The illegal drug trade in Latin America is hurting precious rainforests in more ways than previously known about, according to a scientific new study released this week.

Land in Central and South America is often clear-cut to grow coca plants to make cocaine -- that, we already knew. But a new study published this week in the journal Science shows that the illegal drug trade is hurting rainforests in Central America in a different way: secretly transporting illegal drugs and the process of laundering money made in the drug trade are destroying ecologically important rainforests as well. 

Lead author Kendra McSweeny, a geographer from Ohio State University who has worked in Honduras for the last 20 years to learn how the population interacts with their environment, published the study. She says the deforestation rate in Eastern Honduras has more than quadrupled from 2007 to 2011, and forests are disappearing faster in Eastern Nicaragua and Northern Guatemala, as well, according to io9. "We started seeing a pattern of deforestation at a pace that seemed unprecedented," McSweeney told io9. "We saw large areas of 100 to 500 hectares being cleared in a short amount of time."

McSweeney's investigation into why the forests were disappearing at a never-before-seen rate led her to drug smugglers -- "los narcos" to the local population. She found drug traffickers are hurting Central American rainforest ecosystems in two ways -- one direct and the other, and much more harmful, more indirect.

First, drug smugglers are directly responsible for some deforestation after clearing areas in Central American rainforests to build illicit roads and landing strips for easier drug distribution.

The second and more pernicious effect the drug trade has on Central American rainforests has to do with power, politics, money, and fear. Obviously there is a lot of money in the drug trade -- so much so that it often makes drug traffickers in the poor Central American nation of Honduras untouchable.

Drug cartels launder their immense profits by buying land in these areas, paying officials to keep silent, and proceed to clear the land to build plantations and ranches as fronts for their illicit operations. "They transformed their dirty money into assets," said McSweeny to io9. And having vast swaths of territory in Central American front plantations also protects their real assets from rival drug organizations. Once the land is (illegally) cleared and used for agriculture for a while, that land is basically now commercial, and often drug traffickers make additional profits -- and make their ecological damage permanent -- by later selling the highly-valued new agricultural land to legitimate agricultural businesses.

The local authorities are bought off, but what about outside conservationists? According to NBC, conservationists mostly left the region around 2007, citing safety concerns. With local officials being paid more money than most Hondurans will ever see and violent drug cartels at the root of the problem, there's little conservationists could do to prevent deforestation anyway.

But defeated conservationists leaving Central America around 2007 isn't the reason for the spike in deforestation. According to McSweeney, it's U.S. drug policy. The drug war and intensified interdiction efforts by the Mexican and U.S. governments that kicked off in 2006 pushed drug cartels farther south, first into the Caribbean, but then into Eastern Honduras and parts of Nicaragua and Guatemala, after the U.S. pushed them out of the Caribbean. The militarized escalation of the drug war on the supply side has essentially done nothing but push the traffickers into environmentally protected lands.

"What 40 years of drug policy has taught us is that it might solve the problem in one place, but it's pushing it into another," said McSweeney to io9, resulting in "spectacular human and ecological carnage in Latin America."