The humble house in the rural village of Simón Sarlat in the tropical Mexican state of Tabasco has a sign hanging outside offering fish for sale. Inside, the front room is dark, the walls robin egg blue and dirty. In the corner sits a large freezer, full of frozen fish, but there are other goods available if the right questions are asked.
After a query about turtles and crocodiles, a short, stocky fisherman with stubby, hard hands and weathered skin disappears into a side room. He emerges carrying a small plastic washbowl containing six live turtles of varying shapes and sizes. He offers all of them for 280 pesos - around 15 dollars.
The largest turtle is of the jicotea species. The rest are pochitoques. Both are some of the region’s most trafficked. All are now officially protected species but Chico, the hunter, caught them in the wild.
Chico also tells us that he can find us a crocodile. The raw skin will cost us a mere 400 pesos - less than 20 dollars - even though it’s some three full days and nights of arduous work for him in the nearby swamps of Centla, a protected biosphere that’s home to the moreletii crocodile species, the primitive-looking pejelagarto fish, and a number of other plant and reptile species.
Tabasco accounts for a big chunk of the seizures of illegal turtle and crocodile products in Mexico. Data show that on a national level, PROFEPA, the country’s environmental protection agency, seized 12.081 turtles and 20.346 crocodiles between 2006 and 2015. Of those, around 20% of turtles and more than one-third of crocodiles were seized in Tabasco. The other seizures were in Mexico City and the state of Sinaloa.
Humble fishermen like Chico struggle to feed their families by selling fish and rely on the modest income generated by hunting crocodiles and turtles clandestinely. But Chico’s is a dying trade in Mexico.
This is in part thanks to the prohibition of crocodile hunting in 1970, but more so the subsequent creation of a government-regulated farming system for turtles, crocodiles and other animals, known as Environmental Management Units (UMAs). The new farms established a legal framework for the breeding and commercial sale of animals that were particularly vulnerable to trafficking. Crocodile and turtle populations in Tabasco are still far from returning to past levels after being ravaged by hunting for decades, but they are recovering.
The Gulf state has an important history and culture of turtle and crocodile hunting. The meat of both animals has long been consumed by local communities, who also believe that some of their by-products have curative properties. Crocodile fat, for example, is believed to be good for asthma when cooked with garlic and orange, placed in a freezer, and then heated up again later to eat. One bottle costs around 800 pesos (about 40 dollars).
Hundreds of thousands of crocodiles were commercialized regularly in decades past, but only some 80.000 adult crocodiles roam the wild across Mexico today, according to Marco Antonio López-Luna, a professor who specializes in crocodiles at the Universidad Juárez Autónoma de Tabasco (UJAT). The government farming system, prohibition and cultural shifts, including a declining demand for crocodile skin products, have all contributed to the break away from the illegal hunting of these animals as a way of life.
Eloy Ramírez, who runs Mexico’s first ever UMA in Buenavista nestled alongside the lush Pantanos de Centla biosphere reserve, said that these units have significantly brought down illegal hunting in the region.
“The crocodile skins we cultivate here are of the best quality”, says Ramírez showing off the wallets he produces, as well as a thick, cured skin of a six-foot crocodile. “They’re free of parasites and the process is much quicker [than on the black market]”.
The UMAs have created standards and rules in a once-illegal industry, according to Ramírez, where regulated skins and meat reach higher prices and standards than what’s available on the black market.
Carlos Villar, the director of Pantanos de Centla at Mexico’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT), says the UMAs have been instrumental in conserving endangered species and protecting populations.
“The UMAs here in Mexico are very good, they require the same documentation as those in the United States”, Villar says. “Crocodile hunting today isn’t organized crime. It’s largely nothing more than locals selling to other locals”.
But the number of illegal crocodile and turtle products seized in Tabasco over the last few years suggests that animals could also be leaking from the legal farms into the black market. It’s hard to account for the thousands of products and animals seized over the years through illicit hunting alone. Although hunting continues, interviews and field research suggest that it is at a very low level compared to years past.
And despite praise of the UMAs from academics, workers and government officials alike, there appears to be a disconnect between fishermen and the program’s apparent success.
In 2016, a PROFEPA inspection of an UMA run by Industria Moreleti - one of the main international exporters of crocodile products in the region - resulted in the seizure of more than 3.000 moreletii crocodiles. PROFEPA reported this was due to improper documentation, which could point to potential liberties being taken at these sites. Official production quotas could be exploited, feeding the illegal trade and helping explain the volume of seizures in recent years.
And despite praise of the UMAs from academics, workers and government officials alike, there appears to be a disconnect between fishermen like Chico and the program’s apparent success. Chico says he doesn’t understand the point of the UMAs, that these programs don’t buy from people like him and are robbing him of his livelihood. And he’s not alone.
Walking down the sidewalk in downtown Villahermosa through a stretch of small shops selling clothes, school supplies and other products, it wasn’t hard to see that the illicit sale of crocodile skinned goods is still ongoing.
A local salesman at one such shop selling crocodile belts, wallets, shoes and other goods, who wished to remain anonymous, says that the illicit industry is easy to enter. While the UMAs are required to provide a “factura”, or invoice, detailing the origins of the crocodiles they sell, this seller didn’t have such documentation. He said that he buys his crocodile skins from many different sellers - sometimes fishermen, sometimes UMAs - but he never needs the legal paperwork.
This article was previously published by InsightCrime.It is the result of research on eco-trafficking in the region done in conjunction with American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS).