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.

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

Elites and Organized Crime: Preface

Elites and Organized Crime: Preface

Organized crime is not an abstract concept for me. I grew up in Oak Park, a leafy suburb of Chicago with a population of about 60,000. In general, it was a very low crime city, which is perhaps why many mobsters made their homes there, among them...

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: The 'Huistas'

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: The 'Huistas'

In the northwest corner of Guatemala, a little known criminal organization known as the "Huistas" dominates the underworld, in large part due its ties with businessmen, law enforcement officials and politicians.

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: The CICIG

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: The CICIG

Like any arm of the justice system, the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG) had its battles with elites who used their charm and their muscle to try to influence what and who the celebrated commission...

Elites and Organized Crime: Conceptual Framework - Organized Crime

Elites and Organized Crime: Conceptual Framework - Organized Crime

This project defines organized crime as: a structured group of people that associate on a regular and prolonged basis to benefit from illicit activities and illegal markets. This group can be local, national or transnational in nature, and its existence is maintained using violence and threats; corruption...

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: 'Don Berna'

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: 'Don Berna'

By the end of 1993, Pablo Escobar was cornered. The cocaine king -- known as "El Patrón" -- was running out of money and options. His top assassins were either dead or had turned themselves in. Almost all of the senior members of the Medellín Cartel were...

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: 'Jorge 40'

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: 'Jorge 40'

Rodrigo Tovar Pupo never imagined it would come to this: dressed in an orange jumpsuit in a Washington DC courtroom and standing in front of a United States federal judge, the grandson of a wealthy Colombian cattle rancher and nephew to a governor was facing a possible...

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros

On the morning of April 5, 1988, Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros left his palatial Tegucigalpa estate for a jog. Matta Ballesteros was wanted for murder, drug trafficking and other crimes in several countries, but in Honduras he felt safe. He regularly hosted parties for high-level officials at...

The FARC and the Drug Trade: Siamese Twins?

The FARC and the Drug Trade: Siamese Twins?

The FARC have always had a love-hate relationship with drugs. They love the money it brings, funds which have allowed them to survive and even threaten to topple the state at the end of the 1990s. They hate the corruption and stigma narcotics have also brought to...

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: The Cachiros

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: The Cachiros

As it tends to happen in Honduras, the news began as a well-heeled rumor: Javier Rivera Maradiaga, the oldest of the three Rivera Maradiaga brothers still alive and leader of the feared and powerful Honduran drug trafficking group known as the Cachiros, had handed himself in to...

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Guatemala is Central America’s most populous country and its largest economy. But an intransigent elite, an ambitious military and a weak state has opened the way for organized crime to flourish, especially since the return of democracy.