Central American forests are giving way to pasture land for cattle ranches. New research shows many cocaine traffickers in the region are laundering their money through the purchasing and deforestation of large swaths of land. (Photo: Oregon State University)

Shortly after the turn of the millennium, a strange phenomenon started. The tropical forests of some Central American countries began disappearing at an ever-increasing rate.

Cocaine is the cause, says a new study in the journal Environmental Research Letters. Not coca farming, per se. Instead, enterprising narcos are laundering their money in huge tracts of the land, which they clear cut for cattle ranching and timber profits, among other uses.

“It turns out that one of the best ways to launder illegal drug money is to fence off huge parcels of forest, cut down the trees, and build yourself a cattle ranch,” said David Wrathall, one of the authors, a geographer from Oregon State University. “It is a major, unrecognized driver of tropical deforestation in Central America.”

A kind of funnel effect is driving the phenomenon, according to the study. The United States authorities successfully cut back the drug trade in places like the Caribbean and Mexico, so Central America became the hottest pipeline from the biggest coca production centers in Colombia and other parts of South America. (Some 86 percent of the cocaine trafficked globally moves through Central America, meaning an estimated $6 billion in illegal profits regionally each year.)

The Global Forest Change program run by the University of Maryland provided an insight into the regional loss of forest in the six countries in the study: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. All the forest loss was measured on a series of 15 “patch metrics” determining how the forest had been reduced: whether it was cut down, or naturally receded.

Data from the Officer of National Drug Control Policy, which is widely considered the best estimate of the cocaine trafficking flow, was incorporated into the study. That drug trade was compared against the forest rate loss in the various regions and states of the six countries.

They found, starting in 2005, that the booming cocaine trade meant more trees were coming down than ever before in three countries: Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala. The loss of the forest was made by traffickers in remote areas, and generally meant raising cattle, and illegal logging, they found. The narcos’ activity may account for 30 percent of total forest loss in Honduras, which showed the most significant effect. But it was also at least 15 percent of the total forest loss in Nicaragua and Guatemala, they added.

But the situation was different in the other three countries—El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Panama—where the drug trade may already be better established.

“In Panama, the financial system is built to launder cocaine money so they don’t need to cut down trees to build ranches for money laundering,” said Wrathall.

“In Honduras, land is the bank,” he added.

The study’s authors—including personnel from Arizona State, Ohio State, Northern Arizona University, as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—also concluded that the deforestation cycle is being determined by massive political and economic forces.

“Severely weakened civil governance structure resulting from increased drug trafficking, insecure land tenure, and high unemployment in remote regions of Central America has created a strong nexus between illegal logging, cattle ranching and organized crime,” they conclude.