China’s demand for rare and exotic goods is fueling wildlife trafficking in Latin America — and organized crime is ready to cash in.

The global black market trade in wildlife is now worth an estimated $19 billion a year, making it the fourth-largest illegal industry worldwide behind drugs, counterfeiting and human trafficking, according to a report by the non-profit International Fund for Animal Welfare (pdf).

Latin America has come to play an important role in this trade due to the hemisphere’s diverse range of ecosystems, the lack of awareness and enforcement on the part of states, and an array of criminal groups with pre-existing smuggling networks ready to take advantage of new opportunities. A driving force behind the region’s growing illegal wildlife trade is China, where demand for exotic goods and rare food delicacies has risen with the country’s burgeoning middle class.

Marine animals, which are often used in traditional Chinese recipes, have been particularly in demand. An especially hot commodity in recent years has been the bladder of Mexico’s totoaba fish. The totoaba is an endangered fish found only in the Gulf of California in Mexico, and is prized for the gas-filled sac it uses to help regulate buoyancy. This sac, or swim bladder, is a sought-after delicacy in China, where they are dried and served in a soup that is said to have medicinal qualities.

The bladders can sell for as much as $20,000 in China — the high price is a result of the Chinese species of the totoaba being hunted to extinction — while in Mexico bladders sell for between $7,000 and $14,000, according to investigations by Mexican media

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

In 2013, Mexican authorities seized an estimated $2.25 million worth of illegal totoaba bladders. April of that year also saw one of the most significant cases of bladder smuggling to date, when US authorities arrested a man for smuggling 214 bladders from Mexico into the United States, from where they were to be sent to Asia. The seized bladders were worth an estimated $361,500 in Mexico, $1.265 million in the United States, and $3.6 million in the overseas black market. A bladder trafficking debt was even rumored to have been the reason for the murder of an alleged drug trafficker and organized crime boss in Mexico in June 2014.

In addition to totoaba bladders, Asian demand has spurred the illicit harvesting and trafficking of sea cucumbers in Latin America. Believed to be an aphrodisiac and to have medicinal properties — such as treating high blood pressure — the sea cucumber market in China and Hong Kong has been estimated at $60 million a year, with sea cucumbers selling for as much as $600 per kilo.

While the illicit harvesting of sea cucumbers has been seen in the past in places like the Galapagos Islands, evidence suggests criminal networks in Mexico — especially along the Yucatan Peninsula — are increasingly moving into the business. And it is already getting dangerous — on April 29, some 10 armed men stole 3.5 tons of dehydrated sea cucumbers in the town of El Cuyo in Yucatan state, according to local media reports. Selling for around $450 per kilo in Mexico, the haul was estimated to be worth over $100,000.

While Mexican authorities have identified networks operating along the Yucatan coast in western Mexico that traffic sea cucumbers to Asia, trafficking routes also pass through the United States. In January 2015, a San Diego court charged a Chinese-American with exporting to China more than $3 million worth of illegal seafood smuggled in from Mexico. The shipments included almost a ton of sea cucumbers as well as 58 totoaba swim bladders.

Along with the poaching and trafficking of totoaba bladders and sea cucumbers — which has remained relatively isolated to specific regions — Asian demand has also fueled the more geographically disperse practice of “shark finning” in Latin America.

Poachers in several countries hunt and kill sharks for their fins, which are used in China and other Asian countries such as Singapore and Taiwan to make shark fin soup. Past estimates have suggested that 26 to 73 million sharks are killed annually worldwide. China is the destination of around 75 percent of this trade, say environmental groups, as shark fin soup costing as much as $200 per bowl is a common dish at wedding banquets and celebrations.

The depletion of shark populations in Asian waters has pushed the practice of shark finning further afield, with places like Peru and Ecuador providing fertile territories for illegal shark fishing. A set of fins from a single shark can reportedly earn fishermen in these locales as much as $100, with a kilo of fins worth up to $700 in Asia. In May 2015, Ecuadorian authorities reported the confiscation of almost 100,000 illegal shark fins, taken from an estimated 30,000 sharks.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Ecuador

Central America has also been a focal point of shark finning, with the problem at its most acute in Costa Rica. In March 2015, the government of Costa Rica sparked outrage after it authorized the export of 900 kilos of hammerhead shark fins to Hong Kong despite having banned shark finning in 2012. Costa Rica still exports 67,000 kilos of shark fins to Hong Kong annually, according to the estimates of local environmental organizations.

InSight Crime Analysis

There are several key forces combining to drive the increase in marine wildlife trafficking and eco-trafficking in general from Latin America to China.

Primary among these has been China’s economic success in recent decades, which has led to rising incomes and the growth of the middle class. As a result, new sectors of Chinese society have been able to afford luxury items and status symbols traditionally reserved for the country’s wealthy elite. As demand for ecological luxuries has risen, traditional regional sources for such items have been depleted, and so Chinese markets have looked abroad to regions like Latin America to fulfill domestic demand.

Access to new supplies of luxury goods like sea cucumbers and totoaba bladders in Latin America has been facilitated by China’s growing economic ties with the region in recent years — increasing trade between the two has eased the movement of both licit and illicit merchandise.

Indeed, owing to these closer ties, Latin American criminal groups and opportunists alike are well positioned to take advantage of Asia’s profitable and voracious black market. And, in recent years, there has been consistent evidence of Latin American and Chinese criminal groups establishing ties and developing inter-regional networks to supply a range of illicit commodities; including drugs, illegally mined minerals, contrabandprecursor chemicals for making methamphetamine, and timber from Central America.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Eco-Trafficking

These evolving criminal connections between the two regions are indicative of a trend across Latin America; criminal groups diversifying their revenue streams and moving away from relying on drug trafficking and into activities like extortion, resource theft, and eco-trafficking. The expansion of organized crime into eco-trafficking has also been aided by states that have proven ill-prepared and at times uninterested in tackling the issue. 

Regional and global trends suggest Latin America and China will become ever more intertwined, as the forces of globalization pull down trade barriers and ease communications. And, as illustrated by the booming trade in eco-trafficking between the two, new markets for legal commerce look set to be accompanied by new markets for illegal goods — something Latin American organized crime is always quick to capitalize on. 

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