Totoaba Poaching Seizures Point to Increases in Environmental Crime

08/31/21 (written by rramos) – Officials from the federal Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República, FGR) seized four properties in San Felipe, Baja California on August 12 after a joint investigation by multiple agencies determined the buildings were being used by a criminal network dedicated to the illegal trafficking of totoaba fish. Along with a cache of totoaba organs and fishnets, FGR officials also discovered firearms, tactical vests, and radio equipment while inspecting the seized properties. Investigators told La Jornada that they believe the totoaba fish found in the confiscated buildings were meant to be exported illegally from Baja California to China as part of a transnational criminal venture. 

The High Price of Totoaba Fish

The totoaba is a species of saltwater fish native to the Gulf of California that is protected under international and Mexican law. It has become increasingly endangered due to poaching. In particular, the totoaba’s swim bladder is highly sought after in parts of East Asia for use in traditional medicines and as a culinary delicacy. The strong demand for totoaba has resulted in remarkably high prices for illegally harvested totoaba bladders and meat. Dr. Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, director of the environmental advocacy group Proyecto Vaquita CPR, told Milenio in a 2019 interview that one kilogram of totoaba could be sold for as much as $100,000 U.S. dollars on the black market in China. Similarly, an investigative article published by Excelsior in July 2021 found that one kilogram of totoaba bladder could command a price of up to one million Mexican pesos in Hong Kong. 

The potential for large profits is compelling a growing number of organized crime groups in Mexico to add totoaba poaching to their portfolio of illicit activities. In June 2021, investigators in Baja California reported that criminal cells linked to Los Chapitos—the sons of jailed Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán—were seeking to deepen their presence in towns near the Gulf of California like San Felipe in order to forge operational ties with suspected totoaba traffickers. According to a report by non-governmental organization Earth League International, criminal groups in northwestern Mexico may be increasingly attracted to totoaba trafficking because it can generate profits comparable to those gained from drug trafficking, but with a perceived lower risk of being detected by authorities.

Display of totoaba fish organs seized by the National Guard (Guardia Nacional, GN) in Mazatlán, Sinaloa. Photo: Radio Turquesa

Growth in Environmental Crimes

The illegal poaching of totoaba fish is just one example of a range of environmentally-related crimes that are gaining popularity among criminal groups in Mexico. Both the Center for Biological Diversity in Mexico (Centro para la Diversidad Biológica en México) and the Mexican Environmental Impact Academy (Academia Mexicana de Impacto Ambiental) warned in May 2021 that the illicit trade of rare and exotic animals, such as tigers, chinchillas, freshwater turtles, and other species, has increased considerably in recent years. In Mexico City alone, data from the Federal Prosecutor for Environmental Protection (Procuraduría Federal de Protección al Ambiente, PROFEPA) showed that the number of exotic animals rescued in anti-wildlife trafficking operations skyrocketed from roughly 5,000 in 2019 to over 33,000 in 2020. A joint statement by the federal Secretary of Environmental and Natural Resources (Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, SEMARNAT) and the Financial Intelligence Unit (Unidad de Inteligencia Financiera, UIF) affirmed that many wildlife trafficking cases can be linked to organized crime networks. 

Another environmental crime that continues to raise alarm is illegal logging. Statistics compiled by PROFEPA suggest that illegal logging carried out by criminal groups is increasing. In 2020 alone, Mexico suffered the loss of around 127,770 hectares of forest due to illegal logging, an amount greater than the total deforestation recorded between 2010 and 2015.  Heightened interest in the illegal timber trade has not only generated increased fighting between criminal groups in places like Chihuahua, but it has also had a devastating impact on the natural environment in areas in which it occurs. According to Rodrigo de la Garza, a geology professor at the Autonomous University of Chihuahua (Universidad Autónoma de Chihuahua), the accelerated growth of illegal logging has begun to result in desertification in previously forested areas of the Sierra Tarahumara mountain range in western Chihuahua. 

Diversification of Illicit Economies

The steady expansion of criminal organizations into illicit activities related to the environment and wildlife is consistent with the broader diversification of criminal enterprises that has been observed in recent years. Although organized crime groups in Mexico have been traditionally associated with drug trafficking, criminal actors have increasingly broadened the scope of illicit activities through which they earn profits. The factors driving diversification are diverse, but one widely cited reason is that as larger criminal organizations in Mexico fragment and splitter into increasingly smaller groups, criminal networks become more localized and therefore turn to revenue sources that “require no supply chains and have very low barriers to entry.” Another possible cause is that stringent enforcement actions by authorities against drug trafficking have reduced profits and increased risks, thereby compelling criminal groups to explore new and emerging revenue sources.

As has been seen with the larger phenomenon of diversification, the increasing visibility of environmentally-related crimes in Mexico is another demonstration of organized crime groups’ ability to remain adaptable and resilient. In the absence of comprehensive efforts to build and sustain the rule of law in Mexico, criminal economies that negatively impact the environment, like totoaba poaching, may continue to emerge and grow in the country.

Sources:

“NORMA Oficial Mexicana NOM-059-SEMARNAT-2010.” Procuraduría Federal de Protección al Ambiente. December 30, 2010. 45.  

Miranda, Fanny. “Buche de totoaba alcanza los 100 mil dólares por kilo; ya supera a la cocaína.” Milenio. December 11, 2019. 

Esberg, Jane. “Más que carteles: contando las organizaciones delictivas de México.” International Crisis Group. May 8, 2020. 

“‘La cocaína del mar’: los buches de la totoaba, el pez mexicano afrodisíaco por el que se pagan fortunas.” Clarín. May 20, 2020. 

Calderón, Laura Y., Heinle, Kimberly, Kuckertz, Rita E. et al. “Organized Crime and Violence

in Mexico 2020 Special Report.” Justice in Mexico. July 2020. 46-47. 

Urbina, Ian. “Unmasking China’s invisible fleet.” CBC News. July 23, 2020. 

Beittel, June S. “Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations.” Congressional Research Service. July 28, 2020. 28-29. 

Ford, Alessandro. “Ruge el tráfico de vida silvestre en Ciudad de México.” InSight Crime. January 4, 2021. 

Ramos, Randall. “Violence in Western Chihuahua Driven by Heightened Cartel Rivalry.” Justice in Mexico. February 22, 2021. 

Smith, Zak et al. “Re: Mexico’s New Fishing Regulations Applicable to CITES Totoaba and Vaquita Decisions 18.292-18.295.” Center for Biological Diversity. April 1, 2021. 

Zauzeta Zauzeta, Ernesto. “Sigue aumentando el tráfico de especies, y muchos seguimos en la lucha para contenerlo.” Debate. May 1, 2021. 

“‘Los Chapitos’ en San Felipe.” Zeta Tijuana. June 7, 2021. 

Méndez, Ernesto. “Puedes comer Totoaba por 350 pesos… es legal si es de cautiverio.” Excelsior. July 1, 2021. 

Sánchez, Paloma. “Tala ilegal acaba con fertilidad de bosques.” El Heraldo de Chihuahua. July 7, 2021. 

Huerta, Juan Carlos. “Tala clandestina: el ‘macizo’ negocio del crimen organizado en México.” El Financiero. July 18, 2021. 

“Operation Fake Gold: The Totoaba Supply Chain – From Mexico’s Totoaba Cartels to China’s Totoaba Maw Wholesalers.” Earth League International. July 24, 2021. 

“Semarnat y la UIF buscan combatir delitos ambientales ligados al crimen organizado.” Sin Embargo. July 29, 2021. 

“FGR asegura inmuebles utilizados para el tráfico de especies marinas protegidas en San Felipe.” Zeta Tijuana. August 12, 2021. 


Enciso, Angélica & Castillo, Gustavo. “Asegura la Femdo cuatro inmuebles con enseres que atentan contra vaquita marina.” La Jornada. August 13, 2021.

Violence against indigenous groups in Oaxaca remains mostly environmentally motivated

Overview

07/10/20 (written by CMurray) – During the early morning of June 21, 2020, 15 people were murdered in the municipality of San Mateo del Mar in Oaxaca, where a majority of the population identifies with the Ikoots indigenous people (Graham). State prosecutors announced that the victims, including 13 men and two women, were tortured and burned alive by armed attackers. Residents of San Mateo del Mar have claimed that the attack was orchestrated by the mayor’s supporters, who were upset about opposition towards large scale wind power projects within the region (Associated Press). The brutal attack was believed to have originated at a COVID-19 checkpoint where a group of around seven individuals initiated the attack on local dissidents (Chaca). Following the assault, the governor of Oaxaca, Alejandro Murat Hinojosa, confirmed the deployment of a security operation to the municipality in an effort to mitigate continued violence (La Jornada). According to El Universal, the security deployment included four detectives, 80 state police, and 39 National Guard members who were ultimately only able to rescue two men. Although no suspects have been identified, the National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH) stated that officials need to “determine the exercise of criminal action, with respect to the facts constituting offenses and the probable responsibility of the people involved” [author’s own translation]. The indigenous population within San Mateo del Mar has been the subject of various disputes during the past several years, most of which are related to land rights.

Land Rights

In January 2018, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that a large-scale wind energy project be suspended after it failed to gain sufficient support from the local Zapotec community in the town of Juchitán (Mexico News Daily). Proponents of the infrastructure project, headed by Energía Eólica del Sur (Southern Wind Energy), were insistent that the $1.2 billion project would be profitable for the state and make it the largest wind park of its kind in Latin America (Mexico News Daily). In November of 2017, Governor Murat, attended the official groundbreaking ceremony and affirmed that the project was approved by local communities despite not having gone through the proper channels. A report that specifically addressed the Bíi Hioxo wind park in Juchitán argues that increased efforts to combat global warming through renewable energy resources have subsequently ignored indigenous groups’ territorial claims. There have been efforts on behalf of state authorities as well as private organizations to wage counterinsurgency tactics against indigenous groups that oppose the construction of these large energy projects. One local woman commented that these forms of clean energy could not possibly promote sustainability when they were also responsible for deforestation, polluting groundwater, and eliminating natural forms of medicine. Based on the legal precedent set forth by Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization, judges within the Mexican Supreme Court issued their ruling in favor of the indigenous community. This Convention states that native communities are guaranteed land rights as well as the ability to participate in managing and conserving the land that they safeguard. Despite the court ruling, tensions continue to rise in respect to the issue of land rights in the area, because although the project promises to generate around 1,500 new jobs, it jeopardizes the autonomy of indigenous land in the region (Rodríguez).

Environmental Violence in Oaxaca

The state of Oaxaca continues to be a hub for violence perpetrated against environmental activists, many of whom hail from indigenous communities. On May 7th of this year, 21 year old environmental activist, Eugui Roy Martínez Pérez was found murdered at a ranch in the town of San Agustín Loxicha. He was a student at the Technological Institute of the Valley of Oaxaca (Instituto Tecnológico del Valle de Oaxaca) and was reported to have been an outspoken supporter for environmental advocacy (Miranda). According to the Mexican Center for Environmental Law (Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental, CEMDA), 460 cases of aggression against environmentalists were reported between 2012 to 2018. Of these 460 cases, Oaxaca led with the highest number of reported attacks at 79. Additionally, 29% of all reported cases were associated with energy projects, of which 53 out of 460 constituted wind energy-specific cases (CEMDA).

Due to continued violent attacks against indigenous groups, especially within Oaxaca the past few years, many are calling for increased accountability from the government. The brutal assassinations that took place within San Mateo Del Mar are just some of the more recent attacks being perpetrated against indigenous communities that oppose these large scale energy projects. These communities have received support from the Mexican Supreme Court and human rights groups such as the Committee for the Integral Defence of Human Rights (Comité de Defensa Integral de Derechos Humanos, Gobixha, CODIGO DH), but still face the prospect of highly volatile attacks from those that oppose their territorial claims.

Sources: 

International Labour Organization. “C169 – Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169).” June 27, 1989. 

Comité de Defensa Integral de Derechos Humanos, Gobixha A.C. “Rostros de la Impunidad en Oaxaca Perspectivas desde la Defensa Integral de los Derechos Humanos.” March 2014. 

Dunlap, Alexander. “Counterinsurgency for wind energy: the Bíi Hioxo wind park in 

Juchitán, Mexico.” The Journal of Peasant Studies. January 19, 2017. 

Rodríguez, Óscar. “Colocan primera piedra del Parque Eólico en el Istmo.” Milenio. November 26, 2017. 

Mexico News Daily. “Court orders halt to Juchitán wind farm.” January 11, 2018. 

Leyva Hernández, Alejandra, et al. “Informe Sobre La Situación De Las Personas Defensoras De Los Derechos Humanos Ambientales.” Edited by Andrea Davide Ulisse Cerami and 

Anaid Velasco Ramírez. Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental. March, 2020.

Rodríguez, Óscar. “Asesinan a biólogo ambientalista en Oaxaca.” Milenio. May 11, 2020. 

Miranda, Fernando. “Environmental activist Eugui Roy Martínez was murdered in Oaxaca.” El Universal.  May 12, 2020. 

“Reportan asesinato masivo en el sur de Oaxaca; 15 muertos.” La Jornada. June 22, 2020. 

Associated Press. “At least 15 dead in southern Mexico wind-farm feud killings.” Washington Post. June 23, 2020. 

Chaca, Roselia. “Crece masacre en San Mateo del Mar; suman 15 muertos.” El Universal. June 23, 2020. 

Graham, Dave. “Fifteen killed in brutal attack on indigenous Mexican village.” Reuters. June 23, 2020. 

Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos. “La CNDH requiere urgentemente al Gobierno del Estado de Oaxaca cumplimentar medidas cautelares decretadas a favor de los habitantes del Municipio de San Mateo del Mar.” CNDH México. June 26, 2020.