Los Angeles Times
July 9, 2008

Smugglers, poachers thrive in Guatemala's Peten

Illegal immigrants are ferried through this once unspoiled natural kingdom where drug traffickers land planes in fields carved from ancient forests. Even the trees aren't safe.

By Héctor Tobar
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

EL NARANJO, GUATEMALA Here in the Wild West of the Central American isthmus, tough hombres like "the Bald Guys" make mahogany trees disappear in the middle of the night. Here, "cattle ranch" cowboys wrangle cocaine that falls from the sky.

This is the Peten, for centuries a thinly populated frontier where jaguars ruled an unspoiled natural kingdom and the rainbow-colored scarlet macaw flew unmolested over towering Maya temples.

Now the jungle region is a lawless no man's land, prized by smugglers for its proximity to the lightly guarded border with Mexico and for the swamps and dense forest undergrowth that give them an advantage over the ragtag forces of law and order. It's a place where the immigration police have no guns, the park rangers have neither radios nor automobiles, and the Guatemalan air force can't see or chase the "kamikaze" cocaine-smuggling pilots.

Drug trafficking is the most profitable activity here, with the Peten serving as a key way station in a vast air-and-land route from Colombian coca fields to U.S. consumers. But many other illicit enterprises thrive too.

A recent journey to the Peten involved encounters with good guys and bad, including an undercover army colonel on a motorcycle and a happy-go-lucky migrant smuggler who feared no one.

Every working day, young boatman Juan Izquierdo ferries small groups of illegal immigrants into Mexico along the San Pedro River, one of several busy smuggling routes along the Mexico-Guatemala frontier.

Izquierdo helps his passengers avoid a nearby Mexican border post, their first serious obstacle on the long journey from Honduras, El Salvador and other Central American countries to the United States.

He charges them about $5 each, though for some reason a tourist like me must pay eight times as much for a round trip.

"Couldn't this get you in trouble?" I ask Izquierdo.

"No, nothing ever happens," he says with a slightly perplexed look that suggests no one has asked him that question before.

Izquierdo, in fact, has little to fear. The officers staffing the nearest Guatemalan immigration office, in the river port of El Naranjo, have no guns, no boats and just one vehicle. The post consists of a teetering shack overlooking the river.

Immigration agent Manuel Salguero points out a passing boat that appears to be ferrying immigrants and says, "To tell you the truth, all we do is watch them go by."

Even if they wanted to arrest the smugglers, they'd face one big obstacle: They have no holding cells.

Staff and equipment shortages are endemic to every law enforcement and military agency operating in the region, officials say. An overstretched army brigade of about 700 soldiers covers an area the size of Belgium. Guatemala's air force owns two helicopters and no tactical radar capable of detecting low-flying aircraft.

Last month, in response to the growing sense of lawlessness in the border regions, the Guatemalan government announced that it would dispatch 500 more federal police officers and soldiers to the Peten and other areas along the Mexican frontier later this year.

Large chunks of the Peten are ostensibly protected as national parks and nature reserves.

"The wood poachers have satellite telephones, and we don't even have two-way radios," says Claudia Mariela Lopez, regional director of the National Protected Areas Commission, which oversees the reserves.

Lopez has invited me to tour her domain, several hundred square miles of jungle, savanna and swamp intersected by unpaved roads. Her driver, a park ranger supervisor, manages to hit speeds of about 50 mph on scary, gravelly tracks, but never puts on his seat belt.

Our caravan includes the army colonel on the motorcycle, at least one other officer and a squad of soldiers with machine guns riding in the back of a pickup. The soldiers are there to protect the colonel, who is in disguise. He doesn't want the local criminals to realize a high-ranking officer is on an "intelligence mission" in their territory, so he wears jeans, sunglasses and a bandanna over his head.

Often, we stop when the road is overgrown with vines and tree branches, forcing our driver to hack open a path with a machete. When we arrive at the few ranger stations in the reserve, we encounter the sad sight of park rangers short on just about everything.

Guatemala's park rangers often go hungry for lack of food at their remote outposts.

"So, you don't have any supplies," Lopez says at one stop, a collection of hammocks underneath a precarious roof of rough-cut tree branches. The rangers have run out of beans, though they do have a few live chickens around.

"They didn't come this week, no, " one ranger answers.

Back in the capital, Guatemala City, 200 miles to the south, security officials think of the Peten as a vast "aerodrome" where planes of various sizes land on grassy fields carved out of the ancient forest by drug traffickers posing as cattle ranchers.

"The plane comes in, and they pick up the fences of the pasture and in an instant they have a landing strip," says a security analyst and former military official who speaks on condition of anonymity for fear of antagonizing Guatemala's powerful drug lords.

The planes unload in about 10 minutes, and get topped off with aviation fuel carried in pickup trucks, the analyst said.

About 40 clandestine strips and airfields are in operation in the Peten at any given moment, says a Guatemalan security official who asks not to be named because he is not authorized to speak publicly. The strips vary in length from 2,500 feet to about 4,500 feet.

"Those pilots come in low over the jungle, and we can't see them because our radar is blind under 400 meters," or about 1,300 feet, the official says. "They're real kamikazes."

To help fight the drug trade, the U.S. government lent Guatemala four helicopters in March as part of a $21-million aid package. A senior Guatemalan official said the helicopters are being flown by U.S. pilots because the Guatemalans lack the necessary training.

Drug traffickers have acquired thousands of acres in the region for their airstrips and transport operations, intimidating and buying out local farmers and communities, officials say.

North of Flores, the Peten capital, a criminal band known as Los Pelones, the Bald Guys, holds sway, according to federal and local officials. Unpaved roads run through here, among smoldering trees and brush set aflame by farmers. We enter a village where, the rangers inform me, the Bald Guys operate an illegal airstrip.

"There's no way to oppose them," one official says. "The only way you can come in here is with heavy weapons."

Soon we see two men on a motorcycle riding in the opposite direction. One of the men has a chain saw slung over his back. A park ranger tries calling one of the checkpoints down the road to alert the rangers there, but there is no cellphone service in that part of the jungle. And he has no radio.

The targets of the poachers are exotic woods in the jungle, especially the umbrella-shaped mahogany trees that rise from the landscape. Mahogany lumber brings the poachers a small bonanza -- the wood is prized for furniture and guitars. They cut roads in the jungle to skirt the ranger posts on the highways, then load up several trees on flatbed trucks for the journey to sawmills outside the region.

Marlon Hernandez, a ranger supervisor, says he was attacked this year by a mob of 200 people in the town of San Andres, north of Flores, when he and other rangers tried to arrest wood poachers.

"They would have killed us, but we ran away," Hernandez says. A prosecutor with the country's environmental crimes unit was wounded by gunfire during the attack. "We spent four hours in the mountains, hiding."

As we travel through the jungle, Hernandez lifts his shirt to reveal a revolver tucked into his pants. "It was thanks to this that I got away," he says.

But the money wood poachers make is small compared with the drug trade.

"The amounts of money they deal with are so large they can buy any politician, any judge, official or police officer," says Yuri Melini of the Center for Legal, Environmental and Social Action in Guatemala City.

Organized crime groups have bought the loyalty of large numbers of poor farmers who take over broad swaths of jungle as squatters, Melini says. The squatters present themselves as needy migrants from other regions of this overpopulated country and offer the drug dealers cover and protection.

These "narco cattle ranches" and "narco communities" have spread in ostensibly protected regions of the Peten, Melini says, wreaking havoc on an environment normally lush with towering canopies of trees, spider monkeys, river turtles and countless other flora and fauna.

The "farmers" level the mahogany and tropical cedar trees with power saws, and then set fire to the underbrush. Low-lying grasses quickly grow in the blackened soil, providing pasture for cattle and horses and flat landing strips for overloaded Cessnas.

The combined effects of deforestation and poaching have reduced the scarlet macaw population to just a few hundred; the bird's stunning plumage can fetch thousands of dollars on the black market.

But if such enterprises seem too dangerous, there is always migrant smuggling, a safer, if less lucrative, line of employment.

The seven passengers on Izquierdo's skiff look frightened as they cross into Mexico. All residents of the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula, they say they're headed for the United States and that they believe a Mexican freight train provides migrants with a free ride of 500 miles or more.

I tell them that the train is no longer running. Some of them turn to me with a look of despair, but a younger man in the back says defiantly: "I heard they started running again."

No matter. They plan to make their journey on foot, mostly, paying locals to escort them around the Mexican immigration checkpoints ahead.

"If we don't catch that [smuggler's] truck, we'll be walking for a week," one of the men shouts over the roar of the engine as the boat speeds westward.

Moments later, they are stepping onto a Mexican riverbank, leaving the verdant Peten behind them.

Izquierdo's boat pushes back into the water with me as his only passenger on the short return journey to Guatemala.

hector.tobar@latimes.com