Illegal Totoaba Fishing: Corruption and Deception – by Sergio Haro Cordero (Zeta)

~ This article was originally published by Semanario Zeta on April 11, 2016 ~


Translator’s Note: The rich ecosystem of the upper Gulf of California faces a number of threats, including decreasing flows from the Colorado River, pollution, and over-fishing. Two intertwined issues are particularly pressing. First, populations of vaquita marina—the smallest species of porpoise—are at critical levels with fewer than 50 individuals remaining. Their habitat is restricted to the upper Gulf. In April, 2015, the Mexican federal government launched an unprecedented plan to protect the vaquita, banning fishing in a large portion of the gulf in an attempt to limit the usage of gill nets that often entangle the vaquita. The plan, intended to last two years, included intense surveillance and monitoring by the armed forces and monthly compensation for fishermen who agreed to cease fishing operations. The upper gulf is also the site of intense poaching operations that target totoaba, a giant species of saltwater drum fish. The totoaba’s swim bladder can fetch up to $10,000 on the Chinese market, however totoaba fishing has been banned since 1975. Recently, the federal government relaxed the fishing ban in the upper gulf to allow fishermen to target corvina, however this relaxation has apparently led to an increase in poaching. This is the story of corruption, indifference, a small porpoise, and a big fish. -ML

Fishermen in Golfo de Santa Clara. Photo: Sergio Haro, ZETA.

Fishermen in Golfo de Santa Clara. Photo: Sergio Haro, ZETA.


Insecurity, confrontations, illegality, and death surround the poaching of totoaba, a species of fish that has been protected from fishing since 1975. In 41 years, experts say, populations of totoaba in the upper Gulf of California have rebounded, but pirates are taking advantage of the high demand for totoaba swim bladders in the Asian market. “The 121 fresh swim bladders [recently seized by authorities] represent 121 totoabas that were caught during the past few days in the town of Golfo de Santa Clara without anyone noticing, not the Marines with their Coast Guard boat anchored in San Felipe, equipped with radar, a helicopter, and more than 20 speedboats for patrols; not the Army with its checkpoint, not the judicial authorities—federal or state—who have been extorting the poachers,” says the former mayor of San Luis Río Colorado, Sonora.

“Talk to people, ask them,” responds Maribel Romero, her gaze tense and her brow furrowed. She is the widow of José Isaías Armenta Armenta, who was killed by municipal police in a confrontation on the morning of March 23, in the middle of Easter week. Also killed in the incident was Armando Arreola Valdez, a municipal police officer from San Luis Río Colorado.

In the town, it is vox populi that José Isaías was one of the principal totoaba poachers, and was also involved in the sale of the banned product.

Behind the wheel of a white compact car, with U.S. plates, the woman was travelling with two other females and a young man. She acknowledges the reporter, but refuses an interview. “I’m very busy,” she says, before stepping on the accelerator and disappearing down the town’s dusty streets.

Maribel’s house stands out from the rest. Not just for the cinderblock wall, but for the two-story construction, painted white, with columns flanking the door.

On Monday, March 28, she traveled to San Luis Río Colorado—the municipal seat—to file a complaint with the state human rights commission, alleging to the commission’s representative that following the detention of her son, José Arturo, he had been beaten and tortured.

José Arturo was accused of premediated, aggravated homicide in the death of the municipal police officer. On Wednesday, March 30, he was sent before the judge and ordered held in the San Luis Río Colorado penitentiary.

That evening, the San Luis city council decided to send a petition to the state governor, Claudia Pavlovich, explaining the behavior of the state police, as well as to send a copy to President Enrique Peña Nieto, so that the authorities can activate mechanisms “and this can stop happening in the gulf.”

The city council members demanded an investigation into the events that led to the shootout: it has been revealed that it was two state police officers—Jesús Gurrola León and Juan Ignacio Verdugo Ávila—who arrested José Isaías Armenta before the confrontation and presumably extorted him.

Armando Arreola Valdez, the murdered policeman. Photo: Sergio Haro, ZETA

Armando Arreola Valdez, the murdered policeman. Photo: Sergio Haro, ZETA

“It is illogical that state police agents are responsible for the corruption and municipal police for the deaths. It is not illogical that agents in Tijuana are discovering the poaching of protected marine species and that they are coming from the town of Golfo de Santa Clara,” maintains the National Action Party councilman and former mayor of San Luis Río Colorado, Jorge Figueroa, who during the council meeting read the document that was finally approved, despite four votes against it from members belonging to the PRI and the PES.

“Talk to the people,” the fisherman’s widow repeats, and in this town what people are saying—despite the silence from the prosecutor’s office—is that the young man who was arrested did not shoot, and did not even test positive for gunpowder, and that the other participants “have gotten away,” and that above all, the poaching of totoaba continues unabated. Taking advantage of a temporary loosening of restrictions on corvina fishing, the “totoaberos” are running wild, taking full advantage of the fact that the pangas are allowed out to sea, but rather than pursuing corvina, their objective continues to be the prized totoaba.

According to Sergio Carmona Cruz, the head of the human rights office in San Luis Río Colorado, Sonora, on Monday, March 28 Maribel Romero presented a complaint to that office on behalf of her son, José Arturo Armenta Romero. The complaint stated that the young man was being held incommunicado and that he had been tortured by the agents who arrested him.

“I was aware of what happened on Sunday night, and on Monday I had an appointment with Maribel Romero, who came to file a complaint on behalf of her son,” Carmona Cruz explains, and mentions that after the meeting he visited the police offices—Sector II it is called—and interviewed the detainee who ratified the complaint filed by his mother.

“He says he was the victim of torture by agents of both the state and municipal police,” the ombudsman notes.

“Regarding the motive for the attack that resulted in the deaths of a municipal police officer and a civilian—in this case the father of the complainant—he did not offer many details. He mentioned that he was detained by state police officers in the town of Golfo de Santa Clara, where he was beaten until losing consciousness and later, at the same site, he was tortured, and around four in the afternoon he was brought to San Luis.”

According to Carmona Cruz, when he arrived at the penitentiary in San Luis there were signs of trauma on his face, on his jaw, ears, chest, and hands, and bruises all over.

Carmona said that the human rights commission has requested information from the authorities involved—the state and municipal police forces—and is waiting for the prosecutor’s office to release their report on the case, so that those documents can be sent to the state human rights observer in Hermosillo. According to Carmona, only the municipal police have delivered the report requested by the commission.

Terrible Poaching, Simulated Monitoring
Doctor Jorge Figueroa was previously mayor of San Luis Río Colorado and is currently a councilman for the National Action Party on the city council. The afternoon of Thursday, March 30, he presented a document on the situation in the area of Golfo de Santa Clara, above all about the conditions that led to the confrontation between police and a local group of those who poach totoaba.

A dead vaquita marina.

A dead vaquita marina.

The document made public the names of the two state police agents who presumably attempted to extort José Isaías Armenta. They are Jesús Gurrola León and Juan Ignacio Verdugo Ávila.

In the document he proposes to send a public denunciation to the Sonoran governor demanding that she “respond, inform, and send instructions to the municipality regarding the actions of the state police, specifically the actions of those agents in the town of Golfo de Santa Clara.”

The document also proposes sending another document to President Enrique Peña Nieto requesting that “federal authorities immediately provide coverage that will protect the environment in that beach town. There are now multiple reports that indicate that in the Gulf of Santa Clara there is poaching of protected and endangered species, specifically totoaba.”

As an example, the report notes the events of the previous week when a person was stopped on the Mexicali-Tijuana highway with 121 fresh totoaba swim bladders in his truck, which had come from the Gulf of Santa Clara. Additionally, the document discusses the incident that led to the death of officer Armando Arreola “at the hands of people who traffic in totoaba, who—according to reports—had just been extorted by state police officers in order to continue poaching.”

Doctor Figueroa observed that it is illogical that with regards to environmental protection, on one hand there is a military checkpoint outside town that is an annoyance for visitors, but on the other there has not been a single investigation within the town where the poaching is actually occurring.

“The 121 fresh swim bladders [recently seized by authorities] represent 121 totoabas that were caught during the past few days in Golfo de Santa Clara without anyone noticing, not the Marines with their Coast Guard boat anchored in San Felipe, equipped with radar, a helicopter, and more than 20 speedboats for patrols; not the Army with its checkpoint, not the judicial authorities—federal or state—who have been extorting the poachers.”

How many bladders passed by before? Figueroa asks, or how many more are taking the route from San Felipe-Valle de la Trinidad-Ensenada, or leaving through Puerto Peñasco to Sonoyta, and to the United States?

To demonstrate the scale of the problem, the doctor observes that if the 121 bladders were put together, they would fill more than half of the city council meeting room. “That is the size of the corruption and deception of the federal government under Enrique Peña Nieto and the state government of Claudia Pavlovich,” he comments.

For Figueroa, it is very important to stop the poaching because, if it continues, international organizations could declare a boycott on Mexican shrimp, similar to what happened with tuna during the mid-1980s and could even include farm-raised shrimp.

“The federal authorities promised foreign environmental organizations that they would put things in order, since the regulations on fishing methods that were supposed to protect totoaba were not being followed, that is why there was a ban, so that it was not just a show,” the councilman remarks, regarding a possible international boycott.

Figueroa insists that it is necessary to protect the totoaba from the crimes that are occurring, since it is calculated that the number of illegal harvests is in the thousands. He notes that since totoaba fishing was banned in 1975, during those 41 years the entire upper gulf was repopulated. During the last three to four years, however, poachers discovered the high value of the fish’s swim bladder on the Asian market, and are now trafficking in it. “They’re sending it to a sad extinction,” he concludes.

He shares the account of several residents of the town who reported that during holy week, in the beach area known as El Borrascoso, or in La Salina, the bodies of totoaba appeared on the shore. “The poaching is at night, they remove the swim bladder at sea, and throw the totoaba into the water, and later they are washed up on the beach. The poaching is becoming awful,” he affirms.

“The crime is getting more complicated, and all of this is happening because of the corruption and the simulation of monitoring. The governments are pretending to protect the environment, but those same governments are authorizing the corruption,” he warns.

Totoaba. Photo from Revista Contralinea,

Totoaba. Photo by PROFEPA from Revista Contralinea

Regarding the possibility that the federal program [banning gill nets] could only last one year, the leader of the Federation of Fishermen in the Biosphere Reserve, Carlos Alberto Tirado Pineda, observes that the agreement published in the Diario Oficial stipulates that the protection plan function for a minimum of two years. “The Federal Government should find the budgetary resources to comply with one of the four components of the ban on fishing, which is paying the fishermen [not to fish]. The commitment is that if I am paid, I won’t go out.”

Tirado explains that with regards to the compensation payments in the gulf, on only one occasion have they had a delay in payments, and that was only a few days due to an administrative problem. With regards to those who are complaining about having not been included on the list of beneficiaries, he remarks that:

“There will always be those who do not agree, a lot of people did not believe it, and when they finally realized and tried to join it was too late.” He clarifies that the list of beneficiaries has already been modified twice and a third revision is forthcoming. He calculates that just in Golfo de Santa Clara there are around 1,600 beneficiaries, between cooperatives, permit holders, and the production chain.

With regards to the confrontation that left two dead, he argues that “recent events are very unfortunate, for both the fishing sector and for the federal government, both are hit by it. For us, as the fishing sector, we work very closely with the roster of fishermen, in this case the Marines are responsible for surveillance and monitoring, it is responsible for ensuring that both beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries are complying. That is their responsibility as the authorities, and they are failing…”

On the topic of poaching, the fishing industry leader affirms that there is ample evidence that it is occurring, above all the 121 recently seized bladders. “The authorities have been collecting nets. That is the strategy of inspection and vigilance, and it has not been as effective as the federal government anticipated,” says Tirado, who does not discard corruption as an issue and observes that “some sort of information is being leaked. The authorities should change their strategies, make better use of intelligence to get better results…”

According to the guidelines of the program, fishermen included in the roster of beneficiaries who are caught poaching will be removed. To date, there have been 32 fishermen from San Felipe and six from Golfo de Santa Clara.

Finally, the fishing spokesman declared that in Golfo de Santa Clara the industry is mortified, because the majority of fishermen respect the agreement, and those who are poachers are not part of the communities.

Totoabas Everywhere
On Monday, April 4, the office of the Federal Prosecutor for the Protection of the Environment reported the seizure of seven boats with nets, a vehicle, and the arrest of three people involved in poaching.

The press release—which noted the work of the Marines, Navy, National Commission for Aquaculture and Fishing, and the Federal Police—described how during a nocturnal operation they detected a boat fleeing toward the El Pescador beach, where the panga [fishing boat] “Reyna del Mar” was found abandoned. During another operation, three people were detained with equipment for totoaba fishing and shrimp products.

The report also notes that with the support of observation flights by aircraft and a helicopter, they have seized seven abandoned pangas, two long-lines, two shrimp nets, a corvina net, and nine totoaba nets. They also found 34 rotting totoabas and seized three kilos of blue shrimp, which is also currently protected.

The document notes that Sea Shepherd, a marine protection organization that has been monitoring the upper gulf for weeks, turned in a totoaba net and 12 rotting totoabas that they had collected. The organization’s website observes that the poaching of totoaba has had serious repercussions for the vaquita marina [an extremely endangered species of porpoise], since in three weeks they have found the remains of three dead vaquitas, the last on March 24. “The beaches of San Felipe are filled with hundreds of dead totoabas, with only the swim bladders removed. On March 27 we seized a net with 15 dead totoabas caught in it,” the organization reports.

The poaching is increasing. It is calculated that in the upper gulf—the restricted area—there are around 30 vaquita remaining and, if the rate of deaths continues, by December of this year they will be extinct.

Sergio Haro Cordero reports for Semanario Zeta in Mexicali. This article was originally published under the title “Pesca ilegal de totoaba: Corrupción y simulación” and is available at:

Translation by Michael Lettieri, Trans-Border Institute

About Michael Lettieri

Program Officer at the Trans-Border Institute

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