Trafficking in totoaba swim bladders has been a successful business model since 2014 when organized crime entered the market.
Since then, the illegal fishing of the endemic Gulf of California species of fish has flared, putting not only totoaba on the endangered species list but the threatened vaquita marina, which shows up as bycatch in gillnets.
“They entered the business forcefully, applying their organizational structures and their corrupting influence. [Organized crime] had established networks, routes, contacts, points of sale and padrinos, or sponsors, in official institutions. What was used to traffic drugs was implemented for the totoaba,” explained an unnamed Army chief in an interview with the newspaper Reforma.
The favored route for totoaba swim bladder traffickers is by air, their destination several Asian countries that treasure the organ for its aphrodisiac and healing properties.
The federal environmental agency Profepa revealed in a report that 1.5 kilograms of cocaine have the same selling price as just one kilo of totoaba swim bladder.
“There’s current data that suggests the price of one kilogram [of totoaba swim bladder] on the black market is reaching US $15,000,” said the document.
The Environment Secretariat (Semarnat) has reported that the main modus operandi of traffickers is to camouflage the bladder with other swim bladders, for which the proper trading permits have been authorized.
“The training of police agents isn’t enough, be it at the municipal, state or federal levels. The situation is the same with the Army, Navy and customs personnel: they’re not trained to detect these crimes,” said an environmental official.
The Federal Police and the federal Attorney General’s office in the state of Baja California have often called upon specialists from the Autonomous University of Baja California (UABC) to identify confiscated swim bladders, to determine whether they belonged to the totoaba or the Gulf corvina.
“While corvina swim bladders have a small, horn-like appendix, totoaba ones have a larger one, of almost the same length as the bladder. This appendix is also twisted, like a braid . . . if complete, it can be easily identified,” say UABC specialists.