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on the border line between the US and Mexico

Friday, January 11, 2019

Illegal Logging in Chihuahua is Now Mexico Cartel Territory

 Posted by El Profe for Borderland Beat from Insight Crime


Among the most vibrant criminal markets in Mexico is illegal wood, and in the northern state of Chihuahua, there is increasing alarm that drug trafficking organizations are fighting for control of the trade.

The six bodies, minus their heads, were dumped just before dawn on a morning in late October. They were left in front of a gas station on the outskirts of Creel, in the state of Chihuahua — each corpse wrapped in a black bin bag and secured with brown tape around the neck, waist and ankles.

The scene was typical of the violence that has long played out during Mexico’s drug war, now more than a decade old. But the message taped to one of the bodies referred not to drug trafficking, but the local illegal wood market.
 *This article is the result of research on eco-trafficking in the region done in conjunction with American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS). 

Indeed, the groups involved in black-market logging and drugs now appear to be one and the same. In recent months, violence between warring cartels in the pine-covered mountains of Chihuahua, around the towns of San Juanito and Creel, is as tied to the illegal wood trade as it is to local drug sales and routes.

The overlap began with a surge in illegal logging.

“Here in San Juanito, illegal logging started to really grow and become obvious in 2015. The whole area around San Juanito was logged illegally and indiscriminately, and afterwards they would set fire to the woods and not let people put the fires out,” Citlali Quintana, a local lawyer working for the Center for Understanding and Defense of Human and Indigenous Rights (Centro de Capacitación y Defensa de los Derechos Humanos e Indígenas), a local non-profit.

As Quintana drives to the indigenous village of Bahuinacachi in her four-wheel drive vehicle — the only way to reach the tiny town home to some 200 indigenous families — we pass pine forests that have been ravaged by unauthorized loggers. The work is badly done — trees have been left to rot where they have fallen, and swaths of land have been burned.

Fighting this scourge has become increasingly dangerous. Some activists have had to flee, and in November, Julián Carrillo Martínez, an activist for Alianza Sierra Madre, was murdered by armed men in Coloradas de la Virgen, in the municipality of Guadalupe y Calvo, Chihuahua, where much of the non-profit’s lobbying activities have focused.

Carrillo Martínez was under state protection, but government measures failed to keep him safe that day. The group he worked for told us that hitmen in the area serve the interests of commercial wood companies as well as drug traffickers.

The traffickers are not hiding. Residents of Bahuinacachi told InSight Crime how some 40-armed men arrived in February riding dozens of heavy trucks. They proceeded to start cutting down trees in the pine forests on the outskirts of the town. Working day and night for the first month, the men — all of whom were under 20 years old according to witnesses — moved some 40 truckloads of wood out of the forests every 24 hours.

Villagers said they could hear the chainsaws working from their homes, and that the recently-installed leader of the Juarez Cartel, César Daniel Manjárrez Alonso, alias “el H2”, made an appearance during this time, walking into the town.

Wood taken from these forests — which is still happening daily —  is transported by truck to San Juanito and processed there. San Juanito is a regional economic hub that is home to some 25 sawmills that employ a significant proportion of the town and process much of the wood taken both legally and illegally out of the pine forests that coat the hills. Once wood enters these mills, it effectively becomes legal, by mixing into the legitimate supply.

It is most often converted into planks for bulk sale to construction companies and others, or made into furniture. Some could be finding its way into Mexico’s paper industry, which exports internationally.
Determining the beneficiaries is not easy. Half of the sawmills operating in San Juanito are part of the Juarez Cartel’s network, according to sources in local commerce who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity. The other half, they said, have to pay a “quota” (an informal tax levied by the cartel) to operate.

But the crime and violence have more than one master. South of Creel lies Sinaloa Cartel territory in the Golden Triangle, where the states of Chihuahua, Durango, and Sinaloa intersect. The climate in this part of the state allows for the poppy and marijuana plantations that peppering creeks and canyons. Trees are illegally cut down there largely to make space for the cultivation of these plants, according to interviews with governmental and non-governmental sources.

Illegal logging around San Juanito, on the other hand, is for the sale of the wood itself, and is becoming an increasingly lucrative activity for Juarez Cartel operatives. That’s the most likely motive behind the killing of the six men dumped at the gas station who, according to the state criminal investigation agency, were members of the armed wing of the rival Sinaloa Cartel, Gente Nueva. A Facebook video that emerged after the murder suggests the same, and shows the sicarios, now dead men, showing off their weapons in front of the camera.

InSight Crime was warned not to conduct interviews in San Juanito. A local businessman we interviewed, who preferred not to be named for security reasons, said: “If you throw a coin in the air it will hit someone involved in illegal logging when it comes down —whole families are involved.”


But how and when drug trafficking began to intersect with the illegal timber trade is harder to pinpoint. Local wisdom dictates that drug trafficking groups embraced illegal logging in part as a collateral benefit of their territorial control, and as a way to diversify their criminal portfolio, which had suffered after a drop in market prices for poppy paste and marijuana.

“El narco has always been here, and everyone learned to live with them but the ‘drug war’ [launched by President Felipe Calderon in 2006] prompted them to protect their territories more,” says Isela Gonzales, director of the Alianza Sierra Madre, who spoke to InSight Crime in Chihuahua, where she is under government protection after receiving death threats. Her non-governmental organization has lobbied successfully to freeze logging permits so that individuals and firms using them can be investigated for potential abuses.

Experts consulted by InSight Crime agree that the current permit system managed by the Mexican government is insufficient to regulate illegal logging in states like Chihuahua, and that agencies such as the Federal Prosecutors Office for Protection of the Environment (Procuraduría Federal de Protección al Ambiente — PROFEPA) don’t have the resources or manpower to curb illegal activity of this scale.

“The police work for [the cartels] — there are no good ones, only bad ones,” said Gonzales.
Gonzales’s assertions were backed by other sources interviewed by InSight Crime, who said that locals are as afraid of the state and municipal police as they are of the criminal groups operating in the area. Gonzales added that political and business elites, as well as criminal groups, are all working together to over-exploit legal permits to log.

With the huge availability of pine trees in the area, as well as a lack of regulation and continuing pressure on drug prices and routes, illegal logging in Chihuahua looks set to keep growing as a profit engine for organized crime.


  1. Thanks profe. I just don't get how such a large group of people can lack any foresight! I'm not a tree hugger but believe in proper forest management. Logging is one way of managing it. But cutting and burning everything isn't. It's like waking up in the morning and saying "geez,there are too many trees in my view. I want more desert." Seems crazy to me. I'm from Minnesota. Remove the trees and I'd want to move!

    1. The people who decide to cut the trees do not stay in the area. They do not care if the locals starve. All they want is quick profit.

  2. Isn’t creel the town where that now infamous YouTube video, of a convoy creating a roadblock and sniffing coke out of a big bag before assaulting a large home, in the early morning, took place? I never knew if I could trust the explanation video of that footage which is on YouTube. Anyone know the legit story of that footage?

  3. How many times have we heard that if we just legalized “drugs” the cartels would simply go away?

  4. This happened in michoacan and that's a reason the indigenous towns started a autodefenza and kicked out the cartel that was cutting down trees to sell to china. They need to kick them out of chihuahua


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