"Narcotala," how drug cartels have infiltrated the forest industry in Chihuahua

EL UNIVERSAL visited areas affected by the illegal wood cutting in Chihuahua; locals face life threats, kidnappings, and assassinations

"Narcotala," how drug cartels have infiltrated the forest industry in Chihuahua
Woods in Chihuahua razed by drug trafficking gangs - Photo: Ariel Ojeda/EL UNIVERSAL
English 21/12/2017 10:17 Íñigo Arredondo Chihuahua Actualizada 14:02

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For Joaquín, forest producer of the Tarahumara mountain range, the lunch at noon of that March 29, 2015, had a smell of gunpowder. It was three months after his son, Carlos Benjamín, had fled the family ranch in Uruachi to move to the capital of the state, Chihuahua, because he'd refused to join the drug cartel in charge. It was one month after Carlos Benjamín, 18, had returned home after being unable to adapt to life in the city. It was a little over 28 days after Carlos Benjamín was shot in the head and killed by the same drug cartel on his way home. It was two days after members of the drug cartel broke into Joaquín to threaten him and after Joaquín filed a complaint at the capital.

There, grieving the loss of his son and thinking about the threats he had received, Joaquín was having lunch – corn tortillas and beans – at 12:30 when 50 armed men wearing goat horns surrounded his home and fired at him at will for the next seven hours.

“It was a rain of bullets. Shots flew everywhere, one after the other. There was a break in fire of two, three, five minutes and they'd go again...but from different directions,” says Joaquín, who hasn't been able to return to his land since that day because he fears for his own safety and because he has nothing left: “They set everything on fire.”

He explains organized crime started to arrive in full at the area by the end of 2014. “Seizing the land and, in some cases, forcing people to work with them...”

The common land where he lived was aimed for wood production, with permits granted by the local government. Joaquín says that since his exile, at least 200 out of the 100 people who lived in the area have left for the same reason. Organized crime stopped wood cutting production so all landowners could sell the wood to them.

“They use it for money laundering,” says Joaquín.

(Photo: Ariel Ojeda/EL UNIVERSAL)

Without their approval

“At present, organized crime is everywhere. They aren't only involved in growing crops for drugs and their distribution. Evidently, organized crime has also infiltrated the wood cutting industry. In this mountain range, everything is linked to organized crime,” says Isela González, director of the NGO Alianza Sierra Madre, a company which helps indigenous communities to defend their rights.

A civil association in Chihuahua found records of the complaints of indigenous communities extending all the way back to the 80's. In 1986, for instance, Julio Baldenegro – a Rarámuri leader – was shot to death by illegal loggers for protesting against them. Years later, his son, Isidro Baldenegro, took the mantle of his father's cause and was arrested after the police planted marijuana seeds and a gun on him after he stopped trucks carrying illegal wood. Over ten years of being released and less than one of being murdered, the mountain range is the witness of how its inhabitants have had to flee to feel safe.

Gabino Gómez, coordinator of missing people of the Women's Human Rights Center in Chihuahua explains displacement is an invisible problem. There are no numbers. He knows of entire communities which have emptied, of towns with 5,000 people where only 500 remain now.

Irma Villanueva Nájera, coordinator of the Executive Commission for Attention to Victims in Chihuahua has launched an investigation to determine the number of people displaced. They have so far identified 685 cases and estimate that 60% to 70% of the displaced have been victims of a crime – mainly the seizure of their lands to grown drugs, illegal wood-cutting activities, or because criminal gangs want their properties.

(Photo: Ariel Ojeda/EL UNIVERSAL)

From green to ochre

At the sides of the highway Bocoyna to Creel – in the Tarahumara Mountain Range – you can find white security booths which protect 60 hectares of woods. There, in the town of Bocoyna, a Federal decree ordered the protection of the breeding grounds. Yet there, in plain sight of everyone driving across the road, illegal loggers entered the region months ago, protected by armed men. At first, they only felled trees by night, then during the day. Then it didn't matter.

Satelite images reveal how this protected area, still visibly green between 2015 and 2016, has now turned an ochre color. A report of the National Forestry Commission of Chihuahua states that in 2015, the area of San Juanito – 10km away from the Federal reserve – suffered a production loss and lack of efficiency, referencing as main causes “illegal practices” and “insecurity.”

(Screenshot showing the area razed by illegal loggers - Image: Taken from an interactive graphic from EL UNIVERSAL)

Up to 100 trees per day

This area, which until 18 months ago was full of ancient trees covering the land, resembles more a war zone now. Traces of the fire set by the illegal loggers – a common practice used to cover their tracks – leaves only the charred remains of the trees.

Joel, a former forest ranger, says most of the illegal loggers are people from the area, forced into joining criminal gangs. He says these activities are usually quick and up to 100 trees per day can be felled and transported.

Most of the wood is sent to sawmills in San Juanito, some which are already under the control of organized crime, to legalize the origin of the raw material. Afterwards, they are sent to Guadalajara, Monterrey, and Aguascalientes.

A millionaire loss

According to the Federal Office for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA), 30% of the wood processed in Mexico is illegal – that is, 4 out of 10 trees felled do not have the authorization of the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT).

“An investigation launched by the IMCO (Mexican Institute for Competitiveness) estimates the value of illegal wood-cutting on MXN$2,650,000,000 (USD$137,941,940 approx.) per year. An amount which is equal to 2.7 times the estimate of the PROFEPA.