Inside Guatemala’s Animal Trafficking Trade

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“The great green macaw is extinct in the wild. It only exists in captivity now,” says Fernando Martinez, director of the ARCAS wildlife rescue center, as he walks amongst the cages of animals under his care. “It’s being killed by habitat destruction and illegal species trafficking.”

Guatemala is considered one of the most biologically diverse countries in the Americas, alongside Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela. It is home to 192 species of mammals, 486 types of birds and 27 species of amphibians.

Nevertheless, this diversity is threatened by trafficking networks in east and north Guatemala, which are focused on extracting wildlife for commercialization in Mexico, the United States, Spain, Holland and Australia.

This article originally appeared on Connectas and Soy502, with support from the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ). It was translated, edited, and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here.

One of the targets of these trafficking networks is the Ara macao species, commonly known as the scarlet macaw. Only 250 of these birds are left in Guatemala, according to a census by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

There is much foreign demand for the scarlet macaw, which can fetch up to $3,000 on the black market. They’re sold through agreements between distributors and buyers, or can be found easily on online retail pages or Facebook, said WCS experts.

Possessing a scarlet macaw is prohibited in Guatemala under its Protected Areas Law, which states that macaws can only be bought or used for research for conservation purposes, under the terms laid out by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES).

But for animal poachers, known locally as “guaqueros,” this law doesn’t exist. Guaqueros operate in multiple areas, and many are based in Guatemala’s northern Peten department, including the border areas with Mexico and Belize.

 

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A scarlet macaw in Guatemala’s ARCAS wildlife rescue center. The bird suffers from a condition that leads it to pluck out all its feathers, due to years spent in captivity. Photo by Alexis Batres for Soy502

 

Over the last decade, Guatemala’s wildlife trafficking police (known as DIPRONA, by its Spanish initials) has worked with the Public Ministry and the National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP) to rescue 23 scarlet macaws. Many were found in homes and very few en route to foreign markets. According to the WCS, this troubling, as it means that few people are being arrested even as the trafficking of the birds continues.

Guaqueros rob chicks from nests and raise them in hope of selling the birds to private collectors or other markets, WCS Geological Research director Rony Garcia explained.

“All of these macaws were being stolen in Pipiles [in Peten department], but this was stopped due to forest concessions and the protection of the Laguna del Tigre National Park,” Garcia said. “The presence of the army, DIPRONA and CONAP has helped, but the practice continues in other areas.”

According to Garcia, macaw population recovery will be slow as macaws can only have one chick per year. WCS is currently monitoring 40 nests, but does not have enough time and resources to cover all of Peten.

“Chicks are stolen in areas where DIPRONA is not present,” Garcia said. “That’s where the [trafficked] macaws are coming from. And where do they end up? How do they get there? Via the same routes you and I would use to go to the capital or to the border.”

Species in Demand

“This is the way many communities have made a living… they collect parrots to survive.”

There is also a peculiar demand for reptiles. According to Carlos Mansilla, wildlife technical director at CONAP, lizard species Heloderma horridum charlesbogerti — commonly known as the Guatemalan beaded lizard and the Montagua Valley beaded lizard, is a unique species native to Guatemala. It’s found in eastern Zacapa department’s dry forests.

People around the Cabañas municipality, in Zacapa, collect these lizards and sells them for around 200 Quetzals (US$26). Traffickers then sell the lizard in Holland and Australia for up to $2,000, CONAP said.

Other trafficked animals include iguanas, turtles, snakes, birds, and mammals like howler monkeys and spider monkeys. Ocelots, pumas and even jaguars have also been seized by authorities.

“Our exotic species are sold abroad illegally,” Mansilla said. “They go to private collections. As long as there is demand for our species there will be illegal sales of our animals.”

How the Trafficking Networks Operate

It all starts with someone in Peten looking to earn a few coins. They find a bird nest and steal the chicks, which don’t even know how to fly yet. The chicks are then taken to a distribution center in in the village of Sajpuy, in the municipality of San Andres in Peten, according to an anonymous source.

There the birds are handed over to individuals known locally as “picoperos.” Picoperos drive pickup trucks equipped with animal cages. They are the intermediaries with distributors who sell the birds to local markets or foreign buyers.

According to the source, picoperos directly negotiate with drug traffickers and use some of the same border crossings on which drugs and wood are shipped to Mexico. “That is the primary destination for those animals,” the source said.

Spider and howler monkeys are agile and hard to catch, so collectors often shoot at mothers so they’ll fall to the ground with their babies.

CONAPS’ Mansilla confirmed that picoperos are in direct contact with local communities. “The picopero talks with them, asking for animals, paying the bare minimum and then leaving the country with wood, drugs and exotic plants which they also traffic,” he said.

“This has been the way many communities in Cabañas [Zacapa department] and some near Sierra de las Minas [Jalapa department] have made a living,” Mansilla added. “They collect parrots to survive, but don’t know they can go to prison for up to 10 years if they’re caught trafficking these species.”

Many of the methods for capturing animals are extremely cruel. Spider and howler monkeys are agile and hard to catch, so collectors often shoot at mothers so they’ll fall to the ground with their babies. Many of the baby monkeys do not survive, Martinez of ARCAS explained.

Transportation Methods

There are diverse ways to transport animals, from boxes and cages with the animals in plain sight, to backpacks and vehicles with false bottoms. Some animals are drugged so they won’t make noise and be discovered.

In one instance, two small baby turtles were found inside a courier package during a customs check, performed by the Committee on Imports and Exports (CombexIm) in Aurora International Airport.

 

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A mother howler monkey with her baby in the ARCAS wildlife rescue center. Photo by Alexis Batres for Soy502

 

CONAP divides Guatemala into five regions, noting that 131 species have been seized in the central region, between the departments of Guatemala and Sacatepequez. In the east, there were 133 species seized; in the western region, 47, and in the northwest 24.

“We rescued capuchin monkeys, spider monkeys and howler monkeys, snakes, boas, macaws, parakeets and parrots. The birds are the preferred species in this business,” Mansilla said.

Local and International Routes

CONAP hypothesizes that the great majority of animals stolen from their natural habitats leave Guatemala and end up in the private collections of buyers who have paid a commission. Their primary point of exit is the Guatemalan-Mexico border.

CONAP officials have also have detected major movement on the border between Guatemala and Honduras in the east, and Guatemala’s other border with Mexico in the west. “We have a problem in the center with local markets,” Mansilla said. “But these areas have a lot of ongoing conflicts and require a lot of logistics in order to coordinate seizures.”

In Mexico, according to statistics from the Federal Prosecutor for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA, by its Spanish initials), roughly 5,744 exotic species were rescued between 2013 and 2014. The recoveries included 694 operations throughout Mexico and resulted in 94 people arrested for biodiversity crimes.

 

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The head of the ARCAS wildlife rescue center says the great green macaw is nearly extinct in the wild in Guatemala, due to animal trafficking. Photo by Alexis Batres for Soy502

 

PROFEPA deputy prosecutor Alejandro del Mazo told Mexican newspaper Milenio that organized crime was involved in the illegal trafficking of species. Del Mazo also noted there is a trafficking route — primarily used for moving wood out of Honduras — which runs through Guatemala, then Mexico, and then onward to black markets in China.

For its part, Honduras has reported there is an unquantifiable amount of trafficking in reptiles. There is also a large black market for sea turtles. Meanwhile, the Honduran Association of Animal and Environmental Protection (AHPRA by its Spanish initials) has denounced the trafficking of toucans, scarlet macaws, ocelots and spider monkeys.

Back in Guatemala, trafficked species are primarily moved along the CA-1 highway, which connects to the Atlantic Ocean and runs between the departments of Alta and Baja Verapaz. There is only one checkpoint along this highway, in Modesto Mendez, considered the border between Peten and Izabal departments. And even there, Martinez complains that controls are insufficient.

“Looking at the past 20 years, between 1995 and 2015, seizures have been declining, but trafficking is not declining. This is because checkpoints are either non-existent or don’t search sufficiently,” Martinez said.

Similarly, police wildlife trafficking division DIPRONA doesn’t have enough personnel to cover the whole country, according to Public Ministry prosecutor Aura Marina Lopez. “They are less than 400 of them. It doesn’t cover it,” she added.

According to DIPRONA, there are 381 agents throughout Guatemala who specialize in preventing environmental crimes. They operate primarily in routes also suspected of being used for exotic wood trafficking. As part of their strategy, there are members of the police and of DIPRONA at each checkpoint, ranging from five to ten agents.

Lopez also explained that there are a large number of cases and ongoing investigations against animal trafficking networks. “We’ve identified various international networks found within the country. That’s all I can say,” she said.

Map of trafficking routes through Guatemala

El Guarda

“El Guarda” is a market located in Zone 11 of Guatemala City. It’s known for offering contraband products from Mexico, stolen cellphones, clothes, and of course animals, primarily birds.

Here you can see small parakeets, caged parrots, macaws, and other exotic birds. Ocelots can occasionally be glimpsed, but less frequently, as they have typically already been purchased and are awaiting the arrival of their new owner.

Those in the market know the regulations and do not give prices unless a species is purchased directly in cash.

CONAP, the Public Ministry and associations like the Wildlife Conservation Society and wildlife conservation center ARCAS consider El Guarda one of the primary distribution centers for exotic animals.

The Public Ministry’s prosecutor has insisted that other contraband besides animals is sold here and large transactions conducted at the market are under investigation by authorities. “It’s very difficult to get in there,” the prosecutor said.

Combating Trafficking

The majority of animals at ARCAS’ rescue center were found in homes and have been domesticated, Martinez explained. “We have a jaguar that was brought in three years ago. It was a pet.”

Recently, the wildlife trafficking police and the Public Ministry alerted Martinez of a big operation. This led him to believe they had dismantled a criminal network focused on trafficking jaguars.

 

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Wood traffickers who find jaguars are known to hide them in their trucks and tranquilize them, to keep them from making noise as they are transported. Photo by Alexis Batres for Soy502

 

But no jaguars were involved. “We decommissioned wood and an ocelot,” Martinez said. “It was brought to the rescue center. The animal has been highly domesticated and is now in quarantine.”

The Prosecutor for Environmental Crimes said the wildlife trafficking police monitor different trafficking outes in the country, via checkpoints and mobile patrols. They detain suspicious vehicles and examine them.

Through these methods alone they detained 708 people for environmental crimes in 2014, seized 320 cars used in trafficking, four boats, three vans, 57 firearms and 235 chainsaws. The last items belonged to wood traffickers operating in the Mayan Biosphere reserve in northern Guatemala, police said.

To date, authorities have not been able to dismantle a single animal trafficking network and all current cases are for illegal possession of endangered species, Guatemala’s Prosecutor for Environmental Crimes said.

Authorities say they are doing their best to prevent species sold on the black market from leaving the country. Nevertheless, last April saw the dismantling of a massive customs fraud ring which allowed for the untaxed entry and exit of thousand of containers over four years. To date it is unknown what was transported with such liberty through Guatemalan customs.

This article originally appeared on Connectas and Soy502, with support from the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ). It was translated, edited, and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here.

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