Cocaine, Marijuana… Jellyfish? Cartels Muscle in on New Export Business

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero / The Daily Beast / Getty
Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero / The Daily Beast / Getty

For decades the fishermen around the Santa Clara gulf in the Mexican state of Sonora have lived from fishing and selling jellyfish, a product that has no market in Mexico but sells well in Asia. This year the local industry was expecting a good season. But now the Sinaloa Cartel wants a piece of the multimillion business.

The “cannonball jellyfish” is one of a dozen sea products exported from Mexico to Singapore and Vietnam and leaving over $10 million in revenue during a three-month season, according to Mexican fishing authorities.

By this time of the year, the fishermen should be already processing tons of jellyfish to be sent to other major Mexican companies, which run the export side of business. But June is over and no fisherman has dared to get into the sea. The threat is real: Heavily armed cartel members are making sure no one goes out to fish.

“They want us to work for them exclusively, but we are afraid, we really don’t know what to do,” a local fisherman in the small city of Guaymas, Sonora, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation from the cartel, told The Daily Beast.

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To be ready for export, the jellyfish needs to be dehydrated using tons of salt, a part of the process that only a “salina” (an industrial salt processing company) can do. Years earlier these companies worked together with the local fishermen, buying their product and then processing the jellyfish and exporting it themselves to different companies in Asia, mostly in Singapore or Vietnam.

The process of fishing and dehydrating the jellyfish employs around 300 men and processes over 250 tons a day, according to José Velázquez, manager of Pesquera Asia, the biggest jellyfish processing company in Sonora.

A month ago, alleged Sinaloa Cartel members burned several trucks belonging to two different processing companies as a threat to stop buying directly from the fishermen and start dealing with the cartel.

“They threatened the drivers too, to stop coming to the coast to buy jellyfish, and now the whole industry is stalled,” the fisherman said.

Mexican authorities have not yet addressed the issue publicly. The Daily Beast reached out to the Mexican National Guard requesting comment but no answer was forthcoming.

A Sinaloa Cartel operative in Sonora who asked to remain anonymous told The Daily Beast that trying to control fishing is “nothing new” for the cartel, but that jellyfish would be a new source of revenue.

“War is very expensive, and when you are at war against other cartels, you need a lot of money and drugs are not enough to finance all the arms, cars and men we need to fight,” the operative said.

In the Mexican Pacific Coast, the Sinaloa Cartel is currently fighting a civil war: two different factions, one settled in Sonora and the other one based out of Baja California are battling for wider control of the criminal organization.

On one side the sons of infamous drug lord Joaquín ‘“El Chapo” Guzmán, collectively known as “Los Chapitos” have sent thousands of men to take over the region from “Los Russo” (the Russians), an armed faction of the oldest Sinaloa Cartel leader Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.

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The operative is right when he says the trade in marine wild species between Mexico and Asia is nothing new. For the last decade the Sinaloa Cartel has been exploiting endangered species like the sea turtle or the Totoaba fish, an exotic dish served in China.

But in recent years, as the ties between Chinese-based companies and criminal actors like the Sinaloa Cartel have intensified, the Mexican government has been defunding programs to look after the wildlife in the country, according to security analyst and researcher Vanda Felbab-Brown.

“Worrisomely, the Lopez Obrador administration eviscerated the budgetary and personnel resources of Mexican government regulatory environmental agencies. Even before it came to power, many environmental agencies were weak, lacking mandates, rangers, and resources for enforcement against environmental crimes and were pervaded by corruption, but this traditionally weak enforcement has become essentially non-existent,” Felbab-Brown wrote on a recent investigation published at the Brookings Institute.

For now the fishermen in the Santa Clara gulf are on stand-by. They will not dare to get into the sea without the cartel’s clearance but also don’t want to get involved with them. They are pinning their hopes on the Mexican government.

“We have called the Mexican army but until this day they haven’t answered. The season ends in July and it is very probable that we will lose a full year of work and revenue,” the fisherman said. “We will have to look for other jobs, probably far from the coast or choose to work for the cartel.”

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