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Mexico's Cartels Corner the Chinese Market for Illegal Wildlife

CHINA AND CRIME / 14 APR 2022 BY SCOTT MISTLER-FERGUSON EN

The full threat posed to Mexico's biodiversity by both Mexican and Chinese organized crime networks has been revealed in a new report, which shows how unsustainable quantities of Mexico's marine and terrestrial wildlife are being poached.

This investigation by the Brookings Institution shows how a vast range of animals are ensnared in the wildlife trade and how this environmental crime feeds into other illicit economies.

Here, InSight Crime breaks down key takeaways from the report.

Big Profits in Illegal Wildlife Trade

China's demand for Mexico's wildlife is principally for use in food and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). On land, this means lizards, turtles, jungle cats, macaws, parrots, toucans and other birds are all fair game. Yet aquatic life is even more valuable as everything from sea cucumbers, jellyfish and shark fins can be commercialized with a significant mark-up in price between the two countries.

Sea cucumber, for example, can gain 70 times the profit in Hong Kong that it does for Mexican fishermen. Similarly, a kilogram of totoaba bladder, a supreme delicacy in China, goes for $5,000 in Mexico but $60,000 in China.

In numerous cases, overfishing proliferates to the point where species risk extinction in just a matter of years, oftentimes as a result of bycatch from fishermen using illegal fishnets. The practice has driven dwindling shark populations in Mexico on top of the near-extinction of the vaquita porpoise.

SEE ALSO: Latin America's Bustling Trade in Seahorses to China

Modus Operandi - Building a Command Economy

Facilitating each step of the supply chain is organized crime. The report found that the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG), Mexico's two largest criminal threats, also prop up the illegal fishing trade in the country. The Sinaloa Cartel is particularly involved, in Baja California Sur and its stronghold of Sinaloa along the Pacific Coast and the southeastern state of Yucatán on the Caribbean coast.

According to the report's author, Vanda Felbab-Brown, the Sinaloa Cartel has been particularly adept at co-opting fishing communities through a series of steps.

First, extortion fees are demanded from illegal and legal fishermen alike. Once the cartel establishes greater control over a specific community, they demand that all catch be sold to them, at a price of their choosing.

Felbab-Brown highlighted how the cartels have managed to insert themselves in every stage of the supply chain. “The narcos also force restaurants to source fish from them,” she wrote, adding, “criminal groups prohibit the restaurants from buying fish from their criminal rivals or independent legal seafood sellers, seeking to create a monopoly at the restaurant-supplier interface.” The cartels employ similar tactics with processing plants, forcing them to exclusively buy fish from the criminal groups.

These two are not alone. The report named the Gulf Cartel (Cartel del Golfo - CDG) as the main player in illegal fishing along much of the Gulf of Mexico while a dedicated network of Chinese traffickers and Mexican middlemen, known as the "Dragon Cartel," engages in large-scale totoaba poaching in Baja California.

The Chinese Component

Whereas legal and illegal Chinese traders used to work directly with Mexican fishing cooperatives, criminal groups have wedged themselves between the two, making themselves unavoidable brokers in the fish trade.

As interlocutors though, their presence in China is limited. InSight Crime spoke to Felbab-Brown about the links between the two spheres of organized crime, who noted the key differences between Chinese and Mexican crime groups.

“The Chinese organized crime market tends to have a high level of specialization,” stated Felbab-Brown. Those involved in the illegal wildlife trade are a variety of family clans, legal businesses and brokers meeting with the Mexicans, often outside of Asia."

SEE ALSO: How China Fuels Wildlife Trafficking in Latin America

Nothing in a Vacuum

The Illegal extraction of Mexican wildlife increasingly goes hand in hand with other illegal ventures in the country.

The author identified a worrying trend in which cartels will swap illegally captured wildlife, especially higher-value marine life, for chemical precursors for drug production. “More and more in Mexico, totoaba [swim bladder], other marine and terrestrial products and timber are used by the cartels to pay for precursors necessary to manufacture illicit drugs.”

The practice has been seen previously with South African gangs trading poached abalone, a high-priced marine snail, for chemical precursors for methamphetamine from Chinese networks.

While it is unknown the frequency of chemical precursors for wildlife swaps, this is a way for cartels to avoid the hassle of laundering illicit profits through more traditional means.

According to Felbab-Brown, cartels have also been known to harmonize oil theft with the illegal fishing industry. Both the Sinaloa and Gulf Cartels resell stolen fuel to large and small fishermen in coastal states, she said.

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