Seizures of illegally harvested octopus off Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula are shedding light on how corruption in a coastal community facilitates the black market in marine life.
In late July, a string of five seizures occurred in quick succession in the coastal town of the Dzilam de Bravo. The first capture took place July 22 when state police uncovered 720 kilograms of illegally harvested octopus at a highway checkpoint.
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Later that week two separate seizures occurred involving vehicles that carried several hundred kilograms of octopus out of Dzilam de Bravo.
A second raid occurred simultaneously at a fishing company owned by a man whom identified as Jesus A., alias “Chucho Erros.” Some 1.5 tons of illegally harvested seafood – including octopus, shark, and sea cucumber – was seized in the shop’s hidden cellar. Three arrests were made during the raids, but both Tango and Chucho Erros managed to duck authorities.
State news outlets alleged that both traffickers had been warned by the municipal police before federal forces arrived.
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Though widespread illegal fishing is blamed for the decimation of marine life off the Yucatán Peninsula, the trade often depends on local corruption, particularly in fishing communities.
According to news reports, Armando Herrera, Dzilam de Bravo’s mayor, has been accused multiple times by residents of taking bribes from fishermen operating illegally in the area. There are no reports, however, that he has been ever formally charged with a crime.
Meanwhile, municipal police director Miguel Polanco, who previously threatened a journalist reporting on the mayor, allegedly refused to notify Mexico’s national fishing authority, the National Commission of Aquaculture and Fishing (Comisión Nacional de Acuacultura y Pesca – CONAPESCA), of the arrest of three fishermen poaching octopus who claimed their catch was destined for a shop belonging to Herrera.
The escape of both octopus traffickers in the recent seizure suggests that they were tipped off.
Octopus represents a massive industry in Yucatán, employing some 12,000 fishermen. In recent years, anywhere from 13,000 to 24,000 tons of octopus have been legally fished each year in the waters off the peninsula. Roughly 60 percent of the catch is exported to Asia, Europe and the Americas, while the rest is sold within Mexico. The season for octopus fishing lasts about five months from August to mid-December.
According to Admiral Héctor Alberto Mucharraz, CONAPESCA’s director of Inspection and Surveillance, Dzilam de Bravo is one of four main zones for illegal fishing in Yucatan, a state that saw 660 tons of illegal marine life seized between 2014 and 2018.
As popular marine products like grouper and sea cucumber are becoming scarcer, so too is octopus, which can fetch an initial price of roughly $3 per kilogram locally but rises to nearly $10 when sold on international markets.
Criminal gangs have even attempted to profit from the trade in octopus. In 2017, more than a dozen tractor-trailers carrying multi-ton loads were hijacked by gangs on Mexico’s highways.