Mexican drug cartels are expanding their reach into wildlife crime. They’re strengthening their hold on the country’s legal fisheries and using them to launder illegally caught marine animals, according to a soon-to-be released report by the Brookings Institution.
The cartels previously had been linked to trafficking of marine species such as totoaba, as well as rosewood, a timber that is coveted for high-end furniture and musical instruments. But the Washington, D.C.-based think tank’s report indicates that the crime groups have recently stepped up their trafficking of wildlife species, often to China. In exchange, the cartels sometimes receive chemicals that can be converted into fentanyl or methamphetamine.
“Instead of selling lemonade, it’s like they will be selling lemons and sugar to the cartels who then make it into lemonade,” says Brookings senior fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown, the report’s author.
Her findings draw from 73 interviews with current and former officials, environmental groups, fishers, and others in Mexico, China, the United States, and elsewhere. All were conducted on condition of anonymity.
She reports that the body parts of jaguars in Mexico also are likely being smuggled out for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Reptiles, sea cucumbers, abalone, and shark fins, she adds, are trafficked from Mexico to China as well, sometimes via the U.S.
This report was “well done” says Steve Carmody, chief of investigations at the Wildlife Justice Commission, a nonprofit based in The Hague, Netherlands, working to expose criminal networks that traffic wildlife. He called its conclusions a “wake-up call to governments and policy makers.”
How cartels force fishers to comply
Organized crime infiltrated the fishing industry in phases, Felbab-Brown writes. First, cartels began exerting control over poachers who illegally take protected species such as totoaba, a big fish sought for its swim bladder for traditional Chinese medicine. Next, they targeted small-scale fishers of low-value seafood such as corvina and forced them to sell their goods solely to the cartels.
Most recently, the report says, groups such as the Sinaloa cartel and to a lesser extent the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación have seized control of large companies that have fishing fleets or process high-value species like scallops and lobster, particularly for export. The cartels use these legal businesses to launder poached marine species. And the Sinaloa cartel is “allegedly in the process of opening its own formal legal seafood processing plant and company and hiring people for its operations,” the report says. Cartels also force restaurants, including those catering to international tourists, to buy their fish exclusively.
Felbab-Brown describes how during the past five years, the Sinaloa cartel has bought up Mexico’s permits for geoduck clams, a large mollusk sold to Chinese buyers. That gave them control over the legal geoduck clam fishing operations. The cartel also organized illegal clam fishing and laundered the illegal take.
Juan Carlos Cantú, the Mexico director of programs at Defenders of Wildlife, who was not involved in the report, says the reach of organized crime extends far beyond the illegal wildlife trade.
“The cartels are in the extortion business,” he says. “You cannot work unless you pay them, and if you don’t pay them, they burn down your store or burn down your crops or your fishing vessels or kidnap you or someone in your family,” he says. “That’s happened all over Mexico.” Moreover, he says, cartels have been forcing fishermen to smuggle illegal drugs for decades.
In a recent case described by Felbab-Brown, a cartel kidnapped the son of a seafood processing plant owner in Baja California Sur as leverage to force the plant to process the cartel’s seafood. After the work was completed, the son was freed, and the owner received payment—but it was only half the market rate.
The China connection
Much wildlife poaching in Mexico—often for the bird and reptile pet trade or for feathers—is driven by demand locally as well as in the U.S. and elsewhere in Central America. But the China connection is growing, Felbab-Brown writes. She says government inaction is largely to blame.
“This administration has dropped the ball,” Cantú says of Mexico’s leadership. Lax policies and budgets cuts for environmental protection and enforcement have “tied the hands” of anyone who could try to combat these crimes, he says.
Mexico’s environment ministry, the Secretaría del Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, did not respond to National Geographic’s request for comment.
The problem extends beyond Mexico. There’s been a lack of cooperation among Mexico, China, and others in combating the trends detailed by Felbab-Brown, says the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency’s Clare Perry, who studies the totoaba trade and wasn’t involved with the report. “There’s no evidence, for example, of any efforts by China to reduce demand for totoaba,” she says, and data on seizures by customs authorities suggest that legal fisheries are increasingly used as a preferred route to move illegal products.
In one major seizure in Hong Kong in 2020, Perry notes, more than 200 pounds of illegal totoaba swim bladders, or maws, were mixed with legal frozen squid. And last year, Hong Kong authorities seized about 30 pounds of swim bladders hidden in two boxes of fish fillets destined for Vietnam. “Previously, the totoaba maw have primarily been transported in passenger luggage,” she says.
Jaguar body parts are missing
Jaguars in the wild in Mexico, which numbered only about 4,000 in 2010, had increased to about 4,800 by 2018. But cattle farmers still continue to kill the big cats, often in retaliation for preying on their livestock or to prevent future kills.
Increasingly, jaguar carcasses are found missing their paws, teeth, and other body parts, according to the report. Environmentalists working in southern Mexico and along the border with Guatemala and Belize told Felbab-Brown that they believe the animals’ missing body parts are being sold to China. It’s possible the cartels are trafficking them along with timber and drugs, but, she says, “We just don’t know about the role of organized crime groups in this space.”
Cantú says the body parts likely are taken as trophies and that there are too few jaguars being killed—and too few overall—for it to make sense for organized crime to get involved in the big cat trade. When cartels take up a commodity, there’s also usually a lot of associated violence, he says. “So if organized crime is involved with the trafficking of jaguars, there would be a huge increase in violence in the southeast states of Mexico where most of the jaguar population exists, and that’s not happening.”
Felbab-Brown says that although the jaguar trade likely isn’t very profitable or large, the missing body parts could be a “harbinger” of future expansion by the cartels and that conservationists and law enforcement should start monitoring these crimes now. “It’s important to put out even circumstantial evidence of this happening to have an early warning—to encourage people to start looking for it and to be alert so we don’t discover all of a sudden that 500 jaguars are gone from Mexico.”
Exchanging drugs for seafood
Illicit drugs, a traditional focus of the cartels, are becoming enmeshed in Mexico’s wildlife trade, Felbab-Brown warns. China’s strict capital controls that bar Chinese citizens from sending more than $50,000 abroad each year have made bartering drug-making chemicals for legally traded seafood, such as jellyfish, a convenient way to bypass restrictions. This informal system has taken hold in part because fentanyl now is tightly regulated in China and can’t easily be exported to Mexico.
Cartels may pay fishers for their catch with drugs—further enriching the criminal organizations by boosting demand for drugs used or sold by the fishers themselves.
“At minimum,” Felbab-Brown’s report concludes, “the Mexican government must become willing to protect Mexico’s first and last-resort protectors of wildlife—environmental activists and NGOs—with a far greater commitment than it has exhibited so far.”
More than 80 environmental defenders were killed in the country from 2012 to 2019. Another 30 were killed in 2020 alone.