Great sweeps of Guatemalan rain forest, once the cradle of one of the world’s great civilizations, are being razed to clear land for cattle-ranching drug barons. Other parts of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, Central America’s largest protected area, have been burned down by small cities of squatters. Looters and poachers, kept at bay when guerrilla armies roamed the region during the country’s 36-year civil war, ply their trades freely.
“There’s traffickers, cattle ranchers, loggers, poachers and looters,” said Richard D. Hansen, an American archaeologist who is leading the excavation of the earliest and largest Mayan city-state, El Mirador, in the northern tip of the reserve. “All the bad guys are lined up to destroy the reserve. You can’t imagine the devastation that is happening.”