The Wilson Quarterly

Sprawling manses are scattered across the rural countrysides of Central and South America. Popularly referred to as “narco ranches,” these vast estates are owned and operated by some of the region’s wealthiest and most powerful people: prominent drug lords.

At these villas, the lavish lifestyles funded by a multi-billion-dollar narcotics industry are proudly flaunted. Some homes have been known to shelter millions of dollars in cash, drugs, and weaponry, stowed away in rooms adjoined by parlors featuring custom-built luxury furniture and internationally renowned artwork. Other kingpins brandish their wealth with yet-more-extravagant expenses, turning their narco ranches into private zoos.

Narco-ranch menageries, where exotic animals are bought and bred as status symbols, are not a new addition to the ostentatious world of drug cartels. Pablo Escobar stockpiled his vast property with hundreds of exotic animals imported from all over the world; his hippos can still be found roaming the Colombian wilderness. In 1983, the Al Pacino film Scarface, in which the titular cartel boss keeps a tiger chained in his backyard, further popularized the idea that owning rare animals was a symbol of power and success in a criminal sphere were money talks (and a few pet tigers roar even louder).

In recent years, however, drug gangs have used exotic animals as more than just showy displays of wealth, looking to add the illegal wildlife trade as yet another facet of their smuggling empires. In the illicit economy, it is trumped only by drug trafficking and arms smuggling in its size and scale.

Animal trafficking can be broken down into two parts: the trade of living creatures, which are sold as pets to private owners; and the luxury product business, wherein dead animals are sold for their body parts.

Alive, rare animals can be worth thousands of dollars — the Spix's macaw, a critically endangered species from Brazil, for example, was worth an estimated $100,000 on the black market before its near-extinction in the wild. Lions and other big cats sell for a few thousand dollars, and their skins earn even more, sometimes fetching as much as $300,000.

Animal parts are similarly profitable. In Asia, ivory from elephants and rhinos is sought for its purported medicinal powers; by the ounce, elephant tusks command a price higher than gold. Elsewhere, exotic fish bladders are sought for culinary purposes, one of many flamboyant, expensive, and illegal delicacies enjoyed in restaurants throughout Asia. To satisfy the demand, there are Mexican cartels that specialize in the transport of the fish bladders to Asia, where some buyers pay between $3,000 and $9,000 per kilogram.

For the most powerful drug cartels, these immense profits are well worth the risk. While criminals apprehended on charges of drug trafficking can receive years in prison and millions of dollars in forfeiture, wildlife traffickers typically face minimal punishments, often only fines. If illicit activities are discovered, gangs have no shortage of scapegoats, and a wealth of resources available to continue their work — secure smuggling routes, connections in government and law enforcement, and a perpetual flow of money.

These advantages are not available to smalltime smugglers and poachers, who typically come from poor communities and struggle to provide basic essentials for themselves and their families. Many team up with the crime syndicates to assure safe passage of cargo from one country to another. The cartels take a cut of the profit, and if trouble arises, they place blame on the lowly smugglers on the bottommost rung of the operation.

The Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international treaty and the premier regulator of wildlife trade. “The harsh reality is that wildlife crime remains a low priority for most mainstream law enforcement agencies,” John Sellar, CITES’ retired head of law enforcement told National Geographic in May. This is especially true in countries with weak democratic and legal institutions, where police are easily bought or are otherwise preoccupied by the long-running war on drugs. There is no such war on the exotic animal trade.

Beyond enforcement, the laws are filled with loopholes that make it easy for cartels to buy and sell rare animals and animal-based products. According to CITES, animals bred in captivity are not subject to the same lawful protection as those in the wild; after buying exotic animals on the black market, cartels often breed them in captivity. The result is a generation of unimported animals that can be more freely sold to eager buyers, a transaction that is virtually consequence-free for all parties involved.

Apart from the high profit and low risk, the trade has another appeal for cartels: the international force of supply and demand allows vast criminal networks to merge animal and drug shipments, with the former used to hide the latter. Drugs have been surgically packed inside not just beasts of burden, but venomous snakes, too; they’ve been hidden in animals’ shipping containers; liquefied drugs have been laced into the lining of plastic bags housing tropical fish; the list goes on.

In comparison to its sister trafficking trades (i.e. drugs, arms, and humans), the illegal wildlife business has managed to mostly avoid public scrutiny, despite the big players involved. As demand for exotic animals rises, unique species will continue to deplete and eventually disappear. Drug cartels, interested only in potential profit, reap the astronomical benefits of this little-discussed, weakly policed trade, directly contributing to the destruction of global ecodiversity.

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Further Reading:

Kevin Xie, “Crime Gone Wild: The Dangers of the International Illegal Wildlife Trade,” Harvard International Review, August 27, 2015

Duncan Tucker, “It’s Basically Legal for Mexican Narcos to Buy Lions, Cheetahs, and Other Exotic Pets,” VICE, September 2, 2015.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare, “Criminal Nature: The Global Security Implications of the Illegal Wildlife Trade,” June 2013.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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