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.
But a bigger loser may be Navarro, now 41, who consults for the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington, D.C., where he's lived while his entire family — including four children — is in Peru.
“I don't know when I'm going to be able to return,” he said. “It's something quite powerful and difficult. I really miss my family.”
The unassuming son of a civil servant, Navarro is quick to smile and has a quiet passion for social causes including defending indigenous communities and easing poverty.
Raised in the jungle city of Tarapoto, he spent childhood weekends on a patch outside town where the family grew corn and raised hogs.
They sold it in the early 1990s, when Shining Path rebels were terrorizing the nation and Navarro was getting his resource management degree in Tingo Maria near the cradle of the global cocaine trade.
Illegal logging thrives, Navarro said, because most forest-dwellers have no access to credit. Unable to go into business themselves, they are easy pawns in the trade. And resisting illegal loggers rarely ends well.
In September 2014, activist Edwin Chota and three others were killed after trying to expel rogue loggers from their community's lands. The lone imprisoned suspect was released last year.
In Peru, all lumber is supposed to come from approved harvesting areas. But prosecutors say regional forestry officials, for a price, have for years signed off on paperwork that falsely represented wood pilfered from protected lands as coming from legal plots.
On tracts where 95,000 trees worth at least $53 million were supposedly harvested, Navarro's inspectors found virgin forest.
The U.S. has pressed for years for the prompt sanctioning of Peruvian officials who falsify permits — and for an electronic timber tracking system. It's still waiting.
Navarro said he routinely provided Peru's forest service with the names of officials who committed permit fraud, but the agency barely took action.
The forest service's new director, John Leigh, had just received a comprehensive list of more than 100 such officials when the AP interviewed him in February.
He said he was “initiating the process of sanctions.”
Enforcement had already eroded.
Aggressive, targeted inspections ended with Navarro's ouster, and a drone fleet was among improvements sidelined. Inspection requirements were eased, making it more complicated for Peruvian customs officials to determine the origin of timber exports.
Peru's government defended the Houston shipment.
In a letter, its foreign trade minister told then-U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman that the load complied with the country's “formal legal requirements” and neither the government nor the exporters knew more than 95 percent of the wood was of illegal origin until after the Yacu Kallpa set sail.
The last of the lumber impounded in Houston was destroyed in March, bulldozed into a landfill. The seven importers involved reached a no-fault settlement with U.S. customs and had to pay for storage and disposal.
Seventy percent of the lumber belonged to Mexican-owned Global Plywood and Lumber Trading LLC, which had its San Diego County offices searched last year as part of a criminal investigation for possibly violating a 2008 federal law that makes trafficking in illegally harvested timber a felony. Its U.S. representative refused comment.
Another importer, Jim Reader of Downes & Reader Hardwood Co. of Stoughton, Massachusetts, said his company only bought wood from legal sources in Peru. He said the business lost $250,000 on the deal.
“I'm all done with Peru.”