The illegal trafficking of a fish endemic to Mexico's waters is reportedly a low-risk trade that is generating huge profits for criminal organizations looking to feed black-market demand in Asia.
An investigation by Reporte Indigo details how Mexican organized crime groups are heavily involved in illegally trafficking totoaba fish to Asia. The fish is found exclusively in Mexico's Gulf of California and possessing it is considered a "crime against biodiversity."
Totoaba is harvested for its precious air bladder. The rest of the fish is discarded, and this organ is salt cured and smuggled primarily in to China, where it is used to make soup and is considered to have medicinal properties.
According to Reporte Indigo, on the black market totoaba bladders can fetch higher prices than cocaine at over $60,000 per kilo.
Nongovernmental organizations quoted by the magazine claim that this illegal activity is closely tied to organized criminal groups due to its steep profits and to lenient sanctions.
"A large part of those who traffic this fish aren't even punished, they're just detained, their goods are seized … and then they're freed," Miguel Rivas from the environmental association Greenpeace told Reporte Indigo.
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Mexican authorities have seized more than 7 metric tons of totoaba fish over the past four years, according to Mexico's Inspector General's Office.
Facilitating this illegal trade is the lack of personnel monitoring Mexican waters and the social marginalization of fishermen that see totoaba as an easy source of income, according to Reporte Indigo's sources.
Totoaba's economic value rose at the turn of the millennium due to growing demand in China, the magazine reported. Today, it is on the International Union for the Conservations of Nature IUCN Red List of critically endangered species.
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There have been signs that drug traffickers are becoming increasingly involved in the illegal totoaba trade for some time. In one case from 2014, the murder of a Mexican organized crime boss and drug trafficker was linked to his alleged participation in totoaba smuggling activities.
Past seizures of the precious fish bladder have illustrated the huge scale and profitability of the trade. In April 2013, US border authorities seized more than 200 totoaba bladders valued at $3.6 million from a residence in California.
As Reporte Indigo notes, weak law enforcement in Mexico helps make totoaba trafficking a low-risk, high-profit option for organized crime. Of the 1,501 people detained by the Inspector General's Office from 2009 to mid-2016 for crimes related to the trafficking or damage of flora and fauna (see Article 420 of Mexico's Penal Code), only 918 faced court proceedings -- or just over 60 percent.
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According to Rivas, this inefficiency is due to a lack of staff and funding, meaning that authorities are overwhelmed by the caseload of environmental crimes.
Even if they are convicted, traffickers face far less time in prison if they are found with contraband totoaba than they would for smuggling drugs.
Totoaba is not the only contraband product finding its way from Latin American seas to Asia's black market. The illegal shark fin trade offers traffickers huge profits, and Mexican authorities have also seized shipments of sea horses and sea cucumbers en route to Asia.