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How Indigenous Tribes Are Fighting the Drug Cartels

All across Latin America, drug traffickers are invading indigenous peoples' land. Here's how they're fighting back.
A member of the Embera-Wounaan Image: Wikimedia

Over the past few years, strangers have begun approaching youngsters in the Embera-Wounaan, an indigenous tribe in Panama, with an uncanny request. Carry a bag of rice across the jungle for us, and you’ll earn American dollars. It’s dead simple, they say. A four-hour trek across the jungle at night is worth $200 in cash, straight away.

A few took the offer, carried the bags, and got the bucks. But others alerted local community leaders. Word eventually reached 43-year-old Candido Menzua, cacique of the Embera-Wounaan.


“There are no rice plantations over there,” the chieftain explained. He ordered more stringent patrolling over the 430,000 hectares controlled by his people. This wasn’t the first and likely won’t be the last time the Embera have crossed paths with drug-traffickers, and, by now, he knows their trade.

The Embera-Wounaan’s case isn’t unique. For the past five years, forest communities throughout the region have been clashing with organized crime over their lands. Woodlands from Mexico to Panamá have been plundered and destroyed, with conflicts ranging from those rice bag parades at midnight to gunshots and murder in Michoacán, where locals stood up against cartels.

As he tells his story in the lobby of the ritzy hotel Wyndham Herradura, home to one of Costa Rica’s largest convention centers, cacique Menzua casts a striking figure. He’s wearing a beaded, multicolored short skirt, dusty slippers, and, as Rambo would carry his ammunition, two long white-blue beaded chains across his bare chest, while the rest of the attendance flashes ties or broided shirts. Tourists and businessmen might consider him out of place.

Except he isn’t. Right now, this is exactly where he needs to be.

In fact, it’s because of him—or rather, indigenous leaders like him—that experts, policy makers and community leaders have flown to Costa Rica from all over the region for a two-day long conference on how these well-organized forest communities are able to challenge cartels over their land. They seem to have come up with an answer for this war against drug lords, easy-looking money and deforestation: constant vigilance. As Menzua speaks from San José, his people in Panamá keep watch over the jungle. Talk about commitment.


“The bags were moved by nighttime. Really, who transports rice at night?” Menzua cried, considering the plight of his 10,000-strong community.

The tribe’s territory sits in the strategic yet overlooked Darien region, a swampy marsh next to the Colombia-Panama border, which makes it a cartel favorite for smuggling. This is a trait shared by many regions favored for drug running by organized crime: far from cities and central political power, they seem vulnerable and easy to infiltrate. So infiltrate they have.

As has been documented in no less than the journal Science, traffickers have penetrated forests across Central America and Mexico over the past five years, opening new paths for smuggling drugs across and laundering money. Kendra McSweeney, the Ohio State University ecologist who authored the paper, argues that this presence accelerated the rate of forest loss.

"There is a governance issue; the government has a limited presence in this area, which makes the narcos perceive them as spaces where they can act with impunity,” McSweeney said.

For years now, this has ceased to be a secret. Local media—such as Costa Rica’s La Nación and El País—have reported on the presence of weed plantations and choppers in indigenous territories. How did the media and security forces first learn about these incursions? Yes, the indigenous communities. Who else?

Darién Province, Panamá. Image: Genelle Quarles/Burness Communications

“This way, it’s not the government who fights organized crime, but the people themselves”

When choppers with armed men arrived in Alto Telire, a Costa Rican community located deep in the south-east mountains, the locals had their answer ready. The newcommers said they were Christian missionaries, and offered Bibles as their proof, but the community knew better and expelled them, according to Levi Sucre Romero, a local leader. He even claims several passports were seized from the outsiders.


As deforestation cuts its way through certain jungle areas in Mexico and Central America, some areas get razed, while others remain green strongholds. What’s the difference? The presence of indigenous people who can fend for their land. That’s the finding of a new report by Andrew Davis, senior researcher for PRISMA, an organization based in El Salvador that focuses on the region’s rural communities.

“We found three categories: direct confrontation between the people and cartels, prevention based in local resourced and communities that looked for help outside of their territory, as happened in the Bosawas region, in Nicaragua”, stated Davis, who believes those areas without local “control” are more vulnerable.

Back in 2005, Sucre Romano created a local network of native communities in Costa Rica, from two different tribes and spawning several mountanous territories, and later went on to establish the Mesoamerican Alliance of People and Forests (MAPF), an association among territorial authorities administering forests in the region, which he still presides.

“There’s an historic corridor in Central America, running through indigenous and campesino lands. This is where the majority of the regions’ forests are. Now, the drug-trafficking takes the same road," says 46-year old Levi Sucre.

So there are choppers and drug sacks. But how bad can it really get? Ask Alicia. A member of MAFP, she requested us not to publish her last name; she was concerned it would reach the wrong ears in Mexico, where she lives.


A 33-year-old anthropologist from the Purépecha indigenous community in the state of Michoacán, she understands her culture as few others do. She's knowledgeable about the nuances of living by the forests, but she has also experienced death. When, in 2011 the Purépecha in Michoacán decided they were tired of having traffickers ransacking their territories and drew a line in the sand, the cartels didn’t hesitate to cross it.

“In April of 2011, when the community was determined to put a halt on illegal logging, there were hard clashes with organized crime. I mean real battles, with injured and gunshots. Back then, two of our kin died”, recalls Alicia, wearing wide-framed glasses and a white shirt with an elaborate embroidered red pattern. By now, she says, at least four more have died.

The Purépecha—like the Emberá in Panamá, the Costa Rican Bribri to whom Levi Sucre belongs, and many more tribes in the region—developed new strategies to cope with the threat. Alicia, for instance, says their community revamped an old guard that hasn’t been used for centuries: the rondín.

Back in the days of their ancestors, the rondín used to patrol the forest areas controlled by the tribe looking for trespassers and securing their borders. “This way, it’s not the government who fights organized crime, but the people themselves,” Alicia claims, while cautioning that cartels can also infiltrate their ranks.

And do you know who they are? “Yes, everyone knows. These are small groups within the Caballeros Templarios”, she answers, referring to Michoacán’s leading cartel. The organized efforts of indigenous tribes has perhaps helped to blunt the intrusion of drug traffickers and deforesters, but the problem still looms large over the region.

At the end of the conference, leaders took planes or buses and went back home. Candido Menzua was expected back in Darien, that forgotten strip of land where Panama ends—and where his people can still choose to earn $10 over a hard day’s work, or do a single trek at night for twenty times the pay.