Mexico's latest illegal migrants: exotic animals
Busy border proves boon to traffickers smuggling Siberian tigers, Komodo dragons, and Garibaldi fish.
As the Mexican police tell it, Eduardo del Refugio was speeding when they pulled him over last month in San Luis Potosi. Suspecting he was ferrying drugs toward the US border, they ordered him to open his trunk. But instead of cocaine, they found a rare Siberian tiger cub, cowering in a dog carrier.Skip to next paragraph
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Another Mexican smuggler recently tried to enter California with a shipment of rare Garibaldi fish - swimming in his gas tank. The tank had been welded into two parts to separate the water from the gas.
Wildlife smugglers are now following the same routes - and methods - used to sneak illicit drugs into the US. Like their brethren in contraband, they're taking advantage of the growing "cover" provided by the explosion in border trade under NAFTA. As a result, Mexico is becoming a major transit point for exotic and endangered animals from around the world.
While there are many similarities between smuggling drugs and smuggling animals across the US-Mexico border, officials say that there's more money made - pound for pound - in smuggling some exotic animals. And the criminals know the risk of capture is lower, and the penalties far less rigorous.
No one can quite put a dollar figure on the trade, but what few statistics they have suggest the number is staggering. Mexican authorities say they already have seized more than 50,000 animals bound for the border since the start of the year.
"What we have here is a battle on the scale of David versus Goliath," says Adrian Reuters, the Mexico City-based representative for Traffic, an arm of the World Wildlife Fund that monitors the global illegal trade in flora and fauna. "Understaffed, under-funded law enforcement agencies up against a huge industry."
Authorities on both sides of the Rio Grande say wildlife smuggling has increased since the birth of NAFTA, and has become more difficult to fight.
"Whatever somebody wants, it can get through here from Mexico," says John Brooks, a law enforcement agent with the US Fish & Wildlife Service who works along the California border. "You just have somebody drive it up, and you blend in."
The financial incentives are substantial. Rare, endangered animals may fetch as much as $30,000 to $50,000 each from owners of private zoos and circuses. If smugglers are caught, jail terms are rare, and fines are usually no higher than $15,000, according to US Fish & Wildlife Service documents.
One recent exception was the June conviction of Malaysian wildlife dealer Anson Wong, who was sentenced to 71 months in prison and a $60,000 fine after pleading guilty to 40 felony charges for trafficking in some of the world's most endangered reptile species.
Mr. Wong, who was arrested in Mexico City and then spent two years fighting his extradition to the US, spearheaded an international network that brought an estimated 300 protected animals into the US inside of falsely labeled Federal Express packages, airline baggage, and other kinds of shipments. Wong worked with former Fedex employees and with US - and Hong Kong-based animal dealers. Seven other ringleaders also were convicted or pleaded guilty as well.