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Guatemala: Narco-trafficking threatens archeological sites

By Raúl Barreno Castillo for – 17/12/2012


The El Mirador archeological site in the department of Petén near the border with Mexico is among those most threatened by narco-traffickers. La Danta (above) sits on a mound and ascends 100 meters (328 feet). (Raúl Barreno for

GUATEMALA CITY – Narco-traffickers have targeted one of the most recognizable parts of Guatemala’s heritage: Its archaeological sites, specifically in the northern department of Petén, which shares a border with Mexico and Belize, according to the Ministry of the Interior.

The government will deploy 500 officers from the Nature Protection Division to join the 1,000 soldiers commanded by the General Deputy Directorate of Counternarcotics Information Analysis in areas known for narco-trafficking activity.

Additionally, the 500-member-strong Seventh Special Forces Infantry Brigade has been deployed to the department’s jungles to improve public safety and combat narco-trafficking in the Petén municipalities of San Andrés, San Francisco, La Libertad, Las Cruces and Sayaxché, according to Defense Minister Ulises Noé Anzueto.

Petén is Guatemala’s largest department, covering 13,843 square miles, most of which is forest that’s home to numerous natural, cultural and archeological treasures, such as the Maya Biosphere Reserve and the Tikal and El Mirador archeological sites.

But Petén’s archeological sites are being exploited by looters and narco-traffickers that illegally cut down forests to build clandestine airstrips. The narco-traffickers also raise cattle in protected areas, letting the animals graze before they are slaughtered, with the meat used to feed members of criminal organizations, according to Minister of the Interior Mauricio López Bonilla.

A total of 15 clandestine airstrips were eradicated in Petén in 2012.

“When they make clandestine airstrips, the narco-traffickers destroy the forest and find valuable archeological objects that they’ve kept,” said López Bonilla, adding the criminals deforest the area to graze cattle, thus exploiting land that belongs to the state.

Petén suffered deforestation of 132,138 hectares (326,520 acres) of land between 2001 and 2010, according to the Environmental Profile by Universidad Rafael Landívar (URL).

Between 1960 and 1970, the migration of rural inhabitants in search of land was the major contributor to deforestation. During the past five years, this has been replaced with drug trafficking and extensive ranching, according to the report.

The area most affected by narco-traffickers is the Laguna del Tigre National Park within the Maya Biosphere Reserve, a protected area of 270,000 hectares (667,184 acres), according to Erick Cabrera, the executive secretary of the National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP).


Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla said 2,000 members of the country’s security forces have been assigned to combat narco-traffickers at Petén’s archeological sites. (Raúl Barreno for

“Our main focus is on fighting drug trafficking and preventing the drug traffickers from causing further unrest in the region,” said Brenda Muñoz, the head of the General Deputy Directorate of Counternarcotics Information Analysis.

Petén archeological sites such as Tikal welcome two million tourists annually, according to the Guatemalan Tourism Institute (INGUAT).

“We need the government to help [provide military and police protection] in the area to prevent these threats from damaging the archeological heritage, which belongs not just to Guatemalans, but to all of humanity,” said Richard Hansen, an anthropologist who works in El Mirador.

Cabrera is confident security forces will increase their arrests of narco-traffickers.

“We are working with the Interior and Defense ministries and we’ve made interagency plans to patrol at-risk areas,” Cabrera said. “We manage the protected areas and use maps to define the areas being threatened by narco-traffickers, which helps us [increase the efficiency] of our military and police patrols.”

There are more than 4,000 archeological sites in Petén, yet only 100 have security forces patrolling the area.

“We’re working to increase that number because we know that the situation has led to a lot of problems,” López Bonilla said.

From 1997 to 2012, there have been more than 250 cases of archeological theft nationwide, according to the Institute of Anthropology and History.

This year, the National Civil Police has seized 3,290 kilograms (7,253 pounds) of cocaine worth US$42 million nationwide and arrested 1,846 suspects on narco-trafficking charges.

In 2011, authorities seized a total of 4,120 kilograms (9,083 pounds) of cocaine nationwide valued at US$51 million, with 1,625 suspects arrested on drug-trafficking charges.


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