Mexican crime gangs branching into illegal logging, researchers warn

by Christine Murray | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 22 April 2020 15:59 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A resident arranges pine logs near a saw mill in the town of Agua Bendita, Mexico, November 23, 2010. REUTERS/Henry Romero

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Young men from in northern Mexico kidnapped and forced to work in the logging sector, researchers find

By Christine Murray

MEXICO CITY, April 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Buyers of products made from Mexican wood may unknowingly be financing organized crime gangs, human trafficking and deforestation in an industry tainted by illegal logging, researchers said on Wednesday.

Criminal groups are increasingly involved in the illegal timber trade in the northern state of Chihuahua which borders the United States, according to a report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

Researchers said young men from mountainous parts of the state were sometimes kidnapped and forced to work as loggers, lookouts or sent to collect extortion payments.

"There are isolated communities that ... are the targets of these groups," said Diana Siller, director of the nonprofit group Jade and a co-author of the report, which was based on about 70 interviews and financed by the U.S. State Department.

"They go and they take their children," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "They don't give them a choice."

The research found that while many of the workers initially signed up willingly, some were later paid less than promised, or wages were withheld for weeks or months. Some laborers were threatened with death if they tried to leave, the report said.

DEFORESTATION, LAND THEFT

According to Mexico's Federal Prosecutors Office for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA), the amount of wood harvested illegally in Mexico is equivalent to about 30% of the legal industry.

An academic at UNAM university, Leticia Merino, estimates that 70% of the wood consumed in Mexico is illegal.

The report found that drug traffickers involved in illegal logging have also been associated with deforestation and land theft, which often affect marginalized indigenous groups.

Some indigenous people in Mexico have been forcibly displaced by violence or lack of economic opportunity, making them particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

By tracing the shipments of illegally sourced timber to sawmills, the researchers discovered it was sometimes being mixed in with legal wood.

Manufacturers in the city of Monterrey bought wood from the mills, using it to make goods including furniture and broomsticks, without doing due diligence about its origin. The products were sometimes exported to the United States.

The lax oversight of illegal wood should be tightened with strengthened labor inspections, due diligence on government supply chains and properly resourced and trained bodies to enforce regulations, the group recommended.

Mexico's PROFEPA did not respond to a request for comment.

Authorities have closed down sawmills and wood collection points in Chihuahua, but Siller said it had been mostly symbolic, adding that she did not know whether the lack of enforcement was due to scant resources or corruption.

"What is clear is that it's not enough," Siller said, adding that it was hard to prove that wood came from an illegal source, and often involved catching people in the act. "It's really difficult to find out who's really behind it."

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(Reporting by Christine Murray, Editing by Helen Popper; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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