Central America forest tribes fight cocaine trafficking “tsunami” – report

Tuesday, 18 March 2014 14:43 GMT

A family from the Embera tribe take their produce to market on the Tupiza river in Darien, Panama. Picture taken February 17, 2010, REUTERS/Alberto Lowe

Image Caption and Rights Information
Land rights and a steady income have given indigenous communities in Central America an incentive to resist attempts by cocaine smugglers to carve new routes to the U.S. market through their territory

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Mexican drug cartels seeking new routes into the lucrative U.S. market for shipments of cocaine have come up against resistance from forest tribes in Central America, according to an NGO in El Salvador.

Indigenous communities that have communal rights to their land have a strong incentive to keep out drug traffickers, who are clearing swathes of rainforest to build secret landing strips and roads to move cocaine northwards, a report by the Salvadoran Research Programme on Development and Environment (PRISMA) said.

“We’ve had to defend our territory from the invasion of narco-guerillas. The threat has become more evident during the last three to four years,” said Candido Mezua, a community leader who heads the Embera Wounaan General Congress, which includes some 10,000 people living in 41 communities.

“We’re vulnerable to the drug traffickers and we want to get rid of them,” said Mezua. The Embera Wounaan live along the jungle border straddling Panama and Colombia, athwart a prime cocaine smuggling route.

The PRISMA report cited the Embera among five indigenous communities living in the region’s rainforests, with rights to their land and an income from it, who are trying to stop the incursion of cocaine smugglers without using violence and weapons.

Like other rainforest tribes, the Emberas have set up community guard posts and patrols, told members to report intruders by mobile phone or radio, and  work with border police.

“We’ve organised our community so we can better control who enters our territory. We check strangers and ensure they don’t have guns. People need prior permission from us to enter our territory. When our people go hunting and notice foreigners in the area and footprints on the ground, they inform community leaders,” Mezua told Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from Mexico City.

The Emberas hope their young men can withstand the tempting offers of cash from drug traffickers by ensuring they have other ways of earning a living, such as selling cacao, traditional medicine, timber, and latex from rubber.

“We don’t want to have anything to do with drugs. We try to keep our youth away from the drug traffickers. As soon as we suspect someone is involved with them, we use our own laws to punish people,” Mezua said.


Researchers say Mexican drug cartels changed their routes after Mexico’s military crackdown on the drug trade began in 2006, turning to remote forest frontiers, notably in Guatemala and Honduras, taking advantage of their porous borders, sparse population and weak rule of law.

“For the past 40 years, U.S. policy has focused on keeping drugs out of the U.S. That focus has been a disaster,” said Kendra McSweeney, associate professor of geography at Ohio State University, who has spent over 20 years working in Honduras.

“It has moved drug traffickers around and pushed them into more remote areas like the forests of Central America. Forests are the latest victims of our drug dependency in the U.S.,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from Mexico City.

The annual rate of deforestation in Honduras linked to cocaine smuggling quadrupled between 2007 and 2011, according to McSweeney’s recent research.

Drug traffickers are also buying forest land, often by falsifying land titles and bribing officials, as a way to launder their drug profits through logging, cattle ranching and oil palm production.

“Drug traffickers are diversifying into agribusiness, which is also causing deforestation,” McSweeney said.

The PRISMA report also cites indigenous tribes in Guatemala’s Peten province, who live in the Maya biosphere nature reserve and have forest concessions. This allows them to earn a living by growing timber in community-run forests, which in turn helps them resist drug traffickers wanting to buy their land, it said.

In Honduras, the Garifuna people in Vallecito have confronted drug traffickers through public protests, the report said.

The common factor among most of the communities cited in the PRISMA report is that they have land rights and title deeds.

"Collective land rights are a key issue in Central America ... a powerful incentive to manage their territories actively and sustainably because defending land they own is a way to ensure the future of their children, and it’s essential for their survival," said Andrew Davis, senior researcher at PRISMA and co-author of the report.

"In forests with no ties to a well-organized community and where people have no rights to the forests, outsiders can enter at will and it’s difficult for communities to resist incursions,” he told Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from Mexico City.


Despite examples of forest tribes fighting back, many remain powerless in the face of drug traffickers brandishing guns and cash.

“It’s almost impossible for indigenous communities to resist the huge tsunami of drug trafficking when drug traffickers come in with wads of cash,which is a widespread problem in eastern Honduras and Peten in Guatemala,” said McSweeney.

 “It only takes one or two families to sell and the fundamental bond holding the community together is broken. Once a narco owns lands inside an indigenous community it is very vulnerable, and it becomes harder for communities to resist the economic coercion and violence.

“The ones who have resisted have had nominal state help. But often there is complete inaction by the state,” she said.

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.