FP | To hear the Guatemalan government tell it, the Maya Biosphere Reserve, a sprawling national park in the northern department of Petén, is the crown jewel of the Central American park system. Look on a map, and you’ll see the protected area spreads across the northern fifth of the country like a green carpet. Within those borders lie the famous Mayan ruins at Tikal and El Mirador, as well as huge swaths of the Maya Forest, the Americas’ largest tropical rainforest outside the Amazon, an invaluable storehouse of both carbon stocks and rare plants and wildlife, among them Guatemala’s last population of macaws.
But that rosy picture hides a grimmer reality. Journey to these protected areas of northern Guatemala, and you’ll find something resembling an ongoing ecological catastrophe. In Laguna del Tigre National Park, nestled in the heart of the reserve, the tall acacia and mahogany trees have been cut and burned, exiling the macaws to the tiny fringe of forest that remains. You can see this damage on a map included in an annual report published by the National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP), the Guatemalan national park service, in partnership with Western environmental NGOs, and paid for in part by the U.S. Department of the Interior. As the map shows, the Maya Biosphere Reserve is bisected by what appears to be creeping fungus — illegal cattle ranches, which have cleared about 8 percent of the reserve since 2000. These ranches stand as a parable for the drug war. According to Guatemalan park guards, U.N. researchers, and prosecutors alike, the unintended cause of the deforestation is a drug war victory: a successful interdiction campaign that redirected billions of dollars of drug cash across Guatemala, funding a trade that threatens to destroy Central America’s greatest forest.
According to a report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), until the early 2000s, Central America was a relative sideshow in the Western Hemisphere’s cocaine trade. The drug largely moved from Colombia across the Caribbean into either Mexico or the southern United States. But starting around 2002, aggressive U.S. law enforcement and interdiction campaigns closed the Caribbean route, seizing some 200 tons of cocaine. Other victories followed in allied states. Security forces in Mexico largely shut down direct drug flights into the country. In South America, the Colombian government broke the power of the country’s main cartels.
But the drug trade is a river of money stretching from the Andes to North America. Dam it in one place and — as long as there are still users in the United States — it will find another course.