Since January 2012, its 700 soldiers have saved hundreds of protected animals from poachers, confiscated millions of board feet of illegally harvested timber, protected numerous indigenous communities from land grabbers and destroyed dozens of marijuana farms. They’ve even stood 24-hour armed guard over endangered sea turtles as they laid their eggs on a beach.
Protecting the environment can be dangerous. That grim fact was underscored on November 5, when drug traffickers killed a respected member of the Ecological Battalion during a gun battle near the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve in Nicaragua’s North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN).
Soldiers with the Ecological Battalion and officers with the Nicaragua National Police were on an early morning joint patrol in a remote, heavily wooded area known as Parawas when they encountered several civilians armed with shotguns and rifles, an Army spokesman told El Nuevo Diario . The armed men were allegedly growing marijuana in the area.
The confrontation turned into a gun battle, during which Ecological Battalion Sgt. Marlon Antonio Zeledon Garcia was shot multiple times and killed. He was an “outstanding” soldier, according to an Army statement. Like many members of the Ecological Battalion, Zeledon Garcia was a resident of the area he died trying to protect: he was from the small town of Wany, in the Siuna municipality of the RAAN.
Although the gunmen fled after the firefight, security forces later captured two of the men. Law enforcement authorities identified the suspects as Nelson Herrera Castellón, 19, and Pablo Armando Arauz, 30, according to El Nuevo Diario.
Previous violence against the Ecological Battalion
Sgt. Zeledon Garcia was not the first Nicaraguan Army soldier to die in defense of the environment.
In October, 2013, Sgt. Luis Enrique Núñez Guevara, 32, was killed in a gun battle with a criminal group operating a marijuana plantation in the municipality of Siuna in the RAAN. The firefight broke out during a mission by the Ecological Battalion to destroy 13,000 marijuana plants being cultivated by the criminal group.
And in September, 2012, another member of the Ecological Battalion, Staff Sergeant Joseph Wilmer Garcia Mendez, 28, was killed while leading a six-man patrol to investigate reports of criminal activity 40 kilometers southwest of the city of Siuna, El Nuevo Diario reported. The patrol confronted a group of civilians, two of whom drew pistols and began firing, killing the sergeant and wounding two other soldiers. Other members of the patrol returned fire, killing the two gunmen.
Defending natural resources
In spite of the human losses it has suffered, the BECO has achieved numerous successes since it began field operations in January, 2012.
Charged with defending natural resources in more than 70 protected areas – including the 20,000-square-kilometer Bosawas Biosphere Reserve on the Caribbean coast – BECO units operate out of more than two dozen remote 20-man “forest control” outposts. They’re trained not only in military techniques, but in basic environmental law and science as well.
Along with their military rifles, soldiers also carry shovels so that they can plant trees in areas threatened by deforestation. Nicaragua’s forest cover has dropped from 63 percent to 40 percent since 1983 because of illegal logging by criminal groups, according to a BBC News report. If the rate of logging continues unabated, by 2030 only about 25 percent of the country will be forested, which could contribute to climate change.
Members of the Ecological Battalion come from many diverse backgrounds, according to BECO commander Army Lt. Col. Marvin Paniagua. Many BECO troops speak the indigenous languages of the areas they patrol, such as Mayagna and Miskitu.
“They love Nicaragua and are very committed to our mission,” he said.
Successful operations by BECO
BECO forces have registered a series of successful security operations.
They’ve confiscated more than 2.7 million board feet of illegally harvested timber; rescued and returned to the wild more than 100 exotic birds which had been stolen by wildlife smugglers; captured 218 people suspected of environmental offenses, such as harvesting wood without a permit; discovered 21 marijuana plantations, and destroyed more than 257,700 marijuana plants; and planted more than 10,000 trees in deforested areas.
BECO soldiers have also prevented more than 600 illegal settlers from entering protected areas.
Nicaraguan security forces have demonstrated their effectiveness in controlling territory and slowing the illegal trafficking of drugs and timber, particularly along the Atlantic coast.
In addition to their regular duties protecting the environment, BECO soldiers also assist the civilian population during natural disasters and seasonal environmental events. For example, every summer BECO soldiers stand guard on Pacific coast beaches to protect endangered sea turtles that come to the area annually to nest in the sand and lay eggs.