HomeInvestigationsDonkey Skin Trafficking on Colombia’s Northern Coast
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Donkey Skin Trafficking on Colombia’s Northern Coast

CHINA AND CRIME / 14 MAY 2021 BY CÉSAR MOLINARES* EN

When hundreds of skinned donkeys appeared on Colombia’s northern coast without explanation, locals – and later authorities – started asking questions. The answer, as it was in many of these wildlife cases, was China. But the case also revealed the area was ready-made for this type of trafficking.

The outrage began where it often does: with a cute photograph of the animals in question. In the photo, the donkeys appear to be leaning into the camera for a group shot, their ears pointing in different directions. One appears to be smiling.

A pleasing drove of donkeys. Photo: El Heraldo

But the reports were not happy. It was October 2016, and El Heraldo, the leading newspaper of Colombia’s fourth-largest city, Barranquilla, was reporting that an increasing number of donkey carcasses were being found along the northern coast. In one municipality alone, locals had counted 55 skinned animals.

*This is the first chapter of a four-part series on wildlife trafficking across Latin America, carried out over two years by InSight Crime in collaboration with American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. This investigation involved extensive fieldwork in Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and Peru, during which we interviewed dozens of government officials, members of security forces, academics, smugglers, landowners and local residents, among others.

The first theories centered on the leather industry. The region has numerous tanneries, and the newspaper quoted a local policeman saying they believed the “hypothesis that they are used for the leather industry.”

The news quickly spread, prompting the country’s agriculture regulatory body, the Colombian Agricultural Institute (Instituto Colombiano Agropecuario - ICA), to issue a report saying that 180 tons of donkey skins had been exported to China in 2015. ICA added that the main exporters had not complied with the law.

The Attorney General’s Office followed, opening an investigation. They set up checkpoints, where they stopped several trucks carrying donkeys. Some had license plates from Medellín and Envigado, two cities hundreds of kilometers south of the Caribbean coast. The trail lengthened. 

Later, the Attorney General’s Office flipped a participant in the scheme. The collaborator told authorities that the Sucre case was not an isolated one and that the theft and sale of donkeys was happening in municipalities in the neighboring departments of Córdoba, Sucre, Bolívar, Atlántico and Magdalena.

To be sure, in early 2017, the Atlántico department reported that as many as 600 donkeys had simply “disappeared,” as Semana magazine reported. The collaborator told prosecutors from the Attorney General's Office it was part of a scheme that included clandestine slaughterhouses and international buyers.

In a report that followed, prosecutors made references to the illegal trafficking and unauthorized slaughter of donkeys and horses that went as far back as the 1990s.

“Above all, in Lorica and Sahagún [municipalities of Córdoba], there were and there are illegal companies where these animals are collected and sacrificed without any licenses…[so their] meat, skin, bones and internal organs can be sold,” they reported.

But these more recent cases were different. The massive slaughter and sale of donkeys created a shortage of the animal in a place where they are employed on farms, as well as for the transportation of goods, food and people. It was, in short, a crisis.

Colombia: A Wildlife Trafficker’s Paradise

Colombia is a wildlife trafficker’s paradise. Estimates of the number of trafficked species in Colombia range from 346 to 670; and the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Unit (Unidad de Rescate y Rehabilitación de Animales Silvestres -- URRAS) at Colombia's National University estimates that as many as 46,000 animals are trafficked each year with an approximate worth of $17 million.

Between 2017 and 2020, the government seized 97,663 trafficked animals (around 25,000 per year), according to the National Police. The department of Sucre had the highest number of seizures with 30,189, followed by Magdalena and Córdoba, which had 18,768 and 13,559 respectively.

However, just using seizures to measure fauna trafficking paints a distorted picture of the real situation. Some of the country’s hotspots for wildlife poaching, such as Amazonas or Chocó, have a weak state presence, and thus seize far fewer trafficked animals. Seizures also happen towards the latter end of the supply chain, after many of the animals are dead.

SEE ALSO: Suriname’s Jaguar Trade: From Poaching to Paste

The seizures themselves also tell but a small part of the story. Environmental authorities calculate that they seize between one and ten percent of the total amount of illegally trafficked species in Colombia. And it is getting harder. Seizures over the past few years involved traffickers who switch out ink for water in pens to traffic freshwater fish larvae to Asia. Others use small film canisters to traffic poisonous frogs. Traffickers sedate and tape birds to the inside of suitcases, and they obfuscate trafficking behind falsified or illegally obtained paperwork.

According to seizure data from the Ministry of Environment, the most trafficked species in Colombia are usually turtles, iguanas, parrots, squirrels, monkeys and various types of venomous frogs.

The animals were sourced throughout the country. The amphibians came primarily from the department of Chocó; the birds were spread up and down the Andes mountains; and the mammals and reptiles were concentrated in the northwestern half of the country along mountains and coastal areas. Most of the animals appeared to be sourced from the north and northwestern departments, while just a few were poached from the south and southeast regions.

The motives for these trafficking activities are varied. According to URRAS, the species most vulnerable to illegal trafficking are turtles (for their eggs), alligators (for their skin), iguanas and boas (as pets), parrots, macaws, troupials and mockingbirds (as pets), monkeys and sloth bears (as pets), jaguars and tigrillos (for their furs or as pets), and peccaries, tapirs, limpets and deer (for their skins).

The run for donkey skins in northern Colombia had its roots in China. In recent years, the donkey population of China has experienced a precipitous decline. The cause of the drop was related to a boom in the use of ejiao, a gel-like substance produced using donkey skins and herbs. Ejiao is used to treat rare skin ailments in China, as well as a moisturizer; some believe it helps with anemia, menstrual cramps and certain types of cancer. Demand is high. By one recent estimate, China needs near four million donkeys per year but can only supply just under two million.

As China has faced an ejiao shortage, there has been a run on the donkey population in Africa and Asia: Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe were among the hardest hit. Still, demand continued to rise, and purveyors continued to scramble in Africa and beyond. Soon South America became an option, especially in places with a limited state presence and long traditions of contraband and animal trafficking, like some parts of Colombia.

Backroads, False Paperwork and Clandestine Slaughterhouses

InSight Crime tracked down the investigator from the Attorney General's Office forensics unit who carried out the investigation. The investigator said the criminal networks used the same mountainous back roads as drug and gold traffickers: These routes crisscross high, mountain ridges and jut through tributaries that connect to some of the most important rivers in the country. If they ran into a police checkpoint, they could camouflage their flocks amid the cattle, which also move along the trails.

Initially, the investigator said, the criminal group bought the donkeys and sacrificed them on farms they managed. But as the supply dwindled, they turned to stealing them. According to prosecutors, intermediaries paid between 300,000 and 800,000 pesos (between $100 and $250) per donkey, depending on whether it was stolen or purchased. Paradoxically, the price of these animals normally hovers around 50,000 pesos (about $16).

Prior to creating a storage and slaughter area, they used publicly accessible cattle pens, including one known as corrales negros (unlicensed corrals), located in the municipality of Betulia, Antioquia department. These installations gave them some cover, the investigator said, allowing traffickers to obscure the illicit origins of the animals.

This was a crucial part of the scheme. To move the donkeys, transporters had to carry two key documents. First, the Internal Sanitary Mobilization Guide (Guía Sanitaria de Movilización Interna - GSMI), which certifies the animals’ origin and their vaccinations. Second, the so-called Transport Guide (Guía de Transporte), which certifies that the transport company, the animals’ point of origin and their final destination are all legitimate. In both cases, the owner or transporter also has to show authorities that the brand on the animals corresponds with the paperwork. According to Colombian law, the imprint should show the location and date of branding, the name and identification of the brand's owner, and the symbol or initials of the brand, along with a signature.

Ejiao products for sale in China. Photo: The Donkey Sanctuary

However, there are ways to obtain this paperwork illegally. Prosecutors have found in other cases that livestock farmers and transporters pay bribes to ICA officials for vaccine certifications. They have also found brands that do not correspond with ownership – they are new, invented or simply placed on top of the old brand.

“Any of this paperwork can be falsified pretty easily,” one investigator told InSight Crime.

It is a vibrant trade. One man, who asked we identify him as “El Tano,” said that he was from a rural area near where the donkeys were being stolen, and that he and owned a number of small trading stalls. He bought and sold cattle, but he also said he was an intermediary for donkey rustling.

In practice, this meant he bought donkeys from wholesalers and then sold them to processors. He would load the animals into vehicles, which brought them to local, clandestine slaughterhouses. Neighbors corroborated his account. The area is bereft of authorities, so his activities went undetected.

Exporting the Hides

About 70 kilometers south from these storage points, there is a clandestine slaughterhouse on a farm, which, according to the Attorney General’s Office, is owned by a couple who authorities say were among the groups trafficking donkey skins. The slaughterhouse is only two kilometers from the main highway along the Caribbean Coast, just behind a breeding zoo. Prosecutors say the couple also owns a tannery in Barranquilla.

The tannery, breeding zoo and slaughterhouse were complementary businesses. Stolen donkeys were run through the slaughterhouse for their skin, which was processed with a brine, then stored in cold rooms. Later, they were transferred to refrigerated trucks, before being sent abroad alongside the products from the tannery. Their destination, the Attorney General’s Office believes, was China. The donkey carcasses were sent to the zoo, where the owners would feed them to the alligators and crocodiles they were breeding, one former employee told InSight Crime.

The Attorney General’s Office said the local branch of Colombia's Regional Autonomous Corporation (Corporaciones Autónomas Regionales -- CAR) helped the couple. The CARs are supposed to regulate the breeding and sale of animals. There are 33 of them nationwide, stationed in regions where fauna and flora are commercialized.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Environmental Crime

In this case, prosecutors suspect that CAR representatives were purposely overstating how many animals were born in the breeding zoo, which was legally exporting crocodile and alligator skins. The extra animals on paper gave the exporters extra space in the cargo hold to send the skins.

“There is a market for space” in the cargo hold, the investigator explained to InSight Crime.

This space can be used in more than one way. In addition to sending the treated donkey skins, exporters can send skins and furs of other animals that have been captured and killed illegally. Prosecutors also suspect that money launderers and drug traffickers can buy this space.

The trades overlap in other ways as well. Coincidentally, drug traffickers often use same types of chemicals that animal skin traders do when treating their products, including potassium, hydrochloric acid and sulfuric acid.

“It is a convenient coincidence,” the investigator said.

There are several Colombian companies that export donkey hides. When InSight Crime asked authorities about them, they said they’d found that none of the companies complied completely with the legal requirements for these exports. Many of the hides, for example, did not have a certificate to prove they had been cleaned and sanitized for export.

When InSight Crime inquired about these missing certificates and other violations cited by the authorities, representatives of the companies brushed off the accusations. In response to questions about the sanitary certificate, for instance, they said China did not require it.  

ICA, company representatives said, were also remiss. They said the regulators were not asking for certificates of origin for the donkey hides. What’s more, the institute only kept records of bovines and buffalo in breeding farms. Without a registry of the donkey population, it was virtually impossible to keep track of the trafficking.

That left traffickers to commit their crimes in plain sight, according to a salesman of animal skins for one of the export companies who spoke to InSight Crime on the condition of anonymity. The salesman said he knew of a group of about ten buyers who obtained donkey hides from large wholesalers. Still, by the time InSight Crime spoke to him in 2019, the salesman said the crackdown by Colombian authorities was having an impact and that he was seeing fewer and fewer illegally-sourced hides.

What’s more, the trade may be mutating. One prosecutor in central Colombia told InSight Crime that in a recent investigation she led, which unearthed a clandestine slaughterhouse, they found a Chinese national who purportedly specialized in camouflaging donkey parts for export, including both the skin and entrails, which have other uses. She added that prosecutors had intercepted phone conversations in which Chinese experts were teaching slaughterhouse employees how to meet all the standards for shipping these products to China without going through the big hide export houses.

*This is the first chapter of a four-part series on wildlife trafficking across Latin America, carried out over two years by InSight Crime in collaboration with American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. This investigation involved extensive fieldwork in Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and Peru, during which we interviewed dozens of government officials, members of security forces, academics, smugglers, landowners and local residents, among others.

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