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Death threats and friction with military force Guatemalan rangers to flee

  • A special task force of park rangers has spent the last six years patrolling some of the hardest-to-reach parts of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in northern Guatemala.
  • Known as the Genesis Group, the seven-member task force travels through the rainforest on ATVs combating drug traffickers, illegal loggers and poachers.
  • Guatemala’s weak prosecution of environmental crimes has put the Genesis Group in danger because many repeat offenders target rangers and their families.
  • After enduring years of threats, and following an altercation with the military, many members of the Genesis Group are applying for asylum abroad, leaving the future of the task force in question.

Northern Guatemala is covered in more than 3,000 square miles of rainforest. Some parts of it have been burned down by cattle ranchers and drug traffickers. Other parts remain pristine, with unexcavated Mayan pyramids hidden deep under the foliage.

For the park rangers who work there, patrolling such a huge area can be dangerous and complicated. Radio signal is weak. There are no paved roads through the rainforest, and most of the dirt paths are so rough that, in the rain, it can take hours to drive just a few miles.

In 2015, an elite group of park rangers was created to help protect the farthest reaches of the area, and to challenge some of the most serious environmental crimes taking place there. Known as the Genesis Group, it started out with five veteran rangers, who received additional training and equipment to carry out more thorough, extended patrols.

In the last six years, the group has helped make numerous arrests for illegal logging and the smuggling of contraband cigarettes and firearms. It has helped intercept migrants on their way to Mexico, and has monitored jaguar populations in areas where poachers once thought they could hunt freely.

Yet today the group faces a crisis. It’s on the verge of dissolving. Its members face increasing death threats from loggers, poachers and allegedly corrupt law enforcement. Some of the rangers, fearing for their lives after an altercation with a military unit deep in the forest, have decided to apply for asylum outside the country.

“It’s becoming so dangerous,” said Francisco Asturias, founder of the Genesis Group and coordinator of the Petén region for the Foundation for Ecodevelopment and Conservation (Fundaeco). “Many members are applying for a special visa through the U.N. refugee program. It’s very probable that all of them are going to leave.”

He added, “It’s painful because for so many years we have been training and equipping this team, only for them to have to flee Guatemala because their lives are at risk.”

The Genesis Group travels through the Maya Biosphere Reserve on ATVs in order to cover more ground. Photo via the Genesis Group.

The birth of the Genesis Group

Asturias has spent more than 30 years protecting forests in Guatemala. As the former head of Mirador-Río Azul National Park, he used his connections to coordinate the creation of the Genesis Group after realizing that huge swaths of the rainforest had been left unguarded.

“A lot of the patrols that were being carried out were for one or two days, maximum,” he said. “[Park rangers] could only cover the areas immediately around where they were setting up camp. So there were logistical obstacles with transportation and food and things like that. We had the idea to create a task force that could cover the entire area all the time.”

Much of Guatemala’s rainforest sits within the Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR). It’s sliced up into different national parks, industrial-use zones and biological corridors, each with their own identity. Some sections are riddled with deforestation and crime, while others have gone virtually untouched since the reserve’s founding in 1990.

Different groups oversee different parts of the reserve, and they each take their own approach to carrying out patrols. Asturias, known for his hard-nosed, confrontational style, wanted to protect his area of influence with more aggressive tactics.

Rangers collect and record data in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Photo via the Genesis Group

He sends his rangers out for 15 days at a time with just the packs on their backs. They often travel through the forest on ATVs and make camp wherever they happen to finish for the day. Traveling without firearms, the rangers confront poachers and illegal loggers with only machetes as a defense.

“Genesis has been very effective at lowering the incidence of timber poaching and hunting in the area,” said Roan McNab, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s adviser for the Selva Maya region that covers this border region between Guatemala, Mexico and Belize. He added that Genesis is “to be commended for achieving those results in an area that’s extremely difficult to access.”

The Genesis Group is uncompromising, and its members speak proudly of their zero-tolerance policy for environmental crime. Other conservationists in the area, who spoke to Mongabay on background, said the group’s approach can be a disadvantage, since they believe that some issues are better resolved with diplomacy than arrests or reports.

But for members of the Genesis Group, it’s a matter of principle.

“A lot of park rangers, they sometimes decide not to report something because they’re scared, so they don’t always do the best job,” said Elvis Castellanos, a member of the Genesis Group. “But we force ourselves to report everything that we see.”

Weak laws and serious death threats

The Genesis Group grew to seven rangers last year. But the group’s strong stance against environmental crime has only made its work harder. Patrolling against illegal logging and hunting is becoming riskier as repeat offenders become increasingly hostile to the Genesis Group, Asturias said.

“It’s hard to make an impact when the people you arrest are only in jail for four days and then they’re out free on the street all over again,” he said, adding that members of the Genesis Group often come to him saying they run into those people in daily life.

Environmental crimes are typically prosecuted under Guatemala’s Protected Areas Law, with sentences ranging between five and 10 years. However, almost no one receives the maximum sentence, according to María del Pilar Montejo García, head legal adviser for the National Council for Protected Areas (CONAP) in Guatemala’s Petén department. In fact, most people receive a minimum sentence and exchange the jail time for a fee established by the judge. Sometimes, it can be as little as 65 U.S. cents per day.

Other common sentences include house arrest and donating equipment to CONAP. These lax sentences have created a pattern of repeat offenders, who view the penalty for logging and hunting as worth the risk.

“What we need is greater control and environmental consciousness about what is really happening,” Montejo said, “and then to apply stronger penalties.”

Members of the Genesis Group said the weak laws make them feel unsafe in small, rural communities, where people have been quick to form grudges against them. Some rangers have endured death threats by former arrestees, and worry that someone will target their family members.

“They pay their fine and walk free,” said Walter García, another member of the Genesis Group. “They know what we look like. They start looking for us to hurt us. What we really need is for the laws to be stronger.”

Park rangers managed to capture a photo of loggers moving through the forest. Photo via the Genesis Group

He added, “We’re the ones they send to fight the bastards doing damage to natural resources and wildlife. But we don’t have any support. They never tell us, ‘we are going to buy you a shotgun, a weapon, to defend your family when they come to kill you.’”

Each time García heads out on patrol, he said, his mother gives him a blessing in case it’s the last time they see each other. On his days off, he said, he sleeps with a machete by his bedside and takes it with him into the yard whenever his two dogs start barking.

“I’m talking about this as a park ranger and as a son. I can feel it in my throat just thinking about it. You might not see your kids again, your mom and dad, your sisters.”

Each member of the Genesis Group has had their own breaking point. After a series of high-profile arrests of loggers and poachers, three members finally gave in and filed for asylum with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

The rest would continue to hold out until the middle of this year, when they confronted a power much greater than any logger or poacher.

A military squabble

In August, García and another member of the Genesis Group were sent to a base camp in the northeastern corner of the reserve, near the border with Mexico and Belize. They were supposed to carry out several days of joint patrols with the military and the Nature Protection Division of the National Civil Police (PNC).

It’s common practice for multiple government bodies, law enforcement agencies and NGOs to patrol the reserve together. The military uses eight cooperation centers in eastern Petén, each with one official and 20 soldiers.

Law enforcement officers who rotate through the areas are not always trained in conservation and instead serve as protection for the rangers, who decide when and where the patrols should be carried out.

Plans for this patrol, however, were quickly derailed when Genesis Group members heard a gunshot in the distance, and discovered that someone in the military unit had shot and killed a great curassow (Crax rubra), according to patrol logs and several park officials.

The hunting of any animal in the reserve is illegal.

García said he and the other rangers went into the base camp kitchen and found military personnel plucking the dead pheasant-like bird. They also found a discarded plastic bag of feathers in the yard, according to patrol logs. The rangers interviewed several soldiers but couldn’t determine who had fired the gun. Arguments broke out between the two sides.

A military spokesman said the soldiers had found the bird already injured and taken it to their base camp when the Genesis Group arrived, which created a misunderstanding. “It is false that military personnel have fired shots inside the Maya Biosphere Reserve, much less to kill an animal,” the spokesman said.

It wasn’t the first time that military personnel have been tied to illegal hunting in the area. Other conservation organizations and scientists carrying out field work told Mongabay on background that they have found plucked birds and even butchered monkeys near soldiers’ camps. However, unlike the Genesis Group, they preferred to resolve the issue privately so as to maintain a relationship with military leadership.

“When operations are carried out in protected areas, specific instructions are issued about avoiding hunting animals,” the military spokesman said.

Members of the Genesis Group pose with the military at a base in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Photo via the Genesis Group

Standing in front of the bag of feathers, García said he felt uneasy about having interrogated the soldiers, who knew of the Genesis Group’s reputation for reporting every crime it sees. The two sides were supposed to head out on their first leg of the patrol soon — toward an isolated area near the border called El Mojón — but García was starting to rethink things.

The soldiers, he thought, might take drastic measures to protect their careers. “I said it would be better if we patrolled alone. As soon as we turn our backs near the Mexican border, they could kill us. They’ll say that Mexican narcos killed us.”

While there have been instances of military involvement in criminal activity of that nature — from drug trafficking and extortion, to corruption and resistance to efforts to clean up its ranks — the military also consistently combats those crimes in the MBR and beyond.

The spokesman said the military actively fights organized crime, including smuggling and drug trafficking. Asturias, on behalf of the Genesis Group, agreed that the military does a lot of good for the country, adding that it isn’t a corrupt institution but does have individual bad actors who can complicate patrols.

Leaving Guatemala

García returned home several days later, where he says he continued to worry about the possibility of retaliation by the military. He and the other rangers met with Asturias and reviewed the patrol logs, discussing whether it was worth resolving via official complaint or best addressed informally.

They contacted CONAP and the military in writing, saying that they were considering reporting the incident to the appropriate legal authorities, possibly the Public Ministry. Several meetings were held about the issue in the months to come, but, ultimately, nothing was ever filed.

Up until the altercation, the Genesis Group and the military had had a healthy, even amicable, relationship. In a February letter written to Asturias, one colonel commended the group for its “efficient management, leadership and professionalism” in carrying out joint patrols with the military and other law enforcement.

A month and a half after the incident, the military pulled its personnel from the area, citing a shuffling of resources in response to COVID-19 and the need to fight organized crime in other parts of the reserve. It has not patrolled in Mirador-Río Azul National Park since.

So far, no one in the Genesis Group has received a threat from a member of the military. But the persistent possibility, combined with so many other threats from illegal loggers and hunters, has made life too difficult. García has joined the rest of the Genesis Group members in applying for asylum abroad.

“There is no reason for them to run and even less for the soldiers to seek retaliation,” the military spokesman said.

Members of the Genesis Group taking a break while on patrol. Photo via the Genesis Group

The asylum process has not been an easy one. Rangers like García are leaving behind a lifetime of conservation work, as well as family and friends. He said he had plans to develop agroforestry youth programs to get kids involved in conservation. He also wanted to restart a small family restaurant that closed down during the pandemic.

Fellow Genesis Group member Castellanos said protecting the Maya Biosphere Reserve is the only thing he knows, and isn’t sure what life holds for him once he is relocated to the U.S. or somewhere similar. “I know I won’t be a ranger in the United States,” he said. “I’m going to work at whatever they give me. And if I don’t like it or I’m not good at it, I’ll just have to find something else.”

Asturias, meanwhile, says he has no plans of leaving Guatemala, let alone of backing down from his confrontational approach to dealing with illegal loggers, hunters and alleged corruption. “I’m not afraid,” he said. “If they kill me, I don’t care.”

To prepare for the departure of the first generation of the Genesis Group, he’s started training three new rangers, who are in the process of shadowing the current members. Although they have a long way to go before replacing veterans like García and Castellanos, Asturias said he will do what he can to protect the reserve.

“After the success we had with these boys, I believe that we have to continue for the long term,” he said. “We have to continue preparing new personnel, and training and equipping them.”

Banner image: Members of the Genesis Group on patrol with their ATVs in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Photo via the Genesis Group

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