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COLUMN ONE

Macaws above, outlaws below

Drug traffickers, illegal tree cutters, migrant smugglers -- it's the law of the jungle in Guatemala's Peten.

July 09, 2008|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

EL NARANJO, GUATEMALA — Here in the Wild West of the Central American isthmus, tough hombres like "the Bald Guys" make mahogany trees disappear in the middle of the night. Here, "cattle ranch" cowboys wrangle cocaine that falls from the sky.

This is the Peten, for centuries a thinly populated frontier where jaguars ruled an unspoiled natural kingdom and the rainbow-colored scarlet macaw flew unmolested over towering Maya temples.

Now the jungle region is a lawless no man's land, prized by smugglers for its proximity to the lightly guarded border with Mexico and for the swamps and dense forest undergrowth that give them an advantage over the ragtag forces of law and order. It's a place where the immigration police have no guns, the park rangers have neither radios nor automobiles, and the Guatemalan air force can't see or chase the "kamikaze" cocaine-smuggling pilots.

Drug trafficking is the most profitable activity here, with the Peten serving as a key way station in a vast air-and-land route from Colombian coca fields to U.S. consumers. But many other illicit enterprises thrive too.

A recent journey to the Peten involved encounters with good guys and bad, including an undercover army colonel on a motorcycle and a happy-go-lucky migrant smuggler who feared no one.

Every working day, young boatman Juan Izquierdo ferries small groups of illegal immigrants into Mexico along the San Pedro River, one of several busy smuggling routes along the Mexico-Guatemala frontier.

Izquierdo helps his passengers avoid a nearby Mexican border post, their first serious obstacle on the long journey from Honduras, El Salvador and other Central American countries to the United States.

He charges them about $5 each, though for some reason a tourist like me must pay eight times as much for a round trip.

"Couldn't this get you in trouble?" I ask Izquierdo.

"No, nothing ever happens," he says with a slightly perplexed look that suggests no one has asked him that question before.

Izquierdo, in fact, has little to fear. The officers staffing the nearest Guatemalan immigration office, in the river port of El Naranjo, have no guns, no boats and just one vehicle. The post consists of a teetering shack overlooking the river.

Immigration agent Manuel Salguero points out a passing boat that appears to be ferrying immigrants and says, "To tell you the truth, all we do is watch them go by."

Even if they wanted to arrest the smugglers, they'd face one big obstacle: They have no holding cells.

Staff and equipment shortages are endemic to every law enforcement and military agency operating in the region, officials say. An overstretched army brigade of about 700 soldiers covers an area the size of Belgium. Guatemala's air force owns two helicopters and no tactical radar capable of detecting low-flying aircraft.

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Last month, in response to the growing sense of lawlessness in the border regions, the Guatemalan government announced that it would dispatch 500 more federal police officers and soldiers to the Peten and other areas along the Mexican frontier later this year.

Large chunks of the Peten are ostensibly protected as national parks and nature reserves.

"The wood poachers have satellite telephones, and we don't even have two-way radios," says Claudia Mariela Lopez, regional director of the National Protected Areas Commission, which oversees the reserves.

Lopez has invited me to tour her domain, several hundred square miles of jungle, savanna and swamp intersected by unpaved roads. Her driver, a park ranger supervisor, manages to hit speeds of about 50 mph on scary, gravelly tracks, but never puts on his seat belt.

Our caravan includes the army colonel on the motorcycle, at least one other officer and a squad of soldiers with machine guns riding in the back of a pickup. The soldiers are there to protect the colonel, who is in disguise. He doesn't want the local criminals to realize a high-ranking officer is on an "intelligence mission" in their territory, so he wears jeans, sunglasses and a bandanna over his head.

Often, we stop when the road is overgrown with vines and tree branches, forcing our driver to hack open a path with a machete. When we arrive at the few ranger stations in the reserve, we encounter the sad sight of park rangers short on just about everything.

Guatemala's park rangers often go hungry for lack of food at their remote outposts.

"So, you don't have any supplies," Lopez says at one stop, a collection of hammocks underneath a precarious roof of rough-cut tree branches. The rangers have run out of beans, though they do have a few live chickens around.

"They didn't come this week, no, " one ranger answers.

Back in the capital, Guatemala City, 200 miles to the south, security officials think of the Peten as a vast "aerodrome" where planes of various sizes land on grassy fields carved out of the ancient forest by drug traffickers posing as cattle ranchers.

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