Petén clandestine airstrip near Perenco

A news organization in Guatemala discovered a clandestine drug trafficking airstrip located in the vicinity of a military post and property owned by a transnational company, raising questions about ties between organized crime and elites in the area and the difficulty of preventing the illegal use of private property for criminal activities. 

While conducting a flyover of Laguna del Tigre National Park, part of Guatemala's Maya Biosphere Reserve in the northern province of Petén, Plaza Pública stumbled upon what appeared to be a one-kilometer clandestine airstrip hidden in plain sight. 

According to the news outlet, the track of land where the airstrip is located is notable for its proximity to property owned by a foreign company as well as a military outpost. It is a mere 25 meters from the regularly-patrolled Xan oil field, operated by the British-French oil and gas company Perenco, and about six kilometers from the military facility.

(Photograph courtesy of Plaza Pública)

After being shown pictures of the dirt runway, Aldo Chapas, the country's chief anti-narcotics prosecutor, told Plaza Pública that it had telling signs of a clandestine airstrip. But he said an investigation would have to be launched to confirm the details and determine whether the runway was authorized.

The news outlet later followed up with Guatemala's Director General of Civil Aviation, who confirmed that the airstrip was not authorized.

When Perenco was questioned about the suspected clandestine airstrip, Director of Corporate Affairs Antonio Minondo Ayau said that the company had no knowledge about the existence of the runway or about the identity of the individuals apparently trespassing on the company's land.

However, he went on to say that Perenco has "at multiples times denounced" to the National Council for Protected Areas (Consejo Nacional de Areas Protegidas - CONAP) "the existence of land invasions and burning."

Similarly, Colonel William García, the army press chief, said he was unaware of the runway, but noted that the military had knowledge of the existence of 65 other unauthorized airstrips in the national park, 23 of which have been destroyed by the government.

According to Chapas, the proliferation of clandestine airstrips in the national park is a result of its proximity to Mexico, which makes the area an ideal drug transportation corridor for northern-bound planes from South America seeking to refuel.

InSight Crime Analysis

Petén has long been notorious as a hub of criminal activity in Guatemala under the control of criminal organizations like the Mendoza family and the Zetas. A good portion of the cocaine headed for the United States passes through this region, which has also seen the loss of some 40,000 hectares of forest in the last decade due to illegal logging and deforestation for the creation of airstrips.

Part of the problem in Petén is that the interactions between communities and criminal groups in the area often blur the boundaries between what is lawful and illicit, with locals being paid by criminal groups to engage in environmental destruction and with many local elites, including Perenco, believed to coexist with or even tolerate the presence of criminal elements.  

SEE ALSO: Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime

Though no direct evidence of such complicity between local elites and organized crime in this particular case, the situation nevertheless speaks to the government's lack of capacity in detecting, let alone preventing the illegal use of private property for criminal activities, particularly in remote areas, a problem also faced by other countries in the region.

In Guatemala, this is demonstrated by the severe underfunding of CONAP, the agency tasked with looking into these matters in the country's protected areas, as well as the army press chief's admission that less than half of the known clandestine airstrips in the area have been demolished, with the rest presumably still operational. Even if all clandestine airstrips were successfully destroyed, however, drug flights would only be temporarily reduced, as drug trafficking and criminal activities are likely to persist in the area unless the broader problem of limited state presence is resolved.

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
Prev Next

Closing the Gaps on Firearms Trafficking in Honduras

Closing the Gaps on Firearms Trafficking in Honduras

As set out in this report, the legal structure around Honduras' arms trade is deeply flawed. The legislation is inconsistent and unclear as to the roles of different institutions, while the regulatory system is insufficiently funded, anachronistic and administered by officials who are overworked or susceptible to...

Trafficking Firearms in Honduras

Trafficking Firearms in Honduras

The weapons trade within Honduras is difficult to monitor. This is largely because the military, the country's sole importer, and the Armory, the sole salesmen of weapons, do not release information to the public. The lack of transparency extends to private security companies, which do not have...

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Murder

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Murder

  Life of a Sicario Anatomy of a Hit   The BACRIM's control over territories such as the north Colombian region of Bajo Cauca comes at the point of a gun, and death is a constant price of their power.

Counting Firearms in Honduras

Counting Firearms in Honduras

Estimates vary widely as to how many legal and illegal weapons are circulating in Honduras. There are many reasons for this. The government does not have a centralized database that tracks arms seizures, purchases, sales and other matters concerning arms possession, availability and merchandising. The laws surrounding...

Venezuela Prisons: 'Pranes' and 'Revolutionary' Criminality

Venezuela Prisons: 'Pranes' and 'Revolutionary' Criminality

In May 2011, a 26-year-old prison gang leader held 4,000 members of the Venezuelan security forces, backed by tanks and helicopters, at bay for weeks. Humiliated nationally and internationally, it pushed President Hugo Chávez into a different and disastrous approach to the prison system.

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Money

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Money

  Drugs Extortion Criminal Cash Flows Millions of dollars in dirty money circulate constantly around Bajo Cauca, flowing upwards and outwards from a broad range of criminal activities. The BACRIM are the chief regulators and beneficiaries of this shadow economy.

Nariño, Colombia: Ground Zero of the Cocaine Trade

Nariño, Colombia: Ground Zero of the Cocaine Trade

The department of Nariño in southwest Colombia is the main coca-producing area in the country and in the world. It is a place scarred by poverty and years of armed conflict between guerrillas, the state and paramilitary groups. Perhaps nowhere else in the country are the challenges...

Trafficking Firearms Into Honduras

Trafficking Firearms Into Honduras

Honduras does not produce weapons,[1] but weapons are trafficked into the country in numerous ways. These vary depending on weapon availability in neighboring countries, demand in Honduras, government controls and other factors. They do not appear to obey a single strategic logic, other than that of evading...

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Power

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Power

  The Bajo Cauca Franchise BACRIM-Land Armed Power Dynamics The BACRIM in places like the region of Bajo Cauca are a typical manifestation of Colombia's underworld today: a semi-autonomous local cell that is part of a powerful national network.