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Illegal logging “mafia” arrested in Peru

  • A joint action by the Ucuyali public prosecutor’s office and a specialized environmental police force arrested 19 members of the gang, including two police officers and two regional forestry officials with Ucuyali’s Dirección General de Fauna y Flora Silvestre.
  • Nearly 70,000 Peruvian Sol (a little over $20,000) were seized in the joint action, along with two trucks and a trailer loaded with illegal timber.
  • This is the first time that Peru has used laws against organized crime to combat the extraction and trade of illegal timber.

Several members of an illegal logging gang in Peru were reportedly arrested last Friday in Ucuyali, an inland region located in the Amazon rainforest.

According to reports, a joint action by the Ucuyali public prosecutor’s office and a specialized environmental police force arrested 19 members of the gang, including two police officers and two regional forestry officials with Ucuyali’s Dirección General de Fauna y Flora Silvestre.

High Commissioner on Affairs to Combat Illegal Logging César Fourment characterized the gang as the “mafia of illegal logging.”

Nearly 70,000 Peruvian Sol (a little over $20,000) were seized in the joint action, along with two trucks and a trailer loaded with illegal timber. China, Mexico, and the United States are said to be the chief destinations for the illegal timber harvested by the gang.

Weapons and documentation that will reveal the scope of the gang’s illegal timber trade were also reportedly seized, but prosecutors estimate that the illegal logging ring exported about 300 cubic meters of illegal timber per month for the past six years. The gang’s main target was shihuahuaco (Dipteryx micrantha), a tree species that serves as home to macaws, toucans, and the harpy eagle.

Overhead view of a logging road in the Peruvian Amazon. Photo by Rhett Butler.

This is the first time that Peru has used laws against organized crime to combat the extraction and trade of illegal timber. From 2009 to 2013, the volume of timber harvested in Peru illicitly generated profits in excess of $109 million, according to Peruvian news site 20 Minutos, which cited a 2012 World Bank study that found 80 percent of the timber exported from Peru comes from illegal logging.

The chief prosecutor with the Public Ministry’s Special Prosecutor for Organized Crime, Jorge Chavez Cotrina, said that the arrests of the 19 gang members were the result of a months-long investigation. The maximum penalty for the crimes of illegal logging and trafficking of timber that the detainees stand accused of is ten years, Chavez Cotrina added.

“The participation of these officers and officials is still under investigation,” he said. “The hypothesis states that they facilitated the illegal logging and then made the conversion to legal logging and permitted [the illegal timber] to leave the country.”

Timber laundering, in which illegally logged wood is made to appear as if it was legitimately harvested before it’s exported, is a problem that has plagued Peru for years, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI).

The Peruvian government’s Independent Forest Sector Oversight Agency (OSINFOR) found evidence of illegal practices in 93.75 percent of logging operations it audited.

Charles Barber, the director of the WRI’s Forest Legality Initiative and a former U.S. State Department Forest Division Chief, said that the arrests in Ucayali are a good sign that the government of Peru is addressing the problem of pervasive illegal logging in the Peruvian Amazon with the priority it deserves.

“Illegal logging undermines Peru’s recent leadership in completing the Paris climate deal, and has substantiated environmentalists’ concerns about the potential impacts on forests of the new Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which includes Peru,” Barber told Mongabay. “Hopefully this is a turning point, and we will see more arrests and prosecutions in the near future.”