Totoaba bladders can fetch up to $14,000

The mysterious murder of an alleged drug trafficker in Mexico has drawn attention to a little-known but lucrative criminal trade -- the trafficking of exotic fish bladders to Asia.

Samuel Gallardo Castro, alias "El Samy," who Mexican authorities have identified as an organized crime chief and drug trafficker in the Gulf of Santa Clara, was murdered on June 11.

Shortly after, a man handed himself in to the authorities and confessed to the murder, claiming Gallardo owed him $1 million for a shipment of bladders from the totoaba fish, which is endemic to the Gulf of California, reported local media.

While reports suggest that the man may be released, as authorities doubt the validity of his story and his mental faculties, his confession shines a light on a form of eco-trafficking that has exploded in the region in recent years, according to an investigation by Mexicali Digital.

The report details how the bladders, which can fetch between $7,000 and $14,000 a piece, are trafficked into the United States then exported to Asia, where they are made into a soup that can sell for as much as $25,000 a portion.

According to Mexicali Digital, Gallardo's ties to totoaba trafficking, which was facilitated by his role as director of the Alto Golfo Fisheries Cooperative in the state of Sonora, are an example of the growing involvement of drug traffickers in the trade, as groups operating in Sonora and Mexicali regard it as safer and easier than trafficking marijuana -- another major local export.

InSight Crime Analysis

Eco-trafficking from Latin America has grown into a billion-dollar industry for the region's transnational criminal organizations.

The poaching of marine products bound for Asian black markets occurs in several countries throughout the region, with shark fin poachers active in Costa Rica, dolphins illegally slaughtered in Peru, and sea horses and sea cucumbers hunted in Mexico.

Several recent cases have highlighted the trade in totoaba, which is now an endangered species. In December 2013, Mexican authorities dismantled a group of smugglers trafficking totoaba in the Sea of Cortez, arresting four people and seizing parts of the fish worth an estimated $35,000-$60,000.

Furthermore, in April 2013, US border authorities arrested one man and seized over 200 totoaba bladders from a residence in Calexico valued at more than $3.6 million on the foreign market (pdf). In this case, the fish, intended for shipping overseas, were being transported from Mexico under the floor mats of the car.

However, few arrests have been made, despite the fact that the vast profits on offer are now apparently attracting organized crime groups. Mexico's federal prosecutor for environmental protection (PROFEPA) arrested only 17 people for trafficking totoaba between 2013 and June 2014 despite intensified patrols in protected marine areas.