCOPESCA) signed an agreement to make its vessel tracking data publicly available through Global Fishing Watch (GFW), a partnership between international conservation group Oceana, satellite technology company SkyTruth, and Google. The process — completed in August — makes Costa Rica fourth Latin American country to openly share vessel monitoring data with the organization, which tracks vessels on a publicly accessible map. PanamaChile and Peru began sharing information with GFW in 2019. Indonesia was the first nation to do so.

The information, published with a 72-hour delay, aims to reduce illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Data is collected from the government’s Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) and through the Automatic Identification System (AIS), a mandatory navigational system for large boats that relays their locations to nearby vessels and coastal authorities.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Environmental Crime

The data is then used to create a near real-time map of fleets, with the aim of identifying commercial fishing vessels entering protected areas and ships that are carrying out illegal fishing operations.

The effort is not Costa Rica’s first attempt at protecting its waters. In 2015, the country’s National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC) and the Turtle Island Restoration Network launched a drone surveillance system to curb poaching and illegal fishing.

Costa Rica’s fisheries agency estimated that between 80 and 100 vessels use large illegal nets in the Pacific’s Gulf of Nicoya, capturing young fish. And the Cocos Island National Park, 550 kilometers from the mainland, has also been a constant target for illegal fishing.

According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, IUU fishing worldwide represents losses of between $10 to 23 billion each year. Aside from harming the environment and endangering marine species, such fishing also threatens the livelihoods of coastal communities.

InSight Crime Analysis

The latest move by the Costa Rican government to stop illegal fishing will hopefully add momentum to efforts to have other Latin American governments to do the same.

An increase in the transparency of ships’ activity at sea can lead to a decline in IUU fishing, according to Mónica Espinoza, Global Fishing Watch’s regional manager for Latin America.

“Since the new monitoring system collects information on the vessel’s movement and activities, and can even distinguish if the monitoring systems have been turned off, it becomes much easier for GFW and authorities to detect illegal fishing activities,” Espinoza told InSight Crime.

SEE ALSO: Illegal Fishing Threatens Food Security in Bolívar, Colombia

At a global level, transparency in fishing operations is crucial. The Environmental Justice Foundation told InSight Crime in an email that “illegal operators are at low risk of capture and sanction by control authorities” because of the “challenges uncovering a vessel’s illegal activities, both current and past.”

While not part of the agreement, several other countries in the region are making headway as well. Countries like Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile publish data about fishing licenses and authorizations.

Earlier this year, Ecuador’s government approved a law increasing surveillance over its waters. Additionally, the Global Initiative against Organized Crime’s IUU Fishing Index lists Belize among the top ten countries with the best practices in combating illegal fishing.

But others have foundered. In Colombia, authorities have continuously failed to stop vessels from entering the Malpelo reserve on its Pacific coast. In Mexico, the fishing of totoaba — a type of drum that is banned from international trade but commonly poached off the Gulf of California —  has driven the vaquita porpoise to the brink of extinction.

Efforts by Latin American countries to combat illegal fishing are also made difficult by foreign fleets — exemplified by the continued presence of 340 Chinese ships near Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands.

Brand-Name Coronavirus Drug Appears in Venezuela’s Black Market

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A couple arrested after soldiers found they were smuggling pharmaceuticals, including the coronavirus drug remdesivir

A black market for an antiviral drug used to treat coronavirus has emerged in Venezuela, revealing that even expensive, lifesaving medicines are fuelling the lucrative illegal trade.

Remdesivir — the first drug shown to be effective against COVID-19 — was being sold by a doctor for $800 a vial to patients at Ciudad Hospitalaria Enrique Tejera, a hospital in the city of Valencia, Attorney General Tarek William Saab alleged in a Sept. 9 news conference.

The doctor — a Colombian national — was arrested and charged with soliciting bribes, contraband and illicit association, Globovisión reported.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profile

He allegedly told patients’ family members that while the hospital had no “medical resources,” he could procure them the vials of remdesivir, which the Ministry of Health offers “for free,” Saab said.

The doctor is also accused of working with private pharmacies to sell medicine stolen from the hospital, whose director is also under investigation to determine whether he took part in the scheme, Saab said. Colombia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the arrest of the doctor arbitrary and asked that his physical integrity be respected.

On September 8, in the town of Clarines, about 250 kilometers east of Caracas, soldiers with the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana — GNB)  stopped a pick-up truck, in which two people were smuggling 500 injections of remdesivir, Ultimas Noticias reported.

And three days later, on September 11, Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional – SEBIN) agents raided two pharmacies in which government health officials were allegedly involved in the selling of coronavirus medications, El Pitazo reported.

InSight Crime Analysis

While low-cost, unproven drugs like hydroxychloroquine have been smuggled in Latin America amid the pandemic, remdesivir appears to be the first high-cost, brand-name and likely effective medicine to enter the black market.

Remdesivir — manufactured by US pharmaceutical giant Gilead Sciences and originally produced to treat Ebola — is the only treatment so far shown to speed recovery in severely ill coronavirus patients. Gilead has set the sale price of the drug for governments “of developed countries” at $390 a vial, meaning that a typical five-day treatment of six vials costs $2,340, Gilead Chairman Daniel O’Day said in a statement.

Due to the health crisis, the company has also allowed remdesivir to be manufactured generically and sold to 127 countries, nearly all “low-income or middle-income,” according to a company press release. Venezuela, however, was not among the countries listed in the distribution agreement.

Despite Gilead’s attempt to make the treatment widely available, remdesivir shortages have spurred black market sales.

SEE ALSO: Brazil Smuggles In Hydroxychloroquine Amid Coronavirus Despair

In India, for example, police arrested 14 people who sold locally made doses high above the maximum retail price, Reuters reported. The drug is available generically there for about $64 a vial, according to CNBC. The Mumbai ring involved hospital and pharmacy staff, as well as nurses, according to CBS News, which interviewed a man who paid about $3,200 for a full course of treatment. The remdesivir cost him about $533 for each dose, which his son sought out after doctors had told him to find his own supply because the hospital had run out.

In Latin America, no drug manufacturer is licensed to produce remedisivir. Only Cuba, Guyana, Suriname and several Central American countries are part of the agreement to buy it generically. This means that black market remdisivir is all but guaranteed to be immensely profitable in South American countries that already have thriving contraband and counterfeit medicine trades, such as Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil.

In Venezuela, the country’s failing medical system — which was already struggling prior to the pandemic — has also likely spurred demand for illegal medicine.

According to Argentine news outlet Clarín, patients have thronged hospitals only to not receive care because of a lack of beds. Tests are scarce and can take 20 days to receive results. Gloves, masks and alcohol sanitizer are in short supply, and 90 percent of hospitals are without even soap and water, Douglas León Natera, director of Venezuela’s Medical Federation, told the news outlet La Prensa de Lara.

It is unclear how much the doctor who was selling the Remdesivir for $800 a dose in Venezuela profited from the scheme; the sum is a fortune for average Venezuelans, though within reach of wealthier people.

Human Smugglers Continue to Cash In on Haitian Migrants

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Bolivian police and medical staff attend to Haitian migrants

A sophisticated human smuggling ring that illegally moved migrants from Haiti across a number of Latin American countries into Chile shows that the Caribbean nation’s crisis remains a gold mine for criminal gangs.

In August, Bolivian authorities caught and deported at least 142 Haitian migrants, while at least 22 more were arrested in Chile. In September, both countries initiated an investigation and have since moved against the alleged people smugglers. Bolivian authorities arrested three Haitian nationals with legal residency suspected of partially organizing the scheme, as well as Bolivian drivers who transported the migrants, according to BioBio Chile citing the Attorney General’s Office.

At a September 5 press conference, Bolivian Interior Minister Arturo Murillo said that the network is an “international gang and … we will pass on information to our partners in other countries to get to the bottom of this problem.”

SEE ALSO: Chile News and Profile

The full international dimension of the problem soon became apparent. The Haitians were apparently first crossing into the Dominican Republic, where they were taken on flights to Guyana and then moved through Brazil and Bolivia into Chile, according to the BBC.

The scheme was lucrative. Chilean media reported that the migrants had to pay $3,000 a head just to leave Haiti, with more costs piling up along the way as they moved through different countries.

The number of migrants caught is likely far from the real total. Chile’s former foreign minister, Heraldo Muñoz (2014-2018), stated that the increase in Haitian migrants had been seen for years.

“Companies in Port-au-Prince are dedicated to getting Haitians to sell their house, to sell everything they have, to pay $3,000 dollars in exchange for a job contract in Chile and a plane ticket,” he told the BBC.

InSight Crime Analysis

Despite being the poorest country per capita in the Western Hemisphere, according to the World Bank, Haiti’s political, security and economic crisis has lined the pockets of criminal gangs. And Chile has been a destination of choice, given its friendlier stance on migration and perceived economic opportunities.

In 2018, it was estimated by the country’s border police that as much as one percent of the Haitian population, or 105,000 people, had migrated to Chile. At the time, Chile’s investigative police (Policía de Investigaciones – PDI) stated that human smugglers bringing Haitians to Chile were making 160 million Chilean pesos (over $200,000) a week. To get around a rule requiring them to prove they had the means to support themselves in the country, Haitian migrants showed their bank accounts were well-stocked before emptying them to pay the traffickers once in the country.

But that same year, Chile tightened migration requirements, eliminating a temporary work visa that many migrants from Haiti, Venezuela and other countries had used to enter. Deportations soon followed and the number of migrants staying in the country also fell.

SEE ALSO: Human Trafficking Complaints Rise by 500 Percent in Chile

But this has not stemmed the problem entirely. Migrants continue to pay thousands of dollars to criminal gangs, despite Chile having significantly tightened its migration requirements. And while Bolivia caught 142 migrants in August, its government believes numbers have fallen significantly due to the coronavirus.

“Before the pandemic, it must have been much worse,” Marcel Rivas, Bolivia’s director of migration, told the BBC.

Other criminal economies have also benefited from the flow of people from Haiti, with migrants reportedly being used to carry drugs inside Chile. The Bolivian government has also claimed the Haitian migrants caught in August were connected to sex work and even organ trafficking, but has so far provided no evidence of this.

US Chemicals Help Fuel Mexico Drug Production: Report

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Mexican security forces seize a shipment of precursor chemicals used for drug production

Authorities in Mexico said they will look into the mass-scale diversion of chemicals from US companies to produce drugs that are trafficked over the border to feed consumers in the United States, further evidence crime groups are not reliant on Chinese precursors.

“It doesn’t matter if these are US companies. They can be from any part of the world, but we will not permit this,” Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced during his morning press conference September 7.

The comments followed a Bloomberg investigation published August 26 that uncovered how Mexico’s organized crime groups are sourcing precursor chemicals used to make heroin and the synthetic drug methamphetamine from US companies that supply the country’s legal market.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

A lack of oversight facilitates the problem. While drug-making chemicals are regulated by US and international law, “their reach often ends at the Mexican border for local subsidiaries of American companies,” Bloomberg found.

In one roughly two-year period, Bloomberg reported that thieves thought to be working for the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) stole at least 30,000 liters of monomethylamine — a central component in methamphetamine production — from the Mexican subsidiary of the Dallas-based Celanese Corp.

The Bloomberg report also linked one large May 2019 seizure of acetic anhydride — required alongside the sap from opium poppies to produce heroin — used by the Sinaloa Cartel for heroin production to Avantor Inc., a billion-dollar chemical manufacturing and distribution company headquartered in Pennsylvania.

Under US law, any significant losses must be reported to the Justice Department. Failing to do so is a federal crime. However, those requirements don’t apply to the Mexican subsidiaries of US companies. The supervision of chemicals often diverted for drug production is “effectively unregulated” in Mexico, according to Bloomberg.

Between 2010 and 2018, more than 142,000 people in the United States died from overdoses of both heroin and methamphetamine sourced primarily from Mexico.

InSight Crime Analysis

The United States has sought to thwart the flow of precursor chemicals from China used for drug production in Mexico. The east Asian country is the primary source for the majority of chemicals used to make synthetic drugs, especially fentanyl.

But in response to restrictions brought on by the coronavirus and increased regulations in China, Mexico’s crime groups have sought out alternative routes to obtain the chemicals and invented new chemical compounds entirely to skirt restrictions.

SEE ALSO: Mexico City Fentanyl Seizures May Point to Shifting Trafficking Trends

However, the role of US companies in facilitating drug production in Mexico complicates the situation. The Bloomberg report suggests that criminal groups have been able to count, at least partially, on domestic sourcing for precursor chemicals for years.

In addition to local manufacturers and Chinese and US companies, Mexican authorities have in years past also seized shipments of precursor chemicals sent to the country from South Korea, at times disguised among legal shipments of fertilizer.

Deaths Inside Venezuelan Prisons Doubled During Pandemic

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Inmates riot in Cabimas, Venezuela, in 2019

Inmate deaths have doubled in Venezuela’s jails during the coronavirus pandemic, a crisis that underscores how the country’s anarchic prisons foment violence and spread disease.

Between March and August of 2020, 287 prisoners died in prisons and police holding cells, a jump from the 137 during the same time period in 2019, according to data InSight Crime has been collecting on inmate deaths in Venezuela. The data was based on figures from two Venezuela-based non-governmental prisoners’ rights organizations, A Window to Liberty (Una Ventana a la Libertad – UVL) and the Venezuelan Prison Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones – OVP).

While Venezuela officials have not provided numbers on inmate deaths from coronavirus in prisons or case numbers, A Window to Liberty tallied 109 cases of coronavirus in police detention facilities in six states by early September, according to official numbers provided to the organization. That total is far below the number of cases reported from penitentiary systems in Peru and Colombia. These saw 12,294 and 2,592 cases respectively, in roughly the same time period, though both have larger prison populations than Venezuela.

The jump in the number of deaths in Venezuela’s prisons can’t be completely attributed to COVID-19; many inmates have died from other diseases or been killed in riots. But the arrival of the virus has clearly spurred already overcrowded, squalid prison conditions to deteriorate further, putting inmates health at risk, something which InSight Crime had warned about earlier this year.

Below, InSight Crime examines three key aspects of inmate fatalities during the pandemic.

1. More Deaths in Prisons Than in Police Stations 

While inmate deaths in police holding cells have ticked up when compared to the same period last year, deaths in prisons have skyrocketed.

During the period covered by InSight Crime’s review, 162 inmates have died inside prisons, up from 34 in 2019. In police cells, 125 detainees have died, compared to 103 in 2019.

Nearly a third of the prisoner deaths came in May, when 47 inmates were shot dead, reportedly by members of the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB), at Los Llanos penitentiary in Portuguesa. Inmates had crowded the prison entrance in protest of a lack of food due to pandemic conditions, and some reportedly were trying to escape when soldiers opened fire.

Besides violence, majority of deaths in prisons were attributed to tuberculosis, malnutrition and curable diseases left untreated, Carlos Nieto Palma, coordinator for UVL, which campaigns for prisoners’ rights in Venezuela, told InSight Crime. Deaths from tuberculosis — a bacterial infection that, like COVID-19, affects the lungs and is spread by coughing and sneezing — jumped from eight to 51, according to InSight Crime data. Forty prisoners died from malnutrition and other preventable diseases, when only eight did last year.

SEE ALSO: Coronavirus Unrest Sparks Surge in Riots in Latin America’s Prisons

In police holding cells, most prisoner deaths occurred when prisoners were allegedly attempting to escape. Designed to keep pre-trial detainees for up to 48 hours, police holding cells have become a parallel penitentiary system in Venezuela, holding thousands of people for long periods of time in overcrowded conditions.

Mass escape attempts from police stations amid growing anxiety over the disease have ended in bloodshed.

UVL and OVP recorded escape attempts from police stations in Venezuela every week of the pandemic, and InSight Crime counted 74 prisoners killed in jail breaks from police stations. UVL reported that 16 inmates reportedly died during an escape from one station in the state of Zulia.

“These deaths are clearly executions carried out by police against prisoners who have escaped from their cells,” said Nieto Palma.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela Prison Implodes Under Additional Strain from Coronavirus

2. Families Keep Their Loved Ones Alive

The sudden suspension of family visits left inmates unable to subsist, with a lack of food blamed for major riots.

“Families take care of prisoners in Venezuela. In both prisons and police stations, they are in charge of taking food or medicine when they’re sick. Authorities do absolutely nothing for this,” Nieto Palma said.

While the decision to suspend visits was correct to stop an outbreak, there was no protocol on how to carry it out, Carolina Girón, director of OVP, told InSight Crime.

“Since the State cannot provide enough water, food and sanitary products, relatives must be allowed to bring needed items to the entrance of the prison for the staff to deliver them to the right people,” Girón said.

Meanwhile, families who have managed to deliver food and other goods to the prisons have had to bribe guards, Girón said. Food often doesn’t reach prisoners also. Inmates told Reuters after the massacre in Los Llanos prison that guards were stealing the little food that was making it behind bars.

“Inside the prison, you pay for everything, to live, to eat, to sleep, to drink water. Prisoners often have to pay twice, once to the guards, and once to the gang leaders inside prison,” Girón said.

3. Deaths Vary By Region

The prison riot in which 47 prisoners were shot and 75 others injured turned Los Llanos into the deadliest prison in Venezuela during the pandemic. Portuguesa state, where Los Llanos is located, only had one other death reported in state facilities, when an inmate at a juvenile detention center died at a hospital amid surgery after reporting severe stomach pain.

While it has no prisons, the state of Zulia tallied 45 inmate deaths in five police stations. The central police facility in San Carlos del Zulia accounted for most of these, with 20. Repeated attempts to capture 84 prisoners after a mass breakout from that police facility in March has left 18 prisoners dead. The escape was allegedly ordered by prison bosses after two inmates died of tuberculosis and nutrition.

Carabobo state followed with 37 dead, including 26 of tuberculosis and malnutrition in prisons, and the rest killed in clashes with guards or when allegedly trying to escape.

The state of Lara saw 36 prisoners die, with 26 dying in prison of malnutrition and tuberculosis, while 10 died in police stations.

InSight Crime’s research suggests that when visits were suspended in prisons in April, deaths shot up across the country. It is unknown to what extent the coronavirus has spread inside Venezuelan prisons, but it is unlikely the government would have the means to stop outbreaks, though over 2,000 prisoners have already been released, and there have been attempts to disinfect prisons.

With no plans announced to resume visits by families and no announcements of more supplies for prisons, deaths are likely to continue to mount.

“A malnourished person is more likely to succumb to any disease,” Girón said.