LatAm’s Top 5 Criminal Industries that Damage the Environment

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As world leaders congregate in Paris to discuss how to address global climate change, InSight Crime highlights five criminal industries that are causing enormous environmental degradation in Latin America.

With climate talks underway in Paris, the world’s focus has once again turned to how to preserve the environment. While a highly daunting challenge in and of itself, in Latin America there is an added layer of complexity to confronting the issue: the region’s criminal networks, which are a major source of environmental harm via their illicit activities.

Below, InSight Crime lists five criminal industries that are depleting and degrading Latin America’s natural resources.

1. Illegal Logging – Amazon Rainforest

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Roughly 20 percent of the Amazon has been deforested in the last 40 years, and another 20 percent is in a state of degradation. Although deforestation in the Amazon is slowing, the rate at which the rainforest is losing trees is still among the world’s highest.

The illegal timber trade is a principal driver of deforestation in the Amazon. In Brazil, 80 percent of all logging is illegal, according to government estimates. Criminal networks involved in illegal logging are quick to protect their interests by threatening those who oppose them and by even imposing their own rule of law in these remote areas. According to the non-governmental organization Global Witness, no less than 448 environmentalists and land activists were killed between 2002 and 2013 in Brazil, with most cases related to logging. 

Illegal logging is big business for criminal groups in the Peruvian and Colombian Amazon region as well. In fact, authorities in Peru recently made the largest ever seizure of illegal timber in the northern jungle region of Loreto, confiscating 60 truckloads of contraband wood valued at nearly $500,000.

2. Cocaine Production – Colombia, Peru, Bolivia

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Almost every stage of the cocaine production process is environmentally hazardous. The most common form of environmental damage comes from the dumping of harmful chemicals used to process coca leaves (such as gasoline and acetone) directly into rivers and streams. In addition to major cocaine-producing regions such as Colombia’s Nariño department and Peru’s Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys (VRAEM), residents in Bolivia have complained recently of contaminated rivers as a result of cocaine production. 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Cocaine Production

Cocaine production is a huge revenue earner for criminal and insurgent groups in the region, such as the Shining Path in Peru and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Colombia. The FARC is estimated to make at least $200 million by taxing various links of the drug supply chain, including coca growers. 

3. Oil Theft – Mexico

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Criminal groups tapping oil pipelines poses obvious environmental risks. In early 2013, hundreds of liters of crude oil spilled into Mexico’s rivers following a series of clandestine taps targeting the pipelines of Pemex, the country’s state-owned oil company. More recently, Mexico’s San Juan river was severely contaminated as the result of illegal pipeline tapping in August 2014.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Oil Theft

The fragmentation of Mexico’s underworld has caused organized crime groups to diversify their criminal portfolio beyond drug trafficking, and oil theft has become a highly lucrative business. Pemex registered a 58 percent increase in the number of pipelines illegally tapped during the first quarter of 2015, with the highest concentration in areas that have a strong organized crime presence. The Zetas and the Gulf Cartel are believed to be two criminal groups deeply involved in oil theft. 

4. Informal Gold Mining – Peru, Colombia

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Illegal gold mines require the use of liquid mercury to separate the minerals from river sediment, causing serious environmental harm. The extent of the damage is so great that Colombia’s northern department of Antioquia, a hub of illegal gold mining activity, has been called the “world’s most polluted place by mercury.” (pdf) Cyanide is another harmful byproduct of gold mines that is often dumped into waterways; one river in Antioquia has been dubbed “La Cianurada” because of how much cyanide it contains. 

Guerrilla and narco-paramilitary groups have capitalized on illegal gold mining for years by charging miners what in Colombia is known as a “vaccination,” or extortion fee. However, Colombian authorities have told InSight Crime these groups eventually began to deepen their involvement by regulating the mines and using them to launder drug money. 

The illegal gold mining industry is also highly lucrative in Peru, where it is worth $3 billion per year, according to government officials. Here, the ties between organized crime and gold mining are more nebulous than in Colombia, but Peruvian security analyst Ruben Vargas has said the link between drug traffickers and illegal mining is “undeniable.”

5. Wildlife Trafficking – Regional

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Foreign demand for exotic animal species has made wildlife trafficking one of the most profitable criminal industries in Colombia, as well as various other parts of Latin America. China in particular has fueled smuggling of marine life such as Mexico?s totoaba fish, which is considered a delicacy and whose bladders can be sold for as much as $20,000.

Given these profits, it is hardly surprising criminal groups have swooped in to capitalize on the voracious demand for the region’s abundant and diverse wildlife. Criminal networks traffic rare birds in eastern and northern Guatemala, while as many as 300 Brazilian gangs are thought to be involved in stealing endangered species from the Amazon and selling them on the black market. 

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