This cartel’s business is not marijuana, cocaine or meth. It traffics in something that can be even more lucrative: the totoaba, an endangered fish. The cartel extracts the totoaba’s swim bladder, dries it and sends it to China. This is not only affecting the protected totoaba species but is also accelerating the extinction of the vaquita marina, a rare porpoise.
Many people in China believe that the buche — as the totoaba bladder is popularly known in Mexico — has aphrodisiac and medicinal properties, but there’s no scientific evidence to back this. It is also a status symbol: Serving buche soup is a sign of wealth, because one kilogram can cost more than a kilogram of cocaine — it can go for $100,000 in some Chinese cities and in New York’s Chinatown, according to investigative reports published by the nongovernmental organization Earth League International. It also communicates power, because the product comes from illegal fishing and one must have some influence to acquire it.
The Cartel of the Sea operations are based in northwestern Mexico, in the Sea of Cortez, a beautiful body of water that French explorer Jacques Cousteau once called the “world’s aquarium.”
The cartel has set fire to Mexican navy ships and buildings, thrown Molotov cocktails at boats from the Sea Shepherd NGO — which help patrol and monitor the zone — and has threatened thousands of fishermen’s families. I myself was threatened on numerous occasions for denouncing all this in the National Geographic documentary “Sea of Shadows,” directed by Richard Ladkani and executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio. These threats were made by individuals confirmed to be top leaders within the cartel by Mexican intelligence agencies.
The administration of former president Enrique Peña Nieto failed in its attempt to take back control of the zone, in large part because of endemic corruption, a prominent feature of his time in office. But the current administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has not lifted a finger to tackle the issue.
The wide nets that are used to illegally catch the totoaba fish tend to also trap the vaquita, a small, timid and beautiful porpoise that lives only in this region and is nearing extinction: There are only between nine and 15 vaquitas left, according to Cynthia Smith, executive director of the National Marine Mammal Foundation. If the Mexican government doesn’t act now, the species will be extinct next year.
The totoaba arrives in Mexican waters between November and May. Fishing has already begun, and the following months will test the vaquita’s survival. Whether the species survives beyond the month of May remains to be seen.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora has threatened Mexico with fishing trade sanctions if it fails to do something to protect the vaquita. This means Mexican fishermen would not be able to export their products, generating a grave crisis throughout Mexico’s coasts.
But there seems to be little will on the part of the government to react. In fact, some of the policies championed by López Obrador’s administration have been criticized for their potentially disastrous effects on the environment: The president’s economic reactivation plan includes opening more oil refineries, building a new airport in an urban zone and a train that would run through a delicate jungle ecosystem.
The state should provide an economic alternative to the thousands of fishermen who live in the zone these species calls home. However, the government’s inaction has left many with no other choice but to join the ranks of the Cartel of the Sea so they can put food on their tables.
In September, when “Sea of Shadows” premiered in Mexico, the government pledged to send 600 federal police officers to crack down on illegal fishing in the zone. It is now December, and they have yet to arrive. However, illegal fishermen have flocked to the zone. For the past several weeks, activists have seen as many as 80 boats throwing fishing nets in the heart of the vaquita refuge. The Cartel of the Sea continues operating with full impunity.