‘Mexican cartels are taking control of the fishing and logging industry’

Researcher Vanda Felbab-Brown says that organized crime groups are trafficking species to China in exchange for the chemical precursors necessary to make drugs such as fentanyl

Brookings Institute researcher Vanda Felbab-Brown .
Brookings Institute researcher Vanda Felbab-Brown .CHATHAM HOUSE

The link between drug and animal trafficking in Mexico is becoming closer every day. Poachers and loggers are forced to work for the Sinaloa cartel or the Jalisco New Generation cartel (CJNG), who pay them in illegal drugs such as methamphetamine and fentanyl. China’s insatiable thirst for species such as totoaba, sea cucumber and abalone has turned animal trafficking into a lucrative business, and one Mexico’s organized crime groups want to control. Mexican cartels are now delivering these species to Chinese traders, who in return provide the chemical precursors needed to make illegal drugs.

This task has been made easier by the Mexican government’s hands-off approach to the cartels and the fact the country’s environmental authorities are desperately underfunded. Organized crime expert Vanda Felbab-Brown has dissected this complex web in her latest investigation for the Brookings Institution, titled China-linked wildlife poaching and trafficking in Mexico. The report explains that Mexico’s fishing and logging industries are increasingly being controlled by the cartels in order to supply Chinese demand.

Question. Why does China have this voracity for Mexican biodiversity?

Answer. China has become a crucial market for wildlife biodiversity products from around the world. Mexico is at the latest stage in the expansion to meet that demand. People know about ivory, rhinos, pangolins and jaguar poaching for Chinese markets, but very few people know about the extent of poaching and both legal and illegal trafficking of wildlife from Mexico to China.

What makes this unique is the role of Mexican organized crime groups and the intermixing of drugs and wildlife. The Sinaloa cartel and CJNG are robustly entering both illegal logging and wildlife trafficking and using wildlife commodities as a mechanism to pay for precursor chemicals for meth and fentanyl, and synthetic opioids for drugs and as a mechanism to avoid anti-money laundering banking regulations.

Q. Your latest report says that the relationship between Mexican cartels and Chinese traders has changed. Why has this happened?

A. For a long time you had Chinese traders essentially arriving in Mexico to sell a variety of products, anything from shoes to toys, and also looking at what wildlife species could be exported This could be legal fisheries, products like abalone, legal or illegal, sea cucumber, or totoaba bladder. They start arranging with the local people to extract and sell them those products. Sometimes the traffic that the Chinese group organized was fully illegal, such as the extraction of wood in Chiapas.

But the power and presence of Mexican organized crime groups have been expanding in the past decade. Crucially not just geographically but also functionally, they have been entering many economic activities beyond the drug trade.

The cartels started noticing that the Chinese are making all this money with jellyfish, totoaba, sea cucumber, abalone... and they have started to penetrate these economies to dominate them. They have started monopolizing the market and they have pushed out the Chinese traders from direct interaction with local smugglers. It is now the Mexican cartels, Sinaloa and Jalisco or smaller groups depending on the area, that are organizing illegal logging and both legal and illegal fisheries, and then selling the products to the Chinese traders. Essentially the Mexicans now organize the smuggling in Mexico. The Chinese traders receive the products at the border of Mexico and they take them out of Mexico to China, sometimes to Canada, the US, even directly in ship containers.

Q. Your report criticizes the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador for failing to protect the environment and for making budget cuts to the authorities tasked with pursuing these sorts of times. Is the current administration to blame for the growing presence of cartels in these industries?

A. Two dimensions of policy by the Mexican administration have been counterproductive. They come together and merge to make Mexico’s biodiversity extraordinarily vulnerable.

On the one hand, there is the policy to confront criminal groups with any kind of meaningful law enforcement or policing. Essentially it has pretty much given up on policing the cartels. Yes there is the National Guard, and every so often they are deployed in areas like Michoacán, but often the instruction is to simply stand on the street – it is not to confront, challenge or arrest the criminals. The hope of this policy is that the cartels will eventually establish territories and violence will go down.

On the other hand: the government has decimated the already non-existing budget of environmental authorities in Mexico, with cuts of up to 90% a year, which eliminates their capacity. The administration has been also pushing a variety of anti-environmental policies, such as designating infrastructure projects as national security projects, in the hopes that they will get environmental exceptions.

Q. The cartels’ involvement in totoaba poaching is well known. But in your report you go beyond that, you argue that the cartels control all of the fishing market.

A. Absolutely. And not only the illegal fishing industry, which goes way beyond totoaba – it also involves sharks, and species harvested over quota like abalone – many legal fisheries are also systematically taken over by the cartels. From the poorest, lowest-level illegal fishers to legal operators and large exporters, there is enormous pressure not only to pay extortion money to the cartels, but also to become a subsidiary of the cartel. The Sinaloa cartel is demanding the processing plants process the fish they bring in. Processing plants are entities that issue certificates on the legality of the provenance of the fish, and they are being coerced by the cartels to issue the fake certificates.

Hoteles are having to buy all their fish from the cartels. There is a massive functional takeover, the cartels are monopolizing the fishing industry and doing so over a wide geographic area. It’s most significant in the west but also in the Yucatan peninsula, Tamaulipas, Veracruz.

Q. It looks like the Sinaloa cartel is becoming more like a mafia, controlling these other markets that have nothing to do with drugs.

A. Absolutely. A lot of their modus operandi has spread to even smaller groups in places like Michoacán, such as the Guerreros Unidos [or United Warriors]. There are different ways in which they do this monopolization. The Sinaloa cartel, for example, has really become very dominant, it almost acts like the entity issuing licenses for franchises. But the Jalisco cartel is some way behind, only demanding extortion money, but is increasingly learning from Sinaloa to monopolize the market.

Q. One of the most shocking findings from your report is that the fishermen are being paid in drugs.

A. It’s terrible, it’s devastating for local communities. The fishermen become addicted to drugs and they also drug dealers themselves because they need to bring cash home. They sell meth in the local community to be able to bring money home. They become addicted to crystal meth, and very dangerous drugs like fentanyl.

Q. You speak in great detail about how cartels are controlling the fishing industry, but is this happening in other markets such as timber or mining?

A. Yes. There are different levels of takeover attempts in different industries. You see very similar trends to the one in the fishing markets, for example, in Tierra Caliente. Any kind of agriculture production, not just avocado but also grains like corn, citrus… will be similarly controlled by criminal groups and cartels. In the mining industry, at the very least extortion money is being paid, but often they have more control. It’s part of a larger tragedy and the sad consequence of the Lopez Obrador’s administration’s decision to abdicate on law enforcement. Communities, legal businessmen, people who seek to operate legally in their daily lives, see how their existence is taken over by the cartels.

Q. Would you say that the Mexican government underestimated environmental problems and is now seeing how they involve the drug cartels, public health and the security of the country?

A. Absolutely. First of all, biodiversity is intrinsically very important, but this is just a small piece of the larger criminal takeover of the communities, lives and governments in Mexico. It’s connected to public health in many ways, one is the drug addiction aspect, but it’s also connected because wildlife trafficking is a very dangerous source of zoonotic diseases like Covid-19. It’s connected to quality of life, basic security, and it has many dangerous ramifications.

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