The Fish That Is Worth More Than Cocaine To Mexican Cartels
By Sylvia Longmire
Columnist, In Homeland Security
On average, one kilogram of cocaine at wholesale (meaning transferred from Colombian growers to Mexican traffickers) is worth about $13,000. At the southwest border, prices vary from year to year based on demand, but it’s reasonable to say that kilo or “brick” is worth about $17,000. It then rises in value based on how far it has to travel—from $26,000 in New York City to over $100,000 in Australia. But Mexican cartels are now making up to $250,000 per kilogram of something else—fish bladders in China.
It’s foolish to believe Mexican cartels stick to just drug trafficking, which is why their more official moniker is “transnational criminal organizations.” While the manufacture, cultivation, and trafficking of drugs like marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin nets the cartels billions of dollars in profits every year, they still have to hedge their bets. Demand changes from year to year; competition from American pot growers is increasing; major drug loads are occasionally lost or seized on their way to American consumers. Diversification isn’t just smart; it’s often necessary for survival, and cartels are always in search of profitable opportunities.
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Totoaba – Highly Protected Fish
Enter the totoaba —a highly protected species of fish, similar to sea bass, that can only be found in a small area of ocean in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez near the town of San Felipe (120 miles south of the U.S. border). This fish—or more specifically, the bladder of this fish—has been highly prized in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. Just one bladder can fetch a quarter of a million dollars on the black market, and a member of the notorious Sinaloa cartel had arranged to corner this market in Mexico. That is, until he was shot and killed in 2014. According to CNN Money, Gallardo and a handful of locals had been using their know-how in narcotics trafficking to transport totoaba bladders across the U.S.-Mexico border and eventually to China.
Mexican Poachers Thrive
Now that his secret was out, Mexican poachers started coming out of the woodwork. A Mexican Army official told CNN that organized crime arrived with “established networks, routes, contacts, outlets, and sponsors.” The totoaba bladders were an easy prospect for trafficking, despite the fact that it was illegal to catch them. The waters where they swam were very lightly patrolled, and most law enforcement and border authorities weren’t familiar with the bladders’ appearance, illegality, or value.
Then the bladder boom came to a crashing halt in 2015. Fisherman weren’t just catching totoaba in their nets; they were snaring the tiny and extremely rare and vaquita porpoise, of which perhaps only a dozen or so remain in the world. The Mexican government banned the nets, which essentially shut down the business—and San Felipe. The $500 compensation package from the Mexican government definitely didn’t cover the $20,000 a fisherman could make in one night’s work.
Cash Exchanged For Fish Bladders
Now, armed Mexican soldiers can be found in the area—not to deter drug smuggling operations, but to discourage poachers who fish illegally in order to sell their totoaba catch to the cartels. In this emerging black market, some poachers are making upwards of six figures a day selling fish organs to the cartels. A former poacher explained to CNN Money that the bladders, after being extracted from the fish, are taken back to land and handed off to a middleman. Cash is exchanged and the bladders are transported for processing, hidden between car tires and floor boards, and sometimes carried in backpacks on dirt bikes across the desert, to avoid military checkpoints.
A report by the nonprofit Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS) showed a decline in bladder seizures at the southwest border after 2013. However, officials believe smugglers have just gotten smarter and more innovative. A number of shell companies in Mexico and the US have been identified as processing facilities, where bladders are dried and prepped for shipment. In the meantime, the vaquita porpoise is likely headed for extinction, and perhaps so is the totoaba. Smugglers are actually hoping for this because it means black market prices for the bladders they’re hoarding will skyrocket—and that cartels will maintain their involvement in the trade for as long as possible.
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