Eco Trafficking Thrives Along Lawless Guatemala-Belize Border

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A poorly defined and lawless border region between Belize and Guatemala is proving to be fertile ground for eco-traffickers to further their criminal interests, underscoring how a lack of government control in such areas helps facilitate these crimes.

The business of trafficking prized natural resources like rosewood and colorful scarlet macaws is thriving in the Maya Biosphere Reserve that stretches across northern Guatemala and central Belize’s Chiquibul National Park. Citizens in this porous and sparsely patrolled border region lack viable economic opportunities and turn to illegal criminal activities to boost their incomes, Mongabay reported.

These criminal networks operating on both sides of the border — often with financiers in Asia — employ local farmers on the ground to smuggle fauna and flora from the region through Guatemala’s northwest border with Mexico or its northeast border with Belize, where smugglers look for gaps in security personnel.

The contraband is then moved using more powerful intermediaries and corrupt government officials through strategic ports in both countries before reaching its final destination, according to Mongabay.

SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profile

The main area affected by this illicit trade is identified as the so-called “adjacency zone,” a one-kilometer stretch of land on either side of the border. A long-running border dispute between the two countries stemming back to the 18th century has made it difficult for authorities to intervene, due to uncertainty regarding jurisdiction, leading to the “unchecked extraction of natural resources,” according to Mongabay.

While the region’s rosewood is often destined for places like Hong Kong in southeast Asia, the vibrant scarlet macaw parrots often end up in the hands of wealthy individuals in Mexico and Guatemala.

Authorities uncovered two scarlet macaws, for example, in the home of former Guatemala Vice President Roxana Baldetti. The parrots were likely obtained, according to Mongabay, through corrupt officials within the country’s National Council for Protected Areas (Consejo Nacional de Áreas Protegidas – CONAP).

However, authorities were unable to trace where the macaws came from, as the transaction was never documented, according to Aura Marina López Cifuentes of the environmental crimes division of Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office, underscoring how corruption facilitates eco-trafficking in the region.

InSight Crime Analysis

The inability of authorities to establish law and order along the Belize-Guatemala border underscores how a lack of state presence in such zones allows criminal groups to flourish and their criminal activities to continue unchecked.

Drug trafficking groups in Guatemala’s northernmost Petén department — home to the Maya Biosphere — have also taken advantage of the poorly secured border area. These groups have long burned large swathes of protected forest to create clandestine landing strips in order to move drug shipments coming from South America out of the country. More than 8,000 hectares of protected tropical forest were burned over the span of only a few months in 2016.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Eco Trafficking

A combination of loose border controls and official corruption also helps aid criminal activities in other parts of the region. In Paraguay, for example, illegal loggers rely on the country’s porous border with Brazil and corrupt police to traffic timber out of a nature reserve notorious for such criminal activity.

The family of former Paraguay President Horacio Cartes has long been accused of facilitating the flow of contraband cigarettes through the so-called “Tri-Border” region, a hotspot for illicit activity where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet.

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