Seizures of rare fauna in the Mexico City area, including the rescue of more than 15,000 animals in a recent operation, have raised important questions about the modus operandi of wildlife trafficking in Mexico’s capital, long regarded as a key hub for the trade.
A multi-agency raid of two properties in Mexico City’s district of Iztapalapa led to the seizure of more than 15,000 wildlife specimens in November, of which 11,000 held protected status, according to a press release by Mexico’s Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA – Procuraduria Federal de Proteccion al Ambiente).
The large seizure reflects a massive increase last year in the capture of illegally trafficked animals in Mexico. In 2020, PROFEPA captured more than 33,000 animals in just three operations, according to Ernesto Zazueta, president of the Association of Zoos, Breeders, and Aquariums (Asociación de Zoológicos, Criaderos y Acuarios de México - Azcarm), who spoke with Milenio about the recent seizures. In 2019, a total of about 5,000 animals were seized, he said.
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The latest interdiction is also striking when placed alongside two smaller seizures. On November 20, a man was detained in the capital transporting an alligator and a boa constrictor on a scooter, El Universal reported. Also in November, another man was detained at Morelos subway station in Mexico City for illegally carrying a menagerie of exotic animals in several boxes, including African pygmy hedgehogs, Dutch rabbits and chinchillas.
Meanwhile, PROFEPA stated in September that it was searching for a woman seen walking a Bengal tiger cub through a bustling shopping center in the capital.
These disparate events reflect a general increase in wildlife trafficking in Mexico City in 2020, with Excelsior reporting in March that the capital was seeing greater levels of both rare wildlife trafficking through the city and retail sale of rare wildlife within the city, primarily in the districts of Xochimilco, Gustavo A. Madero and Venustiano Carranza.
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The wildlife trade in the capital can be divided into three categories: local breeders, physical markets and transport for international demand, Arturo Berlanga, executive director for Mexico at AnimaNaturalis International, told InSight Crime.
Local breeding either operates through clandestine hatcheries or occurs at official wildlife conservation management units where, facing little supervision, employees may illegally breed animals or legally breed them and illegally sell them to local markets, Berlanga told InSight Crime.
The local markets are predominantly stocked, however, by horizontally structured supply chains of “capturers, collectors, transporters, distributors and sellers”, according to Juan Carlos Cantú, Mexico program director at Defenders of Wildlife, a non-governmental organization. Procurement takes place “in the southern and southeastern neotropical zone of Mexico, going up the Pacific basin to Sonora and through the Gulf basin to Tamaulipas,” Cantú told InSight Crime.
Mexico City’s two largest wildlife markets are Sonora Market and Morelos Market, both operating as year-round regional distribution centers for exotic live animals. They are complemented by the smaller Fish Market, which also sells rare reptiles, and San Juan Market, which sells exotic meat and has drawn comparisons to wildlife markets in China. Buyers tend to be locals or at least nationals, though the occasional tourist may make a purchase.
As for international markets, they use Mexico City as a transport nexus, predominantly to East Asia, though the US and Europe do constitute a significant minority of the demand, according to Berlanga. It is here that organized crime groups have often to concentrate, trafficking sea cucumbers and totoaba maws, as well as jaguar parts poached from Mexico’s southeastern jungles.
Finally, even when PROFEPA is able to rescue animals and transfer them to safe havens, it has often lost track of them. "Of the 1,319 animals that [PROFEPA’s Delegation in the Metropolitan Area of the Valley of Mexico] secured in 2019, the data for where 281 of them ended up is missing," Berlanga said. And for 157 of them, there is "no record of either where or why they were seized or where they were placed," he said.