Tuna, Drugs and Mexico

Earth Island Journal, Spring 1997


When Earth Island filed suit to block the import of "dolphin unsafe" tuna, we had no idea that this would put us at odds with Central America's cocaine and heroin traffickers. Recently, a respected Washington insider revealed some of the intrigue behind the headlines.

According to Washington estimates, the amount of cocaine arriving in the US from Mexico approaches 400 tons a year. Two thirds of all the cocaine entering the US is carried by boats sailing up the Pacific coast from Mexico.

In a good year, the Mexican tuna fleet- with approximately 50 vessels operated by half a dozen companies-generates only a few hundred million dollars in sales. A load of cocaine worth the value of the fleet's annual earnings can be carried aboard a single tuna boat. The US tuna embargo inadvertently crippled the Latin American drug pipeline. It wrecked $100 million investments in tuna fleets and brand-new canneries in Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and elsewhere in Latin America.

In the late 1980s, following increased US anti-drug surveillance of the Caribbean, Colombian drug lords shifted their smuggling operations to the Pacific and the Mexican ports of Mazatlan, Manzanillo, La Paz and Ensenada. The Cali cartel has bought many tuna fleets in the region-some in joint partnership with Mexican drug cartels.

The logical boats to use for cocaine smuggling were tuna clippers-fast, long range, 150-foot, $12 million ships that routinely spend two to three months at sea. (These boats use large purse seine nets to catch tuna by deliberately encircling schools of dolphins. Since 1959, purse seine fishing has drowned 7 million dolphins in the eastern tropical Pacific.)

In 1989, the Cali cartel established a Panama-based tuna company called Pescadero Azteca run by Jose Castrillon Henao, a cartel underboss. Eight tuna boats began running cocaine shipments north to Mexico. In 1995, the US Coast Guard seized the Nataly 1, a Panama flagged tuna boat enroute from Colombia to Mexico, and found 12 tons of cocaine worth $1 billion hidden in 13 secret compartments welded into the fuel tanks. The Nataly I was owned by Pescadora Azteca. The US and Panama arrested Castrillon in Panama City in 1996. Castrillon handled the Cali cartel's bribes from Ecuador to the US, and his testimony could implicate officials in the CIA, Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Customs, the Treasury and State departments and other agencies.


The Cartels and Their Money

The Cali cartel is the wealthiest criminal organization in the history of the world, with a net worth estimated by the US government to be $206 billion-larger than almost all multinational corporations (including Exxon and Shell). A third of that net worth-$76 billion-is invested in Colombia. The rest is invested in Panama, Mexico, the US and elsewhere. The economies of Mexico, Honduras, Panama and Colombia are totally dependent on the drug economy, which pumps tens of billions into those nations each year. If the US ever legalized drugs or successfully halted the drug trade, these economies would collapse.

When Carlos Salinas took power in Mexico the fall of 1988, he invited the Cali cartel to invest its profits in the nation. The cartel bought tuna fleets and canneries, as well as hotels, trucking fleets and factories. The Cali cartel now owns perhaps $20-50 billion worth of Mexican assets.

Members of Mexico's ruling PRI party are heavily invested in the tuna industry. Salinas' brother Raul became co-owner of several canneries and is thought to be a secret owner of Mexico's largest tuna fleet, also called Pescadora Azteca (a joint venture run by the Cali and Tijuana cartels).

Last July, the business daily El Financiero tied one of Mexico's biggest tuna companies, Baja California's Grupo Rodriguez, to the Cali cartel and the infamous Tijuana cartel. Last September, a Grupo Rodriguez vessel was captured in a major drug bust off Ensenada. Mexican authorities subsequently arrested the drug cartel's front man, Manuel Rodriguez Lopez, and seized six tuna vessels.


The Narco-Economy

Money laundering is the biggest business in the world. More than $1 trillion in illegal earnings are laundered annually. The world's banking system is hooked-like a cocaine addict-on the highly profitable business of sanitizing dirty drug money-$500 billion a year. ...

New Global Economy