This investigation reveals how, along with this problem, young people from fishing villages “buchone” due to totoaba fever, trilateral negotiations are at a standstill, there are no intelligence work, prosecutions are in a tailspin, and environmental enforcement only has gums, thus evidencing the failures of the judicial system in Mexico
An organization made up of Chinese citizens in Mexico, the United States and China traffics marine species from the Mexican coasts to Asia for aphrodisiac purposes. One of them, the most important for its price, is that of the totoaba fish, whose swim bladder, valued in the market at prices similar to those of cocaine, has become so much in demand in elite restaurants in the three countries that it is already a national security problem. This investigation reveals how, along with this problem, young people from fishing villages “buchone” due to totoaba fever, trilateral negotiations are at a standstill, there are no intelligence work, prosecutions are in a tailspin, and environmental enforcement only He has gums, thus evidencing the failures of the judicial system in Mexico.
Lawyer Aideé Lara received a call on the morning of August 16, 2014. Her source told her that, leaving Mexicali, Baja California, they had detained three Chinese citizens who were carrying the swim bladder of the totoaba fish, a species trafficked from the Biosphere Reserve of the Upper Gulf of California, in Mexico, to China, whose cost in Asia is equal to that of cocaine.
Aideé, who was deputy director of federal crimes of the Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection (Profepa), was serving her first week to bring order against the totoaba traffickers, facing the criminal deficiencies in the legal area of Profepa. He went to the facilities of the then Attorney General’s Office (PGR) in Mexicali. After going back and forth without information on the location of the detainees, the officers introduced Li Yuan Chua and Zhang Jingzan.
At the facility, Aideé noticed that a detainee was missing. As he approached, one of the arrested Chinese, fearful, told him voluntarily that “the boss” was released by the police thanks to a large bribe, but he did not say how much. Only he was transferred along with his immediate boss, the owner of a Chinese food restaurant in Tijuana.
Chua and Jingzan spoke Spanish, even rudely, although when night came and they were taken to testify, they ignored Spanish and began to use Mandarin. The deputy director looked for a translator, but could not find one. The defense lawyer for the Chinese brought in a representative of the Chinese community in Baja California, who began translating for the authorities, but apparently not what they actually said. Finally, they released their trial.
Swimming bladders or maws, such as those carried by Chua, Jingzan, and “El Patron”, have been the subject of disputes between criminal poaching groups in the towns of the Gulf of Santa Clara, Sonora, and in San Felipe, Baja California. Everything so that it becomes a gourmet soup or they frame it in their homes as a symbol of power, as demanded by the elites in China some 13 thousand kilometers from this area, and which has led to the almost extinction of the vaquita porpoise. caught in totoaba fishing nets. Now there are less than 10 specimens of this endemic cetacean from the Upper Gulf of California, according to the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (Cirva).
All this complex chain is possible thanks to a transnational network controlled by the Dragon Cartel. Although this structure does not call itself that way, the accounts of the sources consulted manage to call it that because of the nature of its operations. It is made up of Chinese, Americans and Mexicans in China, the United States and Mexico, who established a structure in Mexicali, Baja California, where some entrepreneurs in the restaurant business and the distribution of marine products are the ones who organize with intermediaries, poachers and authorities. at different levels, according to internal documents, 50 requests for information, some thirty interviews with officials and former high-level officials, poachers, fishing leaders, and a 12-day tour of the areas of influence.
An investigation by CONNECTAS in alliance with Diálogo Chino, Emeequis and El Sol de México, detected that of the 42 files opened during the period 2012 to February 2021, not a single hit against heads of the Dragon Cartel is reflected and, in addition, the Results against the furtive link are plummeting: there are two convictions, five non-criminal action exercises, five at some stage of oral proceedings and 30 pending. That is an effective rate of 4.7%, according to various requests for information obtained through the Transparency Law of Profepa and the Attorney General’s Office (FGR).
In these files, the authority requested 23 reparations for the damage caused to this species and its habitat, valued at 61 million pesos, of which only two sentences were resolved in favor of the authority, while the rest are still pending. In addition, the economic valuations of the damage do not agree in contrast to the volumes seized, according to the data itself.
This investigation also found that coordinated work with China and the United States has been on hold since 2017. Internal reports from the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs (SRE) indicate that Mexico’s proposal entitled “Project on terms of reference of the Trilateral Contact Group on Law enforcement “is in a” review process “by the governments of those countries. The official letter specifies that the memorandum continues to be reviewed in Beijing, which is why they are promoting a Second Trilateral Meeting in order to exchange intelligence data. .
In this vein, an internal report from the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat), which was presented in August 2019 before the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), in Geneva, Switzerland, details that they barely collect information on organized crime groups despite the fact that it clarifies that this problem is “a matter of National Security in terms of sustainability.”
The only task so far has been carried out by the Financial Intelligence Unit (UIF) of the Ministry of Finance and Public Credit of Mexico (SHCP). High-level sources indicated that the “Totoaba-San Felipe” file was opened, where 225 reports of unusual operations were identified with 178 subjects “possibly linked” to crop trafficking. For this reason, the accounts of nine subjects – no Chinese target – were frozen for suspicious assets amounting to 3,233,701 pesos ($ 159,933). The FIU also shared information with the FGR to open an investigation.
With this balance in the fight against totoaba trafficking, not only the deficiencies in the powers of environmental enforcement are shown, but also the lack of training in criminal-environmental matters for inspectors, lawyers, prosecutors, ministerial agents and judges to explain how it is Costea the Cá rtel of the Dragon in transnational traffic to Asian destinations by air through the airports of Tijuana and Ciudad de Mexico, Ensenada sea and by land to San Diego and San Francisco, United States.
According to the study Illegal fisheries, environmental crime, and the conservation of marine resources, recently published in Conservation Biology, “criminal cartels” are involved in the chain of smuggling of swim bladders. “The high value of this product facilitates corruption […] We predict that the involvement of transnational organized crime in coastal marine fisheries will increase, particularly in areas where there is already demand.”
In addition to this, a climate of violence and indiscriminate fishing was installed in the fishing villages in the eyes of the authorities, who have received orders from central offices not to stop poaching, which has led to a “pax mafiosa” , according to the agents consulted. In the midst of this environmental framework, the inhabitants of San Felipe and the Gulf of Santa Clara, especially young people, every day dedicate themselves more to “buchonear”, as they call the totoaba crop traffic and the luxuries that arise from it. : cash, trucks of the year, luxury brand clothing and high-end cell phones.
For this investigation, the position of Semar, the Secretariat of National Defense, the FGR, Profepa, the SRE, and the National Guard, as well as the embassies of China and the United States, was sought for three weeks, without any fixation. one position at the close of the edition. Only Semarnat responded that, in terms of security, coordination is carried out by the Secretary of the Navy (Semar) with maritime, land and air routes; inspection and observation posts; a new inter-institutional agreement; information exchange and awareness campaigns; also the increase in penalties and the application of preventive detention.
As for the Intragovernmental Group on Sustainability in the Upper Gulf of California – the answer abounds – they are working on a strategy for the sustainable use of totoaba; the lifting of the ban on this fish and the registration of farms; and updating of totoaba and vaquita counts. Regarding international objectives, they only mentioned that responsibility is shared with the United States and China, as well as with other institutions.
Totoaba skeleton head in the gutter dump of the Gulf of Santa Clara, Sonora. Credit: Naguales
On one side of the Gulf of Santa Clara highway, a dirt road begins, which leads to the dump of viscera of marine species, where our guide, as a crime investigator, sets out to find the signs of the crime. “Be very careful and watch where you step,” he tells us.
After about a hundred meters, the first traces are tires, drums, bottles, more garbage and old fishing nets. Suddenly, his gaze points to some bushes and a mound of rubble. Look, there it is. Have you seen it yet? ”, He expresses. It is a totoaba skeleton over a meter long, with the almost intact head covered with sand dust.
We advance 20 meters and we realize that, at each step, totoaba frames abound and even a loggerhead turtle shell. “Look, there is more,” repeats this sultry afternoon of March 25, 2021, while adding 16 skeletons that were shed of their precious gold: crop or swim bladder.
The day before, our guide, who asked to protect his identity for fear of reprisals, arranged a meeting with a fisherman who knows the ins and outs of poaching. “Do you think the vaquita still exists?” Asks the fisherman. Before answering, he says that he has seen her, but that many deny it. Then he talks about how on some occasion his Chinese “friends” from Mexicali asked him for a one kilo 700 gram bladder for which they would pay him 25 thousand dollars.
But the crop had to bring its “braids” intact, because supposedly that part is decisive in the price. Finally, he did not capture it, because it counts, it is not easy to find a species of that size. He then describes that drying the bladders consists of putting them in sleet for three or four days until they are white and then placing them on the floor, because that is how they release the fat.
A hundred swish of the totoaba with the “braids” in the lower part during a seizure by Profepa. Credit: Profepa
Poachers and official US authorities say a kilo of the crop is valued at $ 5,000 in Mexico; if you arrive in the United States between $ 10,000 and $ 15,000; and the price once in China reaches 60,000 dollars. However, sources in the fishing villages refer that the price dropped to $ 3,000 as a result of Covid-19.
This relationship between fish, fishermen and Chinese citizens began almost a century ago when La Chinesca was established in Mexicali, Baja California. The Colorado River Land Company brought them in for the construction of the irrigation system in Mexicali. When they discovered the resemblance between the totoaba and the bahana – eastern yellow croaker, a threatened species in China – the fishing began.
History is known by Ernesto Sosa, historian and official chronicler of the totoaba. Sosa dates back to the founding of San Felipe, the Gulf of Santa Clara and Puerto Peñasco, when their first huts were built with the skin of this fish. Then came the sale of the crop that was catapulted during the 1920s through the two Chinese brothers Juan and Arturo Chein Quan, owners of a store called La Playa on the coast of San Felipe.
They both bought a crop for four gold cents from the fishermen in order to market them to Calexico and Chinatown in San Francisco, United States. The fishermen began to extract en masse, but they only sold the swim bladder and disposed of the rest on the beaches.
Commerce became famous in the first half of the 20th century, which also led Mexicans to consume the crop. The ancient fishermen used a sharp spoon to remove it, since if they used a knife they could chop it up and they no longer bought them.
Infographics of the biological report of totoaba carried out by the dataMares platform. Credit: Courtesy of dataMares for CONNECTAS.
All of this overexploited the Upper Gulf of California, where the vaquita porpoise also lives. Little by little San Felipe was established as a fishing ground with cooperatives and the Chinese demand went from personal taste to inviting their compatriots to extract it.
The old fishermen talk that the totoaba triggered a time of “bonanza”, especially when the Chinese became involved as intermediaries. Fishing exploded to such an extent that dynamite was used to extract it, although by the late 1950s a commission of aldermen was sent to San Felipe to stop this method.
Between 1920 and 1942, according to the dataMares platform, the “historical maximum” of fishing was reached of 2,261 tons and in 1975 it reached a “minimum record” of 58 tons. “There was an exponential increase in fishing effort (number of pangas), which could have contributed to the collapse of the fishery in 1975,” says his biological report on the totoaba, which was listed as endangered in the collapse. From 1979-1995 it was 70 tons.
At the time that the totoaba was affected, the vaquita suffered the same fate, which led to the creation in 1992 of the Technical Committee for the Preservation of the Vaquita and the Totoaba (CTPVT). In 1993, the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve was established. That is, regulations were set.
Sport fishing in San Felipe, Baja California, during the totoaba fever in the first half of the 20th century. Credit: Ernesto Sosa
“Here they killed him”
As we passed through 1 de Junio Street, in the Gulf of Santa Clara, we came across a one-and-a-half-meter statue of San Judas Tadeo. Next to her in a palm tree hangs a small altar with a photograph of Samuel Gallardo, known as “El Samy”, a leader of the then most important fishing cooperative in the area.
“They killed him here,” our guide tells about that June 9, 2014 when he was shot by gunmen. There was mourning for a week.
Anyone who knew Gallardo, remembers the guide, knew of his goodness and the development he brought to the town. But, also, as his former employees and friends narrate: the best-paid job that “El Samy” offered was to extract crops for his partners in China, Korea, and Japan.
The hypotheses of his murder –according to his acquaintances– revolve around a settling of scores with past enemies in drug trafficking; to a fight to take away the totoaba business and, also, that of a millionaire debt with the Chinese.
According to fishermen, after the murder they fragmented into dozens of criminal groups that currently fight with fire and blood. “What I had a control is over,” says a fisherman about the powder keg unleashed after “El Samy” died.
Altar in honor of Samuel Gallardo, alias “El Samy”, 1 de Junio street where he was assassinated in the Gulf of Santa Clara, Sonora. Credit: Naguales
From 2011 to 2019, 3,476 pieces of bladders were confiscated, according to a cross-database with dozens of requests. Added to this are whole fillets and totoabas weighing 19 tons. Likewise, 10 vaquita corpses were counted in a state of decomposition, where there is a black figure impossible to quantify, since poachers drill them to sink them, dismember them or bury them in the desert.
These seizures of the authority are a pinch, since the Dragon Cartel sophisticated year after year the modus operandi with more intermediaries. Years ago, Chinese traffickers collected the merchandise in the fishing fields. But currently, they have been established as a delivery point, upon prior request via WhatsApp with passwords, in some Chinese food restaurants in Mexicali, Tijuana, Ensenada, Los Angeles and San Francisco, according to Aideé Lara, who was deputy director of Crimes. Federals of Profepa in Baja California.
In an internal communication from Profepa from October 2014, it is detailed that, in Tijuana, Baja California, a trafficker was arrested with 3,404 sea cucumbers, another of the species controlled by the Dragon Cartel , along with the shark fin, the turtles. marine, seahorse and abalone. The package was going to the Ocean Pacific restaurant. The detainee replied to the agents that he sold marine products, such as maw, to his Chinese partners.
Photos and conversation of a totoaba and sea cucumber trafficker arrested in 2014. Credit: Naguales
Now they sophisticated the system with triangulations. Our guide explains that the fishermen deliver the crop to a Mexican intermediary in the town, to take it to one house and then to another. A job like this is paid at 200 dollars so that, after passing through the hands of several Mexican intermediaries, it is delivered in the city of Mexicali or Tijuana to a trafficker of Chinese origin. Our guide, who has done this work, maintains that the protection of the National Guard is included, or at least that of a group, since another one undertook a “hunt for Chinese” to take the money from the deliveries.
Lara explains that the routes and forms have changed: “I know that there are Chinese who are even drawing other routes; for example: from Nuevo León and del Bajío. People with a high degree within your organization are daring to make the transfers ”.
“The Chinese who operate here do not trust the Mexicans. They operate linked to criminal organizations, but the Chinese are managerially in control […]. They carry out business management with a business vision ”, explains Israel Alvarado, former director of Federal Crimes against Profepa and an expert in environmental crime.
According to Lara and Alvarado, the Dragon Cartel surpasses the Environmental Prosecutor’s Office because it does not have legal investigative powers in the articles of its internal regulations, so they cannot carry out intelligence work or arrests.
Totoabera nets confiscated in the old Profepa facilities in San Felipe, Baja California, between 2013 and 2014. Credit: Naguales
Totoaba without crop is recovered by a Profepa inspector in San Felipe Baja California after fishermen threw it when they realized the operation. Credit: Naguales
In the UNODC report Tools for the analysis of crimes against wildlife and forests –where Alvarado was an advisor–, it is specified that “the attributions of Profepa in criminal matters should be reviewed”, where Profepa obtains powers to investigate and collect evidence data on illegal wildlife trafficking.
Although sometimes the evidence is not enough, because for Luis Enríquez, a researcher at the totoaba biotechnology laboratory at the Autonomous University of Baja California (UABC, Ensenada), the judges do not have an environmental criterion. “They know the legal information, but they lack the biological information,” says Enríquez, who has participated in trials in Mexico and the United States, and complains that the damage cannot be repaired.
Said reparations have been achieved in the Federal Court of San Diego, United States, through three files. In 2013, for example, they detected a Mexico-EU-China network of a front furniture company. As a result, a sum of $ 500,000 was allocated to the Mexican government to repair the damage committed by traffickers Kam Wing Chan and Song Shen Shen. During the trial, David Conal True, head of the UABC totoaba laboratory, was present, whose testimony was key in determining the damage.
Even the Chinese government has done more. In March 2019, the Jiangmen Prosecutor’s Office, located in Guangdong, detained Liang Weihua, accused of introducing to China around 20 thousand maws of totoaba, with a value of 119 million dollars. According to official documents, the Mexican government did not begin an investigation into this case.
In Mexico, of the 42 files opened as a result of coadjustments between Profepa and the FGR, only two were related to international cases in 2020: the first was notified by customs in Hong Kong, China; and the second, by New Naitei, Taiwan, both from last year. The rest were opened based on complaints from organizations or cases of flagrante delicto fishing, but nothing that goes beyond the net.
Regarding damage repairs, these amounted to 61 million pesos -3 million dollars-; however, the values do not match the numbers of seizures. For example, the highest damage was valued at 39 million pesos for 38 crops in 2020; but in 2018 there was a case of 108 valued at 254 thousand pesos. In another, from 2019, from which the expert opinion was obtained, it was valued at 3 million 796 thousand pesos for 90 totoaba bladders and 648 sea cucumbers.
The only action was carried out by the Financial Intelligence Unit of the SHCP, headed by Santiago Nieto, who gave information to the FGR to initiate the investigation folder for suspicious assets related to this crime. However, the FGR has not dealt a major blow yet.
Military checkpoint at the exit of the Gulf of Santa Clara Sonora where they check that the luggage does not carry totoaba. Credit: Naguales
Following the moon phase
Two days have passed since we left the Gulf of Santa Clara and its “cemetery” of totoabas behind. We stand under a palapa, like any tourist, at the foot of the beach of the port of San Felipe, Baja California, and we observed several trucks moving forward with totoabera boats, hooked to the fenders. With the complicity of the full moon, they enter the sea through the ramp on the left side, where the commercial and restaurant area is located.
Here there is no restriction or any documentation requested by the authorities. In contrast, six kilometers away, the dock is located to one side of the Navy captaincy, where legal fishermen set sail from whom they check the nets, the number of boats and the product they take out.
From the boardwalk of San Felipe you can see again and again how the boats enter. It is not free that they come out this season, since in this lunar phase the spawning of this fish is greatest between February and June, according to the dataMares platform, although the month with the highest peak is March. That is why we are here this Saturday the 27th of the same month. Despite the fact that they enter until midnight without legal license plates or with totoabera nets in view of any resident or tourist, the sailors were not present.
A sailor explains that from Mexico City, the order came to “not repress the people and not detain them”, this as part of the new policy of the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. According to cooperative fishing leaders, the fishermen who abide by the rules have already held discussions with the admirals of the Secretariat of the Navy because they do not stop poachers, who they consider to affect the image of the people.
This is not a recent policy. In the fishing villages, control got out of hand since a sector linked to the Dragon Cartel set fire to the Profepa building, the boats and then threw Molotov cocktails against the authorities on June 9, 2019.
Boat setting sail on the ramp of San Felipe, Baja California where authorities do not carry out inspections. Credit: Naguales
According to a complaint dated November 1, 2014 for attempted homicide, possession of firearms and crimes against officials, environmental inspectors were attacked with blows, bullets to their cars and their houses, as well as harassment in the offices by means of of “polarized luxury vans.” They also caused car accidents and sent armed groups to rescue the poachers.
Before heading to the beach to observe the boats, during the afternoon we met a fishing leader in the palapas of a hotel. With a lure of concern, he says that the totoaba “came to end everything” because more and more young people are interested in crop fever, abandoning their studies and a legal way of life.
The same fishing leader has struggled with his son not to be attracted by the totoabera fever, since the young bucheros show off luxury cars, clothes, and money. With the 3,000 dollars they receive for a bladder they go out to ‘buchonear’, a term coined in the region to identify poachers. This is how, since the twenties, this illicit business has transformed fishing and the habits of a part of the fishing sector.
This Saturday while we talked with the fisherman, no more than 20 meters away, a subject walks at a slow pace on the beach in the middle of the tourists, carrying a totoaba, until he places it on the corner of a trellis in the Costa Azul hotel. It still looks fresh, especially because of the traces of blood that show that it had just been detached from its valuable gold: the crop.
This entire structure was tried to stop at the time by lawyers Lara and Alvarado, both with an environmentalist soul. But, as the months went by, they realized that the Dragon Cartel had quite a few allies, especially within the institutions. As more criminal actions were brought against traffickers, Lara noticed, first, the interest of Chinese businessmen in learning about the investigations. Then, the threats of a navy command and agents of the federal public prosecutor began. “Women like you get shot,” the command told him.
She left informative parts to the Profepa high command, who called her “crazy”, despite the fact that national security agents had already notified the attorney, during a meeting, since 2013 that there were public servants from the Environmental Attorney’s Office involved. In the net. Lara and Alvarado continued, they didn’t care. But he escalated to such a degree that his house was raided, documents and money were taken. When Aideé decided it was time to leave, the sentence came from an emissary of the cartel to work with them or bear the consequences. This is how until today the Dragon Cartel has managed to defeat the Mexican government to continue with the trafficking of totoaba: cocaine from the sea.
* This research was carried out by Naguales, a journalistic group made up of Alejandro Melgoza, Andrés Estrada and Enrique Alvarado, for Diálogo Chino, Emeequis, El Sol de México and CONNECTAS with the support of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) within the framework of the Initiative for Investigative Journalism in the Americas.