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.

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.

Together, the group smuggled rare beasts like the Komodo Dragon, the world's largest lizard, now found only on three small Indonesian islands. They also trafficked in the almost extinct Madagascan plowshare tortoise, which, like the Komodo Dragon, may sell for as much as $30,000 on the black market.

Wong's conviction was unprecedented, says Ernest Mayer, the US Fish & Wildlife Service agent in charge of the case, and the operation to nab him gave the agency new insight into how such international rings seem to operate. "Operation Chameleon," as it was called, also uncovered a separate smuggling ring that brought rare birds from southern Mexico.

"During that investigation it became clear that there is a relatively well-organized pipeline from southern Mexico to the Texas border and into the US market," Mayer said. When the operation was over, US authorities were able to return 28 rare parrots to Mexico.

Mexican police say the rare and endangered Siberian tiger cub had apparently been bought by a circus from a salesman in Florida. US agents, meanwhile, have come across Tibetan antelope, poisonous tarantulas, and Gila monsters, as well as pythons, crocodiles, and endangered tortoises.

Some of this traffic might be legal (Benny the elephant, for example), if those moving the wildlife had bothered to get the proper permits to cross the border. But many of those apprehended are simple folk - perhaps a poor farmer with an iguana tucked in his coat - and customs agents usually just turn them back.

Mexican authorities say they face the same problem along their southern border and in jungle regions, where poor Indian women are routinely caught selling rare parrots and toucans for as little as 35 pesos ($3.50).

"These same birds sell on the international market for as much as $1,500 to $2,000," says Diana Ponce, the undersecretary general at Profepa, the Mexican environmental protection agency.

Adding to the problem is that both the US Fish & Wildlife Service and Profepa are poorly funded and lack the staff and resources to patrol any border station or port of entry around the clock. Their colleagues in customs, they say, are preoccupied, looking for drugs and illegal immigrants. Plus, the sheer diversity of the wildlife coming across makes it hard to identify.

Environmentalists estimate that up to 90 percent of these rare creatures perish while making the journey across the border. While many reptiles and birds can survive long periods when packed into bags - or in the Wong case, Fedex packages - thousands die every year. Attempts to pacify them often fail dangerously.

One Mexican smuggler served tequila to a shipment of illegal iguanas because he thought it would keep them more docile for the journey.

"It would have been almost funny," said Doug McKenna, a Fish & Wildlife Service agent based on the Texas border, "if the alcohol hadn't reacted badly with enzymes in their blood and killed them."

Then there is the risk that illegally imported animals may bring rare diseases, raising the specter of epidemics like the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease that has crippled Britain's beef industry.

And though authorities in both Mexico and the US say there's good cross-border cooperation in fighting the wildlife trade, it's going to remain a serious problem until both governments significantly increase the money and resources to fight the problem.

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