Brookings Institution Organized Crime Specialist Vanda Felbab-Brown in a file image.CHATHAM HOUSE
The link between drug and wildlife trafficking in Mexico is getting stronger by the day. Poachers and loggers are forced to work for the Sinaloa Cartel or the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), which they pay for their work with methamphetamine or fentanyl. China’s insatiable thirst for species like totoaba, sea cucumber and abalone has led organized crime groups to control this lucrative business. The Mexican cartels supply these species to Chinese traders, who in turn supply the chemical precursors needed to manufacture the drug. The policy of non-confrontation of the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador towards the cartels and the constant cuts in the budgets of the environmental authorities make the work of organized crime easier. The circle closes. To uncover this entire intertwined network of illegality, American organized crime expert Vanda Felbab-Brown has published her latest investigation for the Brookings Institution, entitled “Illegal trafficking of species in Mexico linked to China”. The report points to increasing cartel control of Mexico’s fishing and logging industries to meet huge Chinese demand.
Questions: Why does China have this greed for Mexico’s biodiversity?
Answer: China has become a key market for trading species from around the world. Let’s assume Mexico is the final phase of expansion in the search for wildlife products, but very little is known about it. People know about the trade in ivory, rhino, pangolin, or jaguar for the Chinese market, but very little is known about the extent of the trade in legal and illegal species from Mexico to China.
What makes the Mexico case unique, and perhaps crucial, is the role played by organized crime and the relationship between drugs and wildlife trafficking. The Sinaloa Cartel and the new generation Jalisco Cartel invade the logging industry and wildlife trade by force. On many occasions, they use these types of wildlife products as a means of payment to obtain the chemical precursors used to manufacture methamphetamine, fentanyl and synthetic opioids, and as a mechanism to circumvent anti-money laundering banking regulations.
Q: In your last report you explain that the relationship between cartels and Chinese traders has changed recently, why?
A: For a long time, Chinese merchants went to Mexico to sell everything from shoes to toys while also looking for species that might be available for export. This can come from legal fishing like abalone or illegal fishing like totoaba. They started making connections with the local communities to extract and sell these products to them. Sometimes the trade organized by these Chinese groups was completely illegal, as with the lumber purchases in Chiapas.
But the power and presence of organized crime groups in Mexico has increased over the past decade. Most importantly, it’s not just a matter of geographic expansion, but also the nature of the markets they operate in: they enter many economic activities that aren’t drugs.
The cartels realized that these Chinese traders were making a lot of money off of jellyfish, totoa maw, sea cucumber, abalone… and so they began invading these economies to dominate them. They have begun to monopolize these markets, barring Chinese traders from directly interacting with local poachers. Now it is the Mexican cartels like Sinaloa and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, but also smaller groups depending on the area, that organize illegal logging, both legal and illegal fishing, and they are the ones who supply the products to the Chinese sell merchants. Mexican cartels are now organizing the species trade in Mexico. Chinese traders receive the products at the border and transport them to China, sometimes to Canada or the United States, even on cargo ships.
Q: They criticize the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador for not protecting the environment and cutting budgets to prosecute this type of crime. Can the current government be held responsible for the increasing presence of cartels in these markets?
There are two dimensions of López Obrador’s policies that backfire. They come together and ensure that Mexico’s biodiversity enters a moment of extreme vulnerability.
On the one hand, this non-confrontational policy towards criminal groups that eliminates any kind of prosecution or police surveillance. Basically, the government has given up on cracking down on the cartels. Yes, the National Guard exists and from time to time they deploy them to some areas of the country, like Michoacán, but on many occasions the order is that they just stand in the streets. They don’t confront, they don’t arrest criminals. The hope is that somehow they will establish their territories and the violence will subside.
On the other hand, the government has decimated the already small budgets of the environmental authorities in Mexico. The cuts were sometimes as much as 90% from one year to the next, basically eliminating their monitoring capacity. The government has also promoted a number of anti-environmental policies, such as designating infrastructure projects as national security to avoid compliance with environmental regulations.
Q: The role of cartels in illegal totoaba hunting is well known in Mexico. But his report goes much further, saying that organized crime controls the country’s entire fish market.
A: Absolutely. And not only illegal fishing, which goes far beyond totoaba – also other species like sharks or abalone – but many of the legal fisheries are systematically controlled by the cartels. From the poorest poachers to the largest exporting companies, there is tremendous pressure not only to pay extortion, but also to become some kind of subsidiary. The Sinaloa Cartel demands that processors buy the fish they bring to them. These establishments are the ones who issue the certificates proving the legal origin of the fish and are forced to issue false certificates for them.
The hotels are forced to buy the fish from the cartels, there is de facto absolute control, a monopoly of the fishing industry in the hands of the cartels in many regions of the country. It is of greater importance in the West, but is also found in the Yucatan Peninsula, in Tamaulipas, in Veracruz.
Q: So it seems that cartels like the one in Sinaloa are becoming more like Mafias who control all these markets outside of the drug market.
A: Total. Much of this practice is spreading to smaller groups in places like Michoacán, for example with Guerreros Unidos. There are several ways in which they carry out this control. The Sinaloa Cartel, for example, has truly become this dominant entity, effectively acting as the entity that issues licenses for their franchise. But the Jalisco cartel is a little further behind and only calls for blackmail, although it is increasingly following in the footsteps of the Sinaloa cartel to monopolize markets.
Q: Something shocking about his report is that cartels pay fishermen with drugs.
A: It’s terrible, devastating to the communities. They make the fishermen addicted to drugs, but also the other effect is that they become drug dealers because they have to sell methamphetamine in the community to make money back home. They become addicted to crystal, but also to more dangerous drugs like fentanyl.
Q: There are many details about the role of cartels in the fishing industry. Does the same exist in other markets such as the sale of timber or mining?
A: Yes, of course there are different levels of control in different industries. But you see very similar patterns as in the fishing industry in other markets, for example in Tierra Caliente. There, practically every type of agricultural production, not just avocados, but also corn or citrus fruits, is controlled by organized crime. The mining industry is where you will find the least amount of blackmail, but very often it goes much further. It is part of the enormous tragedy and sad consequence of the López Obrador government’s decision not to prosecute the cartels. The communes, the businessmen, the people who want to move forward legally, see their existence controlled by the cartels.
Q: Would you say that the government underestimated the environmental problem, considering it minor, and noted all these implications, which also affect the cartels, public health and security of the country?
A: Total. First of all, biodiversity issues are fundamental. But that is only a small part of this enormous criminal control over the communities, life and governments of Mexico. It is linked to public health in many ways, because on the one hand there is the addiction aspect, on the other hand, the illegal wildlife trade is a dangerous source of zoonoses like Covid-19. It is related to people’s quality of life, basic security and has many very dangerous effects.
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