Earth Island Institute

ECO: The environmental voice at the IWC

ECO is published by Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project at the meeting of the International Whaling Commission in Madeira, Portugal, on behalf of environmental and animal welfare organizations around the globe.

For further information, please contact: Mark J. Palmer, Associate Director, Earth Island Institute, International Marine Mammal Project.

Dolphins Still Die for Druglords

Volume LXI · No. 4 · Madeira, Portugal · Thursday June 25, 2009
Acrobat .pdf of issue

More than one million dolphins have been drowned in the eastern Pacific by tuna fleets suspected to be owned by drug cartels which use their long-range boats and tuna canneries to smuggle cocaine and heroin worldwide.

Last weekend in Caracas, Venezuela, a Sicilian gangster who coordinated narcotics trafficking with Colombian and Mexican drug cartels was arrested by Venezuelan and Italian police. Salvatore Miceli was listed as one of Italy’s 30 most dangerous Mafia fugitives and has been on the run since 2001, according to news reports.

“The investigation has essentially confirmed Miceli’s primary role in the drug trafficking sector and his ability to build a close network of relations with various transnational organized crime groups,” according to a statement issued by Italy’s national police, the Carabinieri.

The Carabinieri has been targeting the murderous Mafia organizations that have terrorized southern Italy for more than a century. The Sicilian Mafia of “Godfather” fame – Cosa Nostra – pioneered the tuna-narcotics pipeline in the 1970’s to replace the “French Connection” heroin-smuggling operation. Two Mafia families, the Cuntreras and Caruanas, moved to Venezuela and set up tuna companies and canneries as fronts for running heroin from Sicily to the U.S. The Italian tuna industry is dominated by the Sicilian Mafia.

When the Colombian cocaine industry boomed in the 1980s, the Sicilians formed joint ventures with the Medellin and Cali cartels to export cocaine to Europe in tuna cans and frozen tuna carcasses. The Colombian gangs then set up tuna fleets and canneries to mimic the Sicilian operation. The great “tuna/cocaine connection” was born in the late 1980s when most of the cocaine smuggling shifted to the eastern tropical Pacific, far from the air and land surveillance systems operating over the Caribbean and Central America.

Unfortunately for the dolphins, the Latin American tuna companies adopted the deadly practice of setting their huge purse seine nets around schools of dolphins in order to catch the yellowfin tuna that typically swim beneath the marine mammals. Although the American and European tuna markets went dolphin-safe in the early 1990s and banned imports of dolphin-deadly tuna, the major Latin American fleets refused to stop drowning dolphins. The drug smuggling was far more profitable: one 15-ton shipment of cocaine was more valuable than all the tuna caught in the eastern Pacific in one year. The flood of cocaine through fishing ports in Latin America was so huge – and obvious – that the drug was colloquially named “atun blanco” – white tuna.

In 1988 the Colombian and Sicilian syndicates moved into Mexico with arrival of the government of Carlos Salinas. The growing Mexican tuna industry was privatized into the hands of the drug cartels. The Cali Cartel and the Tijuana Cartel jointly bought up the major fleets and canneries. Raul Salinas, brother of the president, was a secret partner. Mexico quickly became the way-station for most of the cocaine flooding into the U.S. and Europe. Hundreds of tons of cocaine were smuggled each year in tuna boats to Pacific coast ports in Mexico.
Remarkably, the Mexican government has failed to halt the tuna/cocaine connection despite the fact that dozens of cocaine-laden tuna boats from Latin American fleets have been seized by the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard – and even the Mexican navy – in the eastern Pacific.

And the U.S. government has inexplicably been trying to overturn the ban on dolphin-deadly tuna for the past 19 years at the behest of the Mexican government and tuna industry. The Clinton Administration, with Vice President Gore taking the lead, rammed through Congress the “Dolphin Death Act” in 1997. This law attempted to declare “dolphin-safe” tuna caught by chasing and encircling dolphins; but a lawsuit led by Earth Island Institute has blocked the gambit.

The Bush Administration continued the effort to aid the dolphin-killers in the name of “free trade.” Environmental and animal welfare groups are closely watching the Obama Administration as it develops policy on the drug-tainted Latin American tuna industry. The Mexican government has filed a complaint against the dolphin-safe label standards with the World Trade Organization. So far, the Obama Administration has strongly opposed this action, working with environmentalists to prove that the dolphin-safe label is not a barrier to free trade at all.

– Craig Van Note