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How cartels use illegal wildlife trafficking to make fentanyl

(NewsNation) — Wildlife trafficking from Mexico to China has helped cartels secure the chemicals used to make illicit fentanyl, according to research from the Brookings Institution think tank.

The research, published last year, is especially relevant as tensions grow between the two countries and the United States. Leaders from each of the countries have yet to find a lasting solution.

Recently, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador asked China to do more to prevent the export of precursor chemicals used by cartels to make illicit fentanyl. China responded, asking Mexico to do more to stop the production of fentanyl in its own country.

Cartels have leveraged the illegal wildlife operations, in part, by supplying Chinese traders with wildlife products in exchange for the precursor chemicals used to manufacture drugs like methamphetamine and fentanyl, according to Brookings Institution research.  

Although legal wildlife trade between Mexico and China does exist, illegal trafficking threatens Mexico’s biodiversity and helps support criminal organizations’ money-laundering activities, researcher Vanda Felbab-Brown wrote.

Poached species smuggled from Mexico to China include reptiles, sea cucumbers, abalone, jaguars and sharks, she wrote.

Wildlife’s ties to international crime are hardly new, but the relationship has changed over the past decade, Felbab-Brown noted.

The hunting itself is typically carried out by “poor, often indigenous hunters,” according to a 2013 report by Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

About 15 years ago, Chinese traders dealt more directly with the local Mexican fishers and hunters, but now Mexican cartels more often act as a middleman, according to the Brookings report.

As for prevention and enforcement, efforts have been “miniminal and sporadic,” Felbab-Brown wrote.

Meanwhile, environmental protections in Mexico are weakening due to cartel influence, and the U.S. continues to search for a way to curb the flow of illicit fentanyl coming over the southern border.

“The Chinese government has not been keen to formalize either China-Mexico or China-Mexico-United States cooperation against wildlife trafficking, preferring informal case-by-case cooperation,” Felbab-Brown wrote.

A Mexican special prosecutor’s office had been taking on internet wildlife trafficking until the start of 2019, but the office closed for cost-saving under Obrador, according to a November Reuters report.

It’s not the first time environmentalists have sounded the alarm near the border.

Wildlife advocates have been vocal about the U.S.-Mexico border wall’s impact on the environment and highly endangered animals.

Proponents of the wall point to a secured border, but environmentalists say the barrier threatens to disrupt the migration patterns of endangered animals.

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