HOUSTON – Rolando Navarro, still in his 30s, had no illusions when he took the top job in Peru’s forest inspection agency in 2012. The country’s timber industry had long been notoriously corrupt, with a World Bank report that year putting wood exports at 80 percent illegal.
In more than a decade crisscrossing the vast Amazon interior, Navarro had seen officials ignore the scourge and the exploitation of indigenous communities. His team of young, like-minded fellow Amazon natives thought they had the U.S. on their side.
Three years later, Navarro’s scrappy inspectors scored a rare victory in the global battle to preserve tropical forests. Customs agents at the Port of Houston used evidence from Navarro’s team to impound 1,770 metric tons of Peruvian Amazon wood from a rusty freighter. That’s enough to cover three football fields.
But the triumph was short-lived. Navarro was later fired and quickly fled to the United States, hoping his team’s work could continue if he kept a low profile.
A monthslong Associated Press investigation found that other government actions further undermined efforts to clean up Peru’s timber industry, as required by a 2006 free trade agreement with the U.S.
A month after Navarro’s dismissal, Peruvian prosecutors were thwarted trying to offload hundreds of tons of wood from the same freighter, the Yacu Kallpa, on the Amazon in Iquitos.
A forest inspectors’ office was firebombed. Protesters set ablaze a coffin bearing Navarro’s name. Death threats poured in, forcing Navarro’s team to change phone numbers.
“It’s organized crime,” Navarro said. “I can say that with certainty because we’d been tracking it for years.”
Inspections to detect criminal harvesting were scaled back. Prosecutions barely advanced, with only small-time players getting arrested. And officials who signed falsified logging permits remain on the job.
The U.S. government has little to show for more than $90 million in forest-management aid to Peru, which has annually been losing rainforest roughly half the size of Rhode Island.
American officials were hoodwinked into believing Peru was serious about taking down illegal loggers, said Rocky Piaggone, a U.S. attorney for environmental crimes who visited regularly before retiring last year.
“They were expecting to get prosecutions, but they got nothing,” he said.