Theft of yucca cacti from indigenous communities in Mexico’s northwestern state of Baja California for export is reportedly accelerating, underscoring the silent issue of plant trafficking in the country.
Indigenous communities in the municipality of Ensenada have raised alarm about the continuing theft of yucca, a plant on which they are economically reliant, from reserves, according to El Universal. Representatives of the Kumiai, Cucapás, Kiliwas and Paipai communities met with federal officials to report the systematic plundering of yucca allegedly carried out by armed “mafias” for years and sold illegally in the port of Ensenada at greatly lowered prices.
The Kiliwas chief and representative at the meetings, Elías Espinoza Álvarez, stated that the community sells yucca at $450 a ton for use in a number of industries but that the thieves sell it on at just $100 a ton.
It was announced by federal authorities that a permanent checkpoint would be set up in the area to be manned by National Guard troops and police in order to stop trucks carrying yucca out of the Indigenous reserve. To date, however, this checkpoint has still not been established. Furthermore, the Kiliwas claim their community has set up patrols in the past to no avail, since captured thieves are allegedly quickly released without charge by public prosecutors.
While yucca theft has not been widely reported on in Mexico, it is not a new phenomenon. The Federal Prosecutor’s Office for Environmental Protection (Procuraduría Federal de Protección al Ambiente – PROFEPA) has tracked numerous seizures of illegally cut yucca in the municipality of Ensenada over the years. In 2016 alone, it reported a total 71 tons of yucca (28 tons in April, 6 tons and 11 tons in October and 26 tons in December).
But according to Espinoza, the problem has only worsened since 2018, the same year that the legal global trade in medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPs) reached a record-high of $3.3 billion, having almost tripled in two decades.
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The smuggling of Mexican cacti is a multimillion-dollar industry, leading some conservationists to rank cacti “just below drugs and guns as the most popular goods smuggled out of Mexico.”
While this is probably an exaggeration, it does attest to the relative importance of illegal plant trafficking, which is often overlooked in Mexico when compared to the trafficking of wildlife such as totoaba fish, sea cucumbers and crocodiles. But conservationists argue the illicit trade in flora can be just as environmentally harmful as that of fauna.
Most cacti grow extremely slowly and are near-exclusive to the Americas, creating an imbalance between surging global demand and limited regional supply. As with other commodities, this imbalance significantly raises their monetary value, creating an incentive for smugglers.
Yet while the smuggling of cacti, including yucca, often seems to be structured, it is unlikely to be the work of sophisticated criminal groups. Dr. Tanya Wyatt, a professor of criminology at Northumbria University in the UK, says Mexico’s illegal wildlife trade displays “limited evidence of widespread involvement of organized crime.” That is not to say, however, that “these groups would not move into trafficking of yucca or other plants when the risk is low and the profits are high,” she told InSight Crime.
This idea has precedent. For example, the Sinaloa Cartel and Juarez Cartel have in recent years become involved in illegal logging in Chihuahua, using their territorial control to profit from a secondary industry besides drug trafficking.
Similarly, the municipality of Ensenada, from where the yucca is stolen and smuggled, serves both as a drug trafficking hub — due to its strategic proximity to Tijuana and the US border, as well as its importance as a maritime nexus — and fertile terrain for poppy and marijuana plantations. As a result, both the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación — CJNG) have a presence in the municipality.