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A 'cocaine warlord' is fighting to protect massive swaths of the Amazon rainforest — but some worry he's grown too powerful

He can stop deforestation with a word.

A 'cocaine warlord' is fighting to protect massive swaths of the Amazon rainforest

Photo Credit: iStock

The Amazon rainforest is essential to the health of our Earth, as it traps vast amounts of air pollution with its many lush trees and plants — but today, that ecosystem is in danger thanks to deforestation caused by humans. 

Some people in power, like Brazil's President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, are taking steps to stop the destruction before it's too late. 

One surprising figure leading the fight in Colombia, Bloomberg reveals, is a warlord named Ivan Mordisco.

Who is Iván Mordisco?

Mordisco, born Nestor Vera, is the top commander of the Estado Mayor Central (EMC) or General Central Command, an armed dissident faction with about 2,200 fighters and 1,400 support members, according to Bloomberg, which called Mordisco a "cocaine warlord."

Mordisco and the EMC control a large region in Colombia's Guaviare province, where Mordisco extorts taxes from the local businesses and farms. He also controls an enormous cocaine empire operating in the region.

Why is Mordisco involved in rainforest conservation?

In 2022, when Gustavo Petro became president of Colombia, he promised to stop deforestation. To achieve this goal, Petro planned to talk with the EMC and other armed groups.

At Petro's request, Mordisco banned cutting or burning trees within his territory — the exact opposite of his previous approach, Bloomberg reveals. The EMC issued pamphlets promising "revolutionary justice" for anyone who cut down trees without Mordisco's permission. Violators faced potential violence or fines.

The warlord's threats are believable given the history of the EMC's violence, according to Bloomberg. Even after a recent splintering of the faction, it's still Colombia's third-largest illegal armed group.

Besides threats, Mordisco has also issued fines of up to 8 million Colombian pesos (around $2,000) per acre. Deforestation in areas he controlled has since fallen by at least 90% — and across all of the Colombian Amazon, deforestation is down 76% compared to this time last year. 

While that may sound like great news from an environmental perspective, it comes at the expense of violence and criminal activity throughout the region. Meanwhile, the preserved rainforest gives the dissidents cover.

Perhaps Mordisco's main reason for doing this is that it displays his power and control over the region. He can stop deforestation with a word and start it again, too — giving him more bargaining power with Petro's government.

"This isn't sustainable, because it depends on the whims of an armed actor, not of the people, not of the government, not of anyone using any mechanisms other than force," environmentalist Angelica Rojas from the Foundation for Conservation and Development told Bloomberg.

For now, establishing relations between the EMC and Petro's government has saved trees. However, the future is uncertain for the 10% of the Amazon that lies inside Colombia's borders.

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