Cocaine warehouse Illegal drug production

(Credit: Leon Rafael/Shutterstock)

ITHACA, N.Y. – Cocaine trafficking continues to be a major problem for both law enforcement and human health, but a new study finds another surprising victim of this issue — birds. Researchers from Cornell University say the illegal drug trade is destroying the habitats of migratory birds who fly south for winter — endangering the future of dozens of species.

The findings, in a nutshell

Researchers publishing their work in the journal Nature Sustainability found that 67 species of migratory birds that live in the United States and Canada are facing increased threats from cocaine trafficking south of the border. The biggest threat comes from drug dealers in the birds’ winter home of Central America clearing out land to easily move narcotics.

“When drug traffickers are pushed into remote forested areas, they clear land to create landing strips, roads and cattle pastures,” says lead author Amanda Rodewald, senior director of the Center for Avian Population Studies at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in a media release. “Those activities – and the counterdrug strategies that contribute to them – can deforest landscapes and threaten species.”

Landing strip near a river, hidden airport, hidden airplane landing strip.
Hidden airplane landing strip near a river. (Credit: EBRIMINI/Shutterstock)


In their groundbreaking study, researchers at Cornell employed a multifaceted approach to unravel this complex issue. They leveraged data from the U.S. government’s Consolidated Counterdrug Database, which documents cocaine trafficking events and law enforcement efforts across the Western Hemisphere Transit Zone, including Central America.

Combining this information with advanced modeling techniques, the researchers estimated how the suitability of landscapes for narco trafficking activities might shift in response to peak drug enforcement efforts. To gauge the potential impact on biodiversity, they cross-referenced these shifting patterns with high-resolution data on the distribution and abundance of forest-associated birds, both resident and migratory species.

Results: A Disturbing Overlap

Approximately two-thirds of the important landscapes for tropical resident birds and migratory species in Central America are projected to experience an increased risk of narco trafficking following peak interdiction efforts. These landscapes, including the famed Maya Forest in Guatemala and the Honduran Moskitia, are among the largest remaining forested areas in the region and are disproportionately inhabited by Indigenous communities.

The consequences could be far-reaching. Over half of the Nearctic-Neotropical migratory species, including the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler, have more than 25% of their global populations within areas that are becoming increasingly susceptible to narco-trafficking activities.

“This research gives an even fuller accounting of the harms caused by drug trafficking and the way we currently go about fighting it,” says study co-author Nicholas Magliocca, associate professor at the University of Alabama.

Study Limitations

While the study sheds light on this complex issue, the researchers acknowledge the inherent challenges and uncertainties associated with estimating secretive activities like drug trafficking. Their goal was not to predict future hotspots but rather to broaden the scope of potential collateral damages considered as part of drug enforcement strategies and reform alternatives.


The researchers emphasize the need for more holistic strategies that extend beyond the traditional supply-side policing approach championed by the United States. Researchers say these strategies should aim to establish trust and build capacity within communities and governments to protect their lands from narco traffickers.

“U.S. drug policy in Central America focuses on the supply side of the equation, and law-enforcement pressure plays a significant role in the movement of trafficking routes and locations of narco-deforestation,” adds Magliocca. “After 40 years that approach has not worked. In fact, cocaine trafficking has only expanded and become a worldwide network. It used to be that cocaine was just passing through Central America, but now it’s become a hub of global trans-shipment.”

Enhancing governance institutions, improving land tenure rights, reducing poverty within Indigenous and rural communities, and strengthening their ability to protect forests are among the recommended actions. By empowering these communities to reassert their territorial control and resource governance norms, researchers believe that the cycle of environmental destruction driven by drug dealers can be disrupted.

“Our study is a reminder that we can’t address social problems in a vacuum because they can have unintended environmental consequences that undermine conservation,” Rodewald concludes.

About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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