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Guatemala's Parks Lie in Path of Drug Traffickers

(Soundbite of birds)


Adventurous tourists know the Peten region in northern Guatemala for its spectacular Mayan temples and the occasional scarlet macaw sighting. But visiting hikers and naturalists may not know that the regions wildness has created a haven for drug traffickers. According to the State Department, remote jungles and long un-patrolled borders with Mexico make Peten an ideal smuggling route for Columbian cocaine destined for the United States.


NPR's John Burnett reports that Guatemala has now launched an offensive to take back the Peten from drug lords.

JOHN BURNETT: We're speeding up the rushing Usumacinta River in a converted fishing boat with a machine gun bolted to the bow. In the past 10 months, as part of the campaign to reclaim the Peten, the interior ministry has appointed a vice minister to combat drug trafficking here. The Guatemalan army has destroyed dozens of clandestine landing strips, established military garrisons, and put gunboats on the boundary waters of the Usumacinta. The United States provides limited assistance, such as military spare parts and intelligence sharing.

The commander of the army taskforce here is Colonel Rodrigo. He won't give his last name for security reasons.

Colonel RODRIGO (Commander, Army Taskforce) (Through translator) On the right side is Guatemala, on the left is Mexico, and that's what facilitates drug smuggling. Airplanes pass overhead, drop their loads, and community boats retrieve them and unload on the Mexican side. The boatmen consider themselves lucky when they get this work because it pays very well.

BURNETT: Guatemalan authorities are concerned about new alliances between drug traffickers and campesinos. For years, peasants desperate for arable land have invaded national parks to burn forest and plant corn. But in recent years, drug lords have moved in too. They buy land cleared by campesinos, put in landing strips, then hire the peasants to provide security for drug shipments. Some loads are dropped in the river, others move across the land border.


The activity has become so brazen, this year corrupt public officials were discovered selling drug traffickers large acreage within park boundaries. Colonel Rodrigo says the smugglers have infiltrated more than 20 villages and they're hastening the destruction of great expanses of forest. Officials estimate the two largest national parks bordering Mexico, the Laguna del Tigre and the Sierra Lacandon, are losing about 45 square miles to land invaders every year, or nearly two percent of their area.

Col. RODRIGO:(Through translator) The situation has changed. It's no longer a struggle for land to survive. Conditions are totally different. If we don't succeed in maintaining the governability of the place, the results could be catastrophic as they clear-cut the park.

BURNETT: About an hour up river, our two gunboats nose up to a dock at clearing in the forest. Three men reclining in hammocks rise to greet us. They're guards here at the Sierra Lacandon National Park.

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BURNETT: The setting is Eden-like. A mammoth saba(ph) tree soars overhead, luminous butterflies flit about, wild ginger plants are in bloom, and howler monkeys hang from high branches. Far beyond the forest edge - we can't see it from here - parkland has been slashed and burned and bulldozed for landing strips. The hulks of at least 80 crash-landed drug planes lie rusting in the torpor.

A park ranger, Carmelino Lima, tells the colonel, they're powerless to stop land invasions because they're only armed with machetes. Increasingly, campesinos carry AK47s supplied by traffickers. The colonel answers that the army plans to reinforce the ranger stations with soldiers.

Mr. CARMELINO LIMA (Park Ranger): (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: In the past 10 years, drug money has steadily undermined Guatemala's weak judicial institutions. The country's anti-drug police were scandalized by the theft of tons of cocaine from an evidence warehouse and the arrest last November of the nation's top drug fighting official on cocaine smuggling charges. With the police widely perceived as corrupt and ineffectual, the country's drug war has largely fallen to the armed forces. U.S. human rights monitors have watched this trend with growing concern. The military was internationally condemned for its brutal counter-insurgency tactics during Guatemala's long civil war that ended 10 years ago.

Cesar Vinicio Montez(ph), director of the Peten's national protected areas, acknowledges the army's reputation in the past for massacring civilians. But he wonders, what are his options? His 400 park guards are threatened constantly.

Mr. CESAR VINICIO MONTEZ (Director, Peten's National Protected Area): (Through translator) What's happening in the parks is a national security problem. It's not a conservation problem. The only institution with the discipline and resources to confront this problem is the army. Perhaps through this task they can erase their discredited image.

(Soundbite of singing soldiers)

BURNETT: Inside the army's Subin Military Base in Peten, a squad of sweating soldiers, Israeli assault rifles slung over their shoulders, prepares to go on patrol. The army patrols have been welcomed by many residents in the untamed and sparsely populated Peten. But this appearance of law and order masks a deeper reality.

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BURNETT: In the frontier town of Sayaxche, cantinas line the street leading to the ferry that crosses the Rio Pasion. This settlement is known as the home of some of the Peten's biggest drug traffickers. Virgil Stoltzfus is the 38-year-old son of a missionary who lives in Sayaxche with his family. He has a road construction company, and he knows everyone in town, including the narcotrafficantes.

Mr. VIRGIL STOLTZFUS (Sayaxche Resident): See, they're the ones who throw the big parties. The rodeos are sponsored by them. I mean, if somebody is dying and needs an operation, they're the guys that will loan them the money to go get their operation. You know, when people have been kidnapped around here, they're the guys who will say, okay, we'll get you five or six guys, we'll go in and do the rescue, no problem. And they'll go in, they do the rescue, they'll kill the bad guys, and it's over. And...

BURNETT: And what do they want in return?

Mr. STOLTZFUS: Basically, they want acceptance. It helps them in a lot of ways. Because then you're not quite as quick to go rat on them - to, you know, give information out about them.

BURNETT: Colonel Rodrigo knows that in isolated regions neglected by central governments, that's where drug lords win hearts and minds. They do it in Columbia and now they're doing it in far-flung Peten villages by sponsoring clinics, schools, soccer teams, and paying salaries of $900 a month, a fantastic income for a peasant farmer.

Col. RODRIGO: (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: In the time of the armed conflict, it was an ideology. The guerillas said, when we are victorious we'll divide up the land. With the narco-traffickers, it is with acts, immediate gratification.

Six days after our visit to the national park ranger station in July, armed land invaders came in, burned every building and drove out the park guards. The guards returned two weeks ago under permanent army protection. What's more, the Counter Narcotics Taskforce has opened a new base in the town of Sayaxche.

John Burnett, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.