The cartels in Mexico have discovered new business opportunities beyond drugs. Illegal deforestation has become a massive problem – especially on the US border.
More than an eight-hour drive from his village, Manolo is surrounded by a gray wall instead of trees. He had to leave behind his corn and bean fields, the cows, the goats, the donkeys, the herbs that help him when he is sick.
Manolo had vehemently opposed illegal logging. He opposed men who belong to organized crime when they came to his village in the Sierra Tarahumara with their chainsaws and trucks, he says dejectedly.
The largest trees would be felled there. As a result, it will no longer rain because there is no longer a forest, says Manolo, who does not want to give his real name for security reasons.
Anyone who resists will be threatened
Manolo demonstrated in Chihuahua and Mexico City so that the responsible authorities finally do something. And because he reported it, he is now being threatened. Two people close to him were killed by organized crime. He himself was kidnapped twice, others were shot at, and neighbors’ houses were set on fire.
For two years, Manolo has been living with around 30 other members of the indigenous Rarámuri ethnic group in two houses surrounded by high walls in Chihuahua, in the state of the same name in northern Mexico. He’s officially classified as an internally displaced person, which is why he’s getting state support, which he barely survives on.
Illegal deforestation has long existed in Mexico’s Sierra Tarahumara. But with organized crime, this business has taken on a new dimension in recent years.
“The state does nothing”
But in the end the state doesn’t do anything so that he can go back to his village, he says angrily. The authorities know exactly who the criminals are, “where they live, how they work – they know everything”.
Although local government officials publicly acknowledge the problem, no real action is being taken. On the contrary: the funds for reforestation have even been reduced.
According to data from the National Autonomous University of Mexico UNAM, in 2020 70 percent of the wood on the Mexican market was of illegal origin.
Illegal logging in the Sierra Tarahumara in northern Mexico has become a major problem for people and nature.
Drug cartels expand into the lumber business
Illegal logging has been going on in the region since the 1970s. With organized crime, however, this business has taken on a new dimension in recent years. The state of Chihuahua, which borders Texas in the United States, has historically been an important corridor for drug trafficking, dominated here by the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels.
Illegal deforestation has now become an additional business and a massive problem, explains Álvaro Salgado Ramírez of the non-governmental organization Siné-Comunarr.
He regularly travels to the mountains of the Sierra Tarahumara to advise and empower the Rarámuri in defending their land and autonomy. A big problem is the involvement of the local government in organized crime, says Ramírez. The mayors, the forest departments, the state and local governments are corrupt — though not all — Salgado says.
Dramatic consequences for the environment
If you let your gaze wander over the Sierra Tarahumara, there are large gaps between the densely overgrown pine forests. Deforestation is followed by slash and burn, leaving only charred tree stumps – an apocalyptic sight.
According to Salgado, illegal deforestation threatens the livelihood of the people in the Sierra Tarahumara, the flora and fauna, with dramatic consequences for people and nature. The hydrological cycle will be seriously affected and it will take decades to recover. The consequences are already noticeable: there is less and less water in the dams, and erosion is serious.
Salgado warns that the neighboring state of Sinaloa, where mainly fruit is grown for export to the USA, will also feel the effects. Some of the illegally felled pine wood is also exported to the USA, where it is mainly used in construction. Mexican companies made big profits with it.
Money laundering with timber business
More detailed investigations would have to be carried out in order to be able to present solid evidence. But you know where the wood stores are and which companies process the wood. “Some of them have been associated with excessive and abusive deforestation for many years, they are rich businessmen who have a lot of power,” says Salgado.
These powerful businessmen would corrupt the authorities to get permits. Illegal wood quickly becomes legal wood. That would make millions.
This is how organized crime launders its money. An anonymous contact close to the local government confirms that some shipments of wood are simply waved through. This happens regularly and is well known.
Manolo and some of his comrades-in-arms have filed a complaint several times. In one case they were even proved right. But that had no consequences. When or if Manolo will return to his village – he does not know.
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