Unpicking the turtle ‘wars’

With the CITES Conference of Parties (CoP) being held in Johannesburg, much of the focus on transnational wildlife crime is directed towards Africa and Asia; however, wildlife crime is sharply rising in Latin America.

The Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT), the second biggest trafficking nexus, is estimated to be $10-20 billion annually. Despite being the fastest growing category of transnational crime, it remains sorely overlooked, particularly so in Latin America where the trade is booming. Turtles are part of this nexus, and while data is scant, the Illegal Turtle Trade (ITT) helps us understand how predation on animal species creates instability beyond ecosystems, providing a hotbed for conflict through its entanglement in a complex, global trade network.

Demand of turtles is international, mostly driven by Asia, but also domestic. In places like Costa Rica, turtle eggs are seen as aphrodisiacs. Here, they provide lucrative business: on Moín Beach, nests contain 80 or more eggs and sell at $1 US each. Eggs thus become easy targets for poachers selling them to drug dealing organisations – organisations recruiting drug ‘junkies’ as poachers, arming them and paying in drugs. Local populations also profit, and there is evidence that turtle contraband share infrastructure with drugs as they are transported together. Egg hatcheries have also been raided on Moín to be incubated with drugs, and confrontations between ‘armed men’ and volunteer conservationists have occurred. This illustrates how the trades are intertwined, and how the ITT ‘weaponises’ beaches.

Such entanglements reasonably exacerbate the trades, as fewer resources are needed for infrastructure and manning purposes. Globalisation further aggravates trades like the ITT, inviting the most localised crime groups to the global stage, allowing those savvy enough to navigate the diffuse economic systems to profit – illustrating how the ITT should be seen as crime as opposed to ‘traditional’ conflict.

The Mexican seaside city of San Pedro Huamelula also exemplifies ITT’s militarisation and its securitisation through the government committing resources to handle it. As of 2015, drones are used on the beaches to scare off poachers and twenty marines guard a stretch of one of the beaches from poachers storming on horse-back, armed with machetes and sometimes guns.

Going back to Moín, the case of the murdered 26 year old turtle conservationist, Jairo Mora Sandoval, in 2013 illustrates ensuing problems of the ITT. After patrolling the beaches one May night, Jairo was found dead the following day, having been bound and dragged behind a car, eventually dying from asphyxiation caused by a blow to the head. Having highlighted the interlinked organised crime and the threat to turtle populations on Moín, his death has been referred to as an act of revenge, but Jairo also drew attention to the deserted beaches serving transportation purposes for drug traffickers.

Before long, Jairo Mora Sandoval became a household name in Costa Rica, the murder having gained international attention and led to criticism of the government’s response. Domestic discontent was widespread, and while the case was taken to court in 2015, all seven alleged poachers accused of murder were acquitted as the ‘overwhelming amount of evidence’ was tainted. The case of Jairo is problematic in several ways: the ITT may spark public discontent over government incapacity and misrule, and the trade risks increasing as there is a global tendency to defer IWT related crime as ‘ordinary crime’.  Finally, minor arms races may be created, illustrated by the Costa Rican government enforcing local measures to protect the beaches.

As demand for turtles persists, with a lack of legislation and rule of law doing little to protect them, the ITT creates a hot-bed for local escalation. If turtles become increasingly scarce with a continued demand, competition over them may intensify; this may on the one hand lead to social and political repercussions through an angered population, or on the other, to localised violence between (or amongst) conservationists/security forces and poachers/drug traffickers.

Louise Groenmark (MA War Studies 2016)


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