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Smugglers are using tuna boats to transport cocaine

by Dick Russell

Defenders of Wildlife - Summer 2002 edition

In a scene from the award-winning movie Traffic, a cocaine-smuggler arrested in San Diego announces to the authorities, "I’ve got tuna boats! I’m a legitimate businessman!" Given what’s been happening in recent years, that fictional scenario appears to have plenty of truth to it.

Last December, after several weeks of surveillance, the U.S. Coast Guard boarded the purse-seine vessel Macel, observed in an area closed to yellowfin tuna fishing off Mexico’s southwestern coastline. Found hidden in special compartments, under tons of yellowfin tuna, were some 10.5 tons of pure cocaine with a street value of $500 million. The ship and its 19-man crew were turned over to the Mexican Navy.

This wasn’t the first time a tuna seiner had been caught with the illicit substance. In 1996, the Coast Guard seized the Nataly I, a Panamian-flagged vessel en route from Colombia to an island off the Mexican coast. It had 12 tons of cocaine on board, all in boxes marked "tuna." The ship was found to be part of a fleet of a dozen tuna boats operated by the Cali cartel. Later that year, another seiner was captured in international waters off the coast of Ecuador, carrying seven metric tons of cocaine destined for Manzanillo, Mexico.

That summer of 1996, the Mexico City newspaper El Financiero broke a story outlining links between the Cali cartel and several Baja, California, tuna companies owned by the Rodriguez Fishing Group. The owner, Manuel Rodriguez Lopez, was placed under house arrest by Mexican authorities, who seized assets valued at $15 million, including six tuna seiners. Rodriguez was convicted of drug smuggling and is currently serving a 22-year prison term.

A 1997 U.S. government report, "The Supply of Illicit Drugs to the United States," explains that large commercial "fishing vessels were well-suited for mother ship operations because they typically had capacities for large shipments and were equipped with sophisticated navigation and communication instruments. Consequently, they did not require refitting that would indicate the vessels’ role in smuggling operations. Fishing vessels also were able to stay at sea for long periods and travel long distances.

Additionally, fishing vessels were difficult to monitor and tight-knit fishing communities made infiltration by drug law enforcement authorities difficult. In addition to the above factors, fishing vessels were able to blend into the local surroundings."

Officials estimate that as much as two-thirds of all the cocaine destined for the United States, or at least 275 tons a year, now travels by ship via the eastern Pacific. And Mexico is now the primary transit country for cocaine entering the United States from South America as well as being a major source of heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana. Not all of this is coming on tuna seiners, of course, but in the trade cocaine is reportedly referred to as atun blanco -- white tuna.

Craig Van Note, executive vice president of the Washington-based Monitor consortium of conservation groups, launched an investigation of the Mexican tuna industry during the early 1990s. According to a declaration filed by Van Note in recent legal proceedings on the tuna-dolphin issue: "The investigation revealed that most of the tuna fleets and canneries in Latin America had been bought up or established by the major drug cartels operating in that region. The long-range fishing boats have been used for smuggling vast quantities of cocaine north to the United States and east to Europe. The canneries have been used to launder billions of dollars.

"The violent reaction of the Latin American tuna industry to the embargoes of their dolphin-deadly tuna by the United States and the European Union -- and the massive pressure campaign to overturn the embargoes -- can, in my opinion, be largely attributed to the inadvertent interdiction of this tuna-cocaine pipeline by conservationists seeking dolphin-safe tuna.

"The drug cartels’ investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in fleet and cannery operations were crippled by the loss of their major markets for tuna, and their illicit operations under the guise of catching and shipping tuna -- drug smuggling and money laundering -- were compromised by the exposure."