Organized crime behind wildlife smuggling

U.S. Wildlife Inspector Ed Marshall has seen it all when it comes to smuggling wildlife across the U.S.-Mexican border. 

BROWNSVILLE, Texas — When it comes to smuggling animals across the U.S.-Mexico border, U.S. Wildlife Inspector Ed Marshall has seen it all.

Exotic birds given Valium or tequila so they stay quiet through Customs inspections. Sleeves moving with hidden reptiles. Wildcats stashed in trunks. Last week, the Border Patrol seized two white tigers on their way to Mexico.

And in 2001, an African elephant was smuggled across the Gateway International Bridge on a truck. "They call it the 'Dumbo Case,'" Marshall said, shaking his head.

The contraband is part of a global trade in endangered wildlife estimated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at $4.2 billion a year, second only to illegal drugs.

"People don't realize how serious and how important this is and that this is linked to organized crime," said Crawford Allan of the World Wildlife Fund.

Experts say the trade depletes endangered species and spreads diseases such as avian influenza because the smuggled animals are not examined and quarantined. Many of the animals do not survive the trip.

The trade works both ways on the U.S.-Mexico border, and it is believed that Latin drug kingpins with private zoos or exotic game camps are business for breeders operating clandestinely on Texas ranches.

"It's a macho drug culture thing," said Pat Burchfield, deputy director of Brownsville's Gladys Porter Zoo. "They're attention-getters, it's a status thing. Very rarely is the best interest of the animal involved."

Seized animals that are now part of the zoo's collection include mantled howling monkeys, pygmy marmosets, Amazon parrots, a leopard and a pair of lions named Mario and Juana, in honor of their discovery during a marijuana bust.

The United States and Europe are some of the biggest markets for smuggled animals, with enough people who can afford to own something rare, according to the World Wildlife Fund. China is another big market because of interest in traditional elixirs such as ground rhinoceros horn, believed to have aphrodisiac qualities.

Although more than 160 countries have signed on to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which is aimed at safeguarding endangered plants and animals, enforcement is a problem.

The tiger cubs found last week were believed to have a value of $50,000 apiece, but the driver was fined $500.

"There is a big demand for wildlife but there are very small risks in terms of penalties," Allan said. "Profit margins are actually even larger than the drug trade."

Many countries simply don't have the resources to enforce the laws. "They're just so poor, everything slips through the holes," Marshall said. "Everybody's paid off."

In some cases, the animals and drugs come in together. Smugglers have been known to hide clear pouches of liquid cocaine in fish tanks, or bags of cocaine in live snakes.

"Do I have to open up every one of the snakes to see if there's cocaine? I usually do," Marshall said. "But there's people doing this that are scared to death of snakes."