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Illegal timber and drug trafficking are closely linked in northeastern Honduras, a major cocaine corridor in this region. There, criminal groups have savvily combined these two businesses to maximize their illicit profits.

Although the town of Dulce Nombre de Culmí is nestled in the mountains of northeastern Honduras, the town has a gritty, lived-in feel. A well-maintained Franciscan church acts as a reminder of local priorities, and on Mondays, the streets surrounding the central plaza are bustling with commerce. Food and clothing stalls crowd the sidewalks, while farm and construction equipment are sold indoors.

But to understand what makes this town really tick, one needs to look at the nearby forests of pine, mahogany and cedar. They feed a timber trade that was worth around $60-80 million between 2016 and 2018 in Honduras. But environmental agencies in Honduras warn that 50-60 percent of this trade comes from illegal logging, much of it from the country’s northeastern natural reserves where drug trafficking has also found a home.

*This article is the result of research on eco-trafficking in the region done in conjunction with American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS).

Culmí, as the locals call it, is the last settlement before entering the Río Plátano Biosphere, a protected forest in which drug trafficking and illegal logging have literally crossed paths for more than a decade. To the south lies the city of Catacamas, an obligatory stop to get to rest of the country. To the north, the forest hides clandestine smuggling routes to the barren spaces of Honduras’ Atlantic Coast, on the border with Nicaragua.

The mountains and plains surrounding Culmí are dotted with clandestine airstrips, many built during the drug boom a decade ago. In 2007, Honduras’ civil aviation authority counted at least 100 clandestine airstrips in Olancho, the department where Catacamas and Culmí are located. In 2014, the government of President Juan Orlando Hernández claimed to have destroyed 75 clandestine airstrips nationwide.

Santos Orellana, a Honduran army captain who was part of an anti-narcotics task force from 2012 to 2016, said Olancho had at least 300 airstrips, while he was in the government. They had almost all been carved from the dense forests in the area. The wood was then sold to timber traffickers as well as drug trafficking groups.

SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profile

To be sure, in Olancho, Yoro and Gracias a Dios—three departments all renowned for their timber production—drug trafficking groups are known to double-dip in timber trafficking. Orellana, as well as four other Honduran officials, including prosecutors and members of the forestry authority who InSight Crime spoke to on condition of anonymity, all said that cross-over between the two illegal industries was common.

At least three large drug trafficking groups in this region engaged in illegal logging, they said. Each criminal economy complements the other, they added. First, groups of farmers, often migrants from the poorest areas of southern Honduras, settle in unpopulated lands in and around the Río Plátano Biosphere. There, they harvest wood illegally, often with protection from corrupt officials and politicians, as well as support from drug trafficking groups.

The wood is usually cut without securing official permission from Honduras’ Institute of Forest Conservation of Honduras (ICF). It is then combined with legal shipments, mostly at the saw mills, either by falsifying logging permits or bribing police responsible for monitoring timber transport. It then mostly helps satisfy local markets.

Meanwhile, illegally harvested precious woods, such as mahogany and cedar, usually head north along clandestine routes to the department of Gracias a Dios, and from there to processing hubs such as La Ceiba. These are the same routes that drug shipments travel along. One of the most prominent leads to remote areas near the Honduras – Nicaraguan border.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Eco-Trafficking

“There is a clandestine road from Culmí to Tahuaca, on the border with Nicaragua, which belongs to these drug traffickers,” said Fausto Mejía, director of Independent Forest Monitoring, an NGO which was formerly attached to Honduras’ Human Rights Ombudsman and now regularly reports on illegal logging in the country. “Access to such clandestine roads is blocked with chains and padlocks, controlled by drug gangs in the area.”

Local sources and researchers in Tegucigalpa and Catacamas said that logging remains a secondary business interest for drug traffickers. They are primarily interested in seizing remote lands to build airstrips to move drugs. “This is why they take over space in the forest,” a former environmental prosecutor in Tegucigalpa, who requested anonymity, commented.

The drugs arriving by plane are then shipped out on “pipantes,” long, flat boats used for river navigation, often hidden among the timber. These joint cargoes travel for hours along the Patuca and Tawahka rivers and are then moved by mules along remote trails until they reach the clandestine roads controlled by drug traffickers, who rule as uncontested lords of the forest.

*This article is the result of research on eco-trafficking in the region done in conjunction with American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS).

 

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