BELIZE CITY–The broad daylight execution of Danny Conorquie, 20, a Belizean Tourism Police officer, allegedly by illegal Guatemala loggers at the main temple of the Caracol Archaeological Reserve last Thursday, September 25, underscores the security threat Belize faces on account of ceaseless incursions inside its protected areas for a range of illegal activities, the main one now being the multi-million-dollar trade in illegal timber, believed to be connected with organized crime and possibly narco-trafficking elements in Guatemala.
Rafael Manzanero, Executive Director of Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD), who laments Conorquie’s murder, which he says appears to have been a “hit” executed by illegal loggers, reports that for the past two years, roughly $20 million worth of cedar and mahogany have been extracted and along with that, expansion in illegal logging also comes, expanding security risks to both security and conservation personnel.
Manzanero noted that while the xateros, who have decimated much of Belize’s forests by extracting the palm unsustainably, came with machetes and crocus bags on their backs, the illegal loggers come with guns, and oftentimes with their personal supply of marijuana, which means that they can be under the influence of that drug while on their clandestine operations in the Chiquibul Forest.
“More recently, since 2011 or so, we started to see drugs and guns. Almost all have a bag of marijuana,” said Manzanero.
He said that loggers traditionally, all around the globe, are more aggressive by nature.
According to Manzanero, there are three illegal logging hot spots inside the Chiquibil, and he estimates that about 30 illegal loggers could be working on a daily basis. He said that the persons who were at Caracol last week included at least two very young men.
For some years, the FCD has been extremely alert, because they know exactly what this new trend means, but in general, Belize has been taking it too lightly, the Executive Director said.
“All my contacts in Guatemala would tell me that this is already organized. There must be some big guy involved in these things. We need to begin the exchange of intelligence,” said Manzanero.
He said that Belize should not assume that illegal loggers are coming across the border because of a poverty problem, because generally speaking, the landscape in Guatemala is such that drug lords are sometimes the ones conducting the illegal trade of timber and wildlife species. Corrupt agencies could also be involved, he said.
He said that their environmental counterparts in Guatemala have grappled with even bigger problems, so “they know the extent to which these illegal loggers can do damage.”
“We have always been warning that these guys can do a lot of damage to Belizean territory,” Manzanero said.
He told us that the drought which has struck Guatemala means that there will very likely be even more incursions.
Since much of the hardwood trees have been extracted, loggers have also begun to target immature trees. The entire Caracol Archaeological Reserve has been ravaged of timber: Illegal logging has gone all around and as many as 11 km into Belize, Manzanero said.
The Belize security forces have also found illegal dwellings inside the reserve. An Incisive Gallop conducted by Belize Defence Force troops about three months ago found some illegal huts, some of which were destroyed. Manzanero said that no one was found in the area at the time, and there is no indication whether the persons who were responsible for building homes in the area have returned. Illegal dwellings have also been found at Cebada, another location inside the Chiquibul.
“Government has to be more serious—the government machinery at large,” said Manzanero.
“This [execution of Conorquie] was not the wake-up call. The wake-up call was given a long time ago,” said Manzanero, adding that it is still left to be seen what the Government of Belize is going to do about the situation in the Chiquibul.
The Government of Belize has committed to establishing a couple of new conservation posts in the area. Manzanero said that they have started to mobilize machinery to the Caracol area for the construction of a site at the Valentin Observation Post.
“We have to change our tactics. The Guatemalans have changed their tactics,” Manzanero said.
“We need to be tactical in this thing. We need boots on the ground, but we need some good boots on the ground,” the FCD executive director said.
The FCD warned at its 2013 symposium in Belize City that at the current rate of decimation, half of the Chiquibul, Belize’s largest and most prized forest, encompassing 437,376 acres or 16.8% of all protected areas, will be demolished by illegal loggers in just 10 years.