MEXICO CITY — Kendra McSweeney, co-author of an unprecedented study on the little known plague of narco-deforestation, doesn’t mince words.

“Narco-trafficking is causing an environmental disaster in Central America,” says the professor of geography at Ohio State University.

Published in January in Science magazine, McSweeney's report issues stark, detailed findings for what can first be perceived from the sky: areas of tropical forest in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua that have been destroyed by narco-traffickers to make way for clandestine landing strips and other roads used to transport drugs to the United States, the world’s largest market.

“These protected ecological areas have become a hub for cocaine trafficking from South America,” says McSweeney, adding that annual deforestation in Honduras grew four times between 2007 and 2011, while drug trafficking also became more intense there.

In 2011 alone, 183 square kilometers of forest were destroyed in the east of the country, particularly in the Río Platano Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site. “The phenomenon is worsening the loss of vegetative ground cover that is mostly caused by illegal logging,” she says.

Worse still, drug smugglers are laundering their illegal profits in livestock farms and intensive palm oil production. “It is illegal to build farms inside protected areas,” says McSweeney, condemning corrupt local government officials and the weakness of public institutions that are allowing their proliferation.

“The cockroach effect”

The same devastating effects have hit the reserves and national parks of northern Guatemala and northeastern Nicaragua. “The forest rangers are too low in numbers and badly equipped to face drug smugglers in these remote and poor regions, which are breeding grounds for illegal trafficking,” says Matthew Taylor, co-author of the report. “Especially as the dirty money of the cartels is boosting the activities of land speculators and wood smugglers.”

Southern Autonomous Region on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua — Photo: VWPics/ZUMA

A Colorado geographer, Taylor says deforestation has increased from 5% to 10% in seven years at the Laguna del Tigre National Park in northeastern Guatemala.

The phenomenon also coincides with the war on narco-trafficking that former Mexican president Felipe Calderon (2006-2012) launched at the end of 2006 with the support of the United States. “With the military pressure in Mexico, the cartels have moved to the south,” Taylor notes. It is what they call the “efecto cucaracha” (“cockroach effect”), in reference to the insect’s survival instinct.

Like the powerful Sinaloa cartel — led by Joaquin Guzman Loera, aka “El Chapo,” until his Feb. 22 arrest — the Mexican mafias have extended their influence in Central America. “Narco-deforestation allows the cartels to occupy territories to the detriment of their rivals,” McSweeney says. “If this goes on, clearcutting will affect the rest of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, which extends from Panama to Mexico.”

The Indian communities that occupy these protected areas are the first victims. “The Indians are pushed out of their lands or recruited, by fair means or foul, by the drug traffickers to clear parts of the forest or to work in their farms,” Taylor explains, adding that everyone remains silent because they fear retribution.

But the governments of Central America are ramping up drug seizures with the help of the United States. In October 2013, the Honduran armed forces announced the destruction of 10 illegal landing strips in the Mosquitia region, in the north of the country, where the Río Platano Biosphere Reserve is located.

“This solely repressive strategy will not resolve the issue,” McSweeney says. During the next Mesoamerican Congress on Protected Areas, the geographer hopes to appeal to the regional leaders to reassess the war on drug trafficking as a public health problem with devastating effects on the environment.

“The future of biodiversity depends on it.”