In Mexico City’s urban sprawl, an unexpected illegal logging network thrives

  • A national park inside Mexico City is an illegal logging hotspot for wood buyers from all over the country.
  • The national park, called Cumbres del Ajusco, sits on the southern edge of the city, where cartels oversee the logging operations with local lumberjacks.
  • Law enforcement agencies have struggled to root out the illegal logging operations due to a lack of personnel and questionable enforcement strategies

TLALPAN, Mexico — Mexico City is, by some counts, one of the largest cities in the world. Its 9 million citizens occupy 1,485 square kilometers (573 square miles) of sprawling concrete and endure some of the worst air pollution on record. But drive south and, just within the city limits, you’ll discover a 920-hectare (2,275-acre) protected forest called Cumbres del Ajusco National Park.

The abundance of quality pine and fir trees, combined with easy access to urban infrastructure and national highways, has long made the Ajusco a hotspot for illegal logging. Cartels in the area contract local residents to cut down the trees, process the wood and sell it to buyers looking to build luxury cabins and furniture all over Mexico.

“The demand is huge,” said Jorge Fernández, a lumberjack who was arrested for timber trafficking in 2018 and spoke to Mongabay from prison. “We filled a truck every night — and it’s a big truck. Sometimes, it seemed like we would never finish. The jobs took three, four, five days. Dawn after dawn we were chopping.”

Illegal logging poses a threat to important wildlife like the berylline hummingbird (Amazilia beryllina) and Bell’s salamander (Isthmura bellii), but could soon affect the quality of life for Mexico City’s human residents, too.

Around 70% of the area’s drinking water passes through the Ajusco, according to the Federal Attorney’s Office for Environmental Protection (Profepa). Studies have shown that forests are vital for securing access to potable water because they absorb runoff and prevent soil erosion that puts harmful chemicals into the water.

The Ajusco is also an important source of carbon capture and acts as a barrier against urban sprawl, Profepa said.

A hazardous road forward

Traveling south through the city, the apartment buildings and convenience stores of the capital start to transition into campgrounds, cornfields and irregular housing settlements. The road entering the Ajusco is lined with police checkpoints, although most of them are unmanned. Pickup trucks have been left for show and the trailers with Policia written across the side are empty.

Deeper into the Ajusco, and the checkpoints become less frequent, then they drop off altogether. The forest rises up on the hills on every side, the most distant ones touching the clouds, and strange-looking paths start to cut out from the main road.

A lot of the paths look like mountain biking trails, but they serve a much more sinister purpose: local lumberjacks use them to enter hard-to-reach parts of the forest — and to defend against intruders encroaching on their territory.

The long, narrow paths allow the lumberjacks to block in unfamiliar vehicles as well as to easily identify and shoot at police from lookout points on the top of the mountain.

Felled trees in the Ajusco
Felled trees left behind by lumberjacks in the Cumbres del Ajusco National Park. Image by Sergio Alvarez.

Most of the lumberjacks have gotten involved in such dangerous work because they have struggled to find other economic opportunities on the southern edges of Mexico City. Or they travel from the neighboring state of Morelos, which has experienced a rise in poverty and extreme poverty over the last several years.

Similar circumstances of small-scale illegal loggers exist in communities around the world with resource-rich tropical rainforests.

Other lumberjacks in the Ajusco, like Fernández, inherited the practice from their parents. “I come from a family of lumberjacks,” he said. “My name is respected and people respect it when they hear it. People know we work in wood.”

Fernández, ever confident in his work in the Ajusco, said he plans to go right back to logging after finishing his three-and-a-half-year prison sentence. He can make around $750 a month selling wood illegally, far more than what he would make on the legal market, which is rarely sought after by elite buyers due to high prices and complicated government regulations.

Buyers tend to be politicians, wealthy businesspeople, actors and other celebrities, the police and Profepa told Mongabay. The wood is not shipped abroad like some other timber in Mexico, but instead used for luxury housing and furniture projects within the country.

“We had a special request on La Roqueta Island,” Fernández recalled, “a house in Acapulco that needed floors, chairs, everything. It was all made of cedar. We filled that order.”

The lumberjacks are contracted by local, unnamed cartels as well as by La Familia Michoacana, or the Michoacán Family, a once powerful but now declining drug trafficking cartel that, many years ago, moved into the area from the neighboring state of Michoacán.

The cartel is famously superstitious, and leaves half-built cabins covered in jewelry and symbols of witchcraft at important spots around the forest edge. It drives away locals and even some police, Fernández said.

Cabin in CUbmbres de Ajusco
A cabin constructed by lumberjacks to mark their territory in the Cumbres del Ajusco National Park. Image by Sergio Alvarez.

For more serious threats, though, the cartel arms the lumberjacks with 9 mm pistols and rifles, police said. It has also paid off different law enforcement bodies and the government to ensure that the lumberjacks aren’t arrested and wood shipments aren’t confiscated.

“Coming down from the Ajusco to the checkpoints, we would sometimes run into the military,” Fernández said. “Those guys would always ask us, ‘so where did you get the wood?’ But they already knew how the agreement was.”

Combatting illegal logging

Profepa said illegal logging has decreased in recent years due to a rising number of complaints filed by locals. There are also continual joint operations carried out with the National Guard, police and other law enforcement bodies, Profepa said.

This year, Profepa said, 68 patrols have been carried out, as well as 45 vehicle checks and 30 inspections of sawmills and timberyards. As a result, 17 mills were dismantled in several illegal logging hotspots within the Ajusco, including the communities of Lomas de Tepemécatl and San Miguel Topilejo.

But there’s disagreement across law enforcement agencies — especially the Mexico City police — about whether the current approach is doing enough. Some law enforcement officers are concerned that the government presence in the Ajusco is extremely thin on the ground, according to Carlos Martínez, a city police officer who worked in the area from 2017 until earlier this year.

He said that while two police patrols are usually assigned to regular city blocks, the entire national park receives just one. There are also no civil society organizations present in the park and very few park rangers. As a result, it’s nearly impossible to cover such a large, forested area, especially when considering that many lumberjacks travel in large groups with better weapons than the officers.

Most officers assigned to the area prefer to do as little as possible in order to avoid trouble, Martínez said, while looking the other way when the lumberjacks drive through the checkpoints with massive shipments of lumber.

“The police get scared, too,” he said. “So we patrol until a certain time and then it gets dark and we stop. There isn’t a radio signal up there. There’s no way for someone to come and get you. If you get into a confrontation up on the mountain, there isn’t a way to call for backup.”

Illegal path in Cumbres del Ajusco
A path forged by lumberjacks diverts from the main road in the Cumbres del Ajusco. Image by Sergio Alvarez.

Martínez also said the standard-issue Dodge Charger sedans for Mexico City police are ineffective in rural areas like the Ajusco, where the vehicles can get stuck in the mud. Larger operations with better vehicles are often equally futile because officers tend to charge loudly into the area with their lights on, allowing the lumberjacks enough time to flee.

The only real solution to the illegal logging problem in the Ajusco, Martínez said, is to drastically increase the number of patrols and make sure the park is monitored 24 hours a day.

“That area should have at least 10 units,” he said. “It’s an omission by officials, by the people who are giving the orders.”

Banner image: An aerial view of the Cumbres del Ajusco National Park. Image by Sergio Alvarez.

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