US officials working in Miami's airport reportedly inspect just a fraction of the animal cargo passing through the busy international hub, providing ample opportunities for wildlife smuggling as Latin America struggles with the growth of eco-trafficking.
US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) officers assigned to Miami International Airport (MIA) -- considered the principal point of entry for animals trafficked illicitly into the United States -- were only able to inspect 20 percent of the live animal cargo moving through the airport in 2013, reported El Nuevo Herald. Of the shipments inspected, roughly a third were found to be illegal.
According to FSW officers, concerns over low inspection figures are compounded by the fact that MIA is the only designated entry point in the southeastern US for exotic animals brought in to be sold legally, and thus a huge number of such animals are being moved through the airport. A total of 11,000 shipments of live animals from international destinations were declared at MIA last year, meaning that roughly 8,800 shipments passed through unexamined.
Along with innovative smuggling methods such as hiding live birds in medicine jars, FSW authorities at MIA deal with numerous legal commercial cargo shipments carrying fake permits for zoos or aquariums, and shipments in which rare species are mixed in with other similar animals.
Authorities also have to look out for outward-bound shipments -- in one recent case, a Venezuelan national was arrested for attempting to transport over 100 specimens of live coral, clams, and fish in his luggage from MIA to Caracas.
InSight Crime Analysis
According to a report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (pdf), approximately 350 million plants and animals are sold illegally every year worldwide, with wildlife trafficking earning an estimated $19 billion.
In Latin America, eco-trafficking has become a billion-dollar business with growing ties to organized crime and devastating effects on the environment. Animal smuggling routes are also used for arms, drugs and human trafficking. The animals themselves can also be used to move drugs. In 1993, 312 boa constrictors were discovered at MIA in a shipment from Colombia -- some of which had been implanted with condoms containing a total of 36 kilos of cocaine.
Despite the risks and costs presented by wildlife trafficking, few countries in Latin America have taken any significant steps to combat it, making the trade particularly appealing for criminals.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Eco-Trafficking
The sheer number of animal shipments passing through MIA makes the airport an inevitable transshipment point for Latin America's eco-traffickers, and the low levels of inspection are another example of authorities' unpreparedness to combat the phenomenon.