Central America's rainforests are being destroyed by drug traffickers who cut roads and airstirps on protected lands, according to a new paper in the journal, Science. The phenomenon, labeled "narco-deforestation," is occurring across large swaths of Guatemala and Honduras, and perhaps elsewhere. Erik Nielsen, an assistant professor in the School of Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability at Northern Arizona University, said: "Not only are societies being ripped apart, but forests are being ripped apart." He added that cattle ranches are being established on cleared land as fronts to launder drug money.

The article highlights forest destruction in the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, an international initiative established in 1998 to link ecosystems and conservation efforts across Central America and southern Mexico.

Much of this appears to be a response to US-led anti-narcotics efforts, especially in Mexico, said Kendra McSweeney, lead author of the article and an associate professor of geography at Ohio State University. "In response to the crackdown in Mexico, drug traffickers began moving south into Central America around 2007 to find new routes through remote areas to move their drugs from South America and get them to the United States," McSweeney said. "When drug traffickers moved in, they brought ecological devastation with them." For instance, researchers found that the amount of annual deforestation more than quadrupled in Honduras between 2007 and 2011 -- the same period when cocaine movements through the country also spiked.

"Forest communities are literally caught in a battle between government interdiction forces and the narco-traffickers," said Dr. David Wrathall of the United Nations University's Institute for Environment and Human Security, another report co-author. "It is terrifying and alienating for these communities, who are really our last hope for conservation."

A key hub of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor is the Maya Biosphere Reserve, a vast expanse of rainforest in Guatemala's north, which has been aggressively colonized by Mexico's notorious Zetas narco-network, establishing a mini-empire in the jungle and terrorizing the local populace.