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Struggling to keep their land

Drug traffickers are building secret airstrips and landowners are acquiring large plantations, pushing out small farmers in Guatemala.

A small town is seen in an aerial picture near Guatemala's border with Belize, Nov. 23, 2007. (Daniel LeClair/Reuters)

PETEN, Guatemala — Like thousands of other peasant farmers, Pedro Jaime Neves fled strife in his home village during Guatemala’s civil war in favor of a wide tract of land here.

"The rest of the country was conflicted because of the war and there was no other place to go," said Neves, the mayor of the small village of Caoba in southern Peten. "This was a peaceful place. It was a good place to raise your family."

Twenty-five years later, a new type of conflict has found him: Drug traffickers and agribusinesses are buying thousands of small farms — including those that surround Neves’ home — in a land grab reshaping Guatemala’s largest and most rural department.

The Peten, an area the government once used as a relief valve for residents displaced by the war, is becoming the province of wealthy landowners and drug traffickers. The trend, although legal, is having disastrous social and environmental consequences.

In a country where some 2 percent of the population controls nearly 80 percent of arable land, the Peten was an exception, and the sales are eroding what little gains Guatemala has made in land redistribution since the civil war’s end.

Land owners are amassing sprawling haciendas and drug traffickers are building illicit airstrips to land small planes swollen with Colombian cocaine en route to the United States, anti-narcotics analysts say. “It’s a huge problem. Farmers lose their land. Guatemalans lose their forests. The only people who are winning are big landowners,” said Carlos Rodas Castellanos, regional coordinator for the government’s Secretary of Agricultural Affairs. “Where are we going? If we continue like this, we’ll have millions of peasant farmers with no jobs and no land to live on. These are the same conditions that led to our civil war.”

Populated largely by poor farmers and controlled by few authorities, the Peten sits between the Caribbean coast and the Mexican border like a giant piece of real estate waiting with its "for sale" sign hanging out front. Assembling land there is a key part of the drug trade.

Mexican drug cartels pushed south into Guatemala in recent years. Once drugs arrive in Guatemala from producing countries in South America, they are taken by land over the porous Mexican border to the United States.

The drug traffickers don’t advertise themselves as such when they set up shop. Like other large landowners, they use the land as pasture for raising cattle, but they build airstrips in the middle. Guatemalan authorities say some 40 clandestine airstrips are in operation, but an anti-narcotics analyst estimated to a U.S. Congress committee that hundreds of such airstrips exist.

Already, some 30 percent of small farmers in southern Peten have sold their property, according to a study being conducted by the German Development Service, a German governmental agency. The survey of 16,000 families in 250 communities found farmers have already sold at least 156,500 acres — an area roughly the size of Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens combined.