Clandestine Cartel Heliports Are Ruining Central America's Forests

The jungle is turning into a giant criminal airport.

Mar 19 2014, 8:50pm
Image: Shutterstock

The choppers cruised low, not far above the homes dotting northern Costa Rica. Startled, area residents tipped off the police, who set off into the jungle, in search of the mysterious aircraft.

That was early 2013, according to the Ministry of Defense. Ever since, Costa Rican counternarcotics squads have busted up nine suspected drug smuggling heliports and two attending base camps, as Info Sur Hoy reports.

Over the past decade, the country has shifted from a mere stopping-off point in continental drug smuggling routes to a place where bulk amounts of illegal drugs are stored, Info Sur adds. This partly explains the uptick in instances where tracts of pristine forest are hastily denuded for heliports and airstrips, in Costa Rica and also Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Honduras.

We've reported on drug trafficking's destruction of Central America's rainforests before, but the environmental impacts of this sort of deforestation can't be overstated. This is going on in "a region of exceptional biodiversity of global significance," according to a recent scientific paper published jointly by the Mesoamerican People's Alliance and the Forestry and Salvodoran Research Program on Development and Environment, with help from Mexican and Central American NGOs and US universities. 

The US government, for its part, is offering some tactical assistance. Earlier this month, the US Embassy in Costa Rica helped that country's Aerial Surveillance Service (SVA) acquire a police helicopter. The aircraft, SVA Oldemar Madrigal told reporters, is knitted out with night vision tech and an external cargo hook, and utilizes NOTAR, or No Tail Rotor, which dampens any harsh thump that would otherwise be picked up by drug traffickers well before a raid. 

Combine that with Costa Rica's new 16-post radar system, which spans the country's coast and is set to go live this May, and maybe, just maybe, we're starting to get somewhere in terms of rooting Central America's drug trafficking gangs, or at the very least the airborne arms of those syndicates. But ask Marine Gen. John Kelly, head of US Southern Command, and that's not enough. 

Kelly says that slashed defense budgets have only strengthened drug smuggling networks throughout Latin America, especially in the Caribbean, where American interdiction and intelligence assets have slimmed down. He recently told the Armed Services Committee that, "because of asset shortfalls, we're unable to get after 74 percent of suspected maritime smuggling. I simply sit and watch it go by." For now, the narco choppers might very well keep on cruising low. 

Which is to say that while top notch intelligence gear can get you somewhere, it'll only take you so far in protecting the jungle from turning into one giant criminal airport. After all, the best protectors of the rainforest are the people who already live there.