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Story Publication logo May 16, 2024

Undercover in a Shark Fin Trafficking Ring: Interview With Wildlife Crime Fighter Andrea Crosta



Mongabay journalist Philip Jacobson delves into the rising global trade in these ocean predators...


Sharks in the coral reefs of Jardines de la Reina, Cuba. Image by Philip Hamilton/Ocean Image Bank.
  • Worldwide, many of the key players in wildlife trafficking are also involved in other criminal enterprises, from drug smuggling to human trafficking and money laundering.
  • In an interview with Mongabay, Andrea Crosta, founder of Earth League International, talks about the group’s new report on shark fin trafficking from Latin America to East Asia and the concept of “crime convergence.”
  • International wildlife trafficking, including the illegal trade in shark fins, is dominated by Chinese nationals, Crosta says.
  • Since smuggling routes often overlap and criminal groups frequently work together across borders, Crosta calls for field collaboration among countries and law enforcement agencies to fight wildlife crime, the world’s fourth-largest criminal enterprise.

Four years of investigating jaguar parts trafficking rings in Latin America led Andrea Crosta to a grim realization: The same smugglers were often involved in a variety of illegal enterprises, including moving different kinds of wildlife products across national borders. Especially shark fins.

“We kept stumbling upon shark fin trafficking — it was the same people,” Crosta told Mongabay. “And it happened everywhere: It happened in Bolivia, in Peru, in Ecuador, in Suriname.”

The Italian-born, Los Angeles-based Crosta is the founder of Earth League International, a small conservation NGO that operates like a mini-FBI, using undercover operatives to infiltrate wildlife trafficking networks while feeding information to law enforcement about the key players and their modi operandi.

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The job is easier said than done: the smugglers tend to be better organized than their adversaries in government, who fail to collaborate with their counterparts overseas as effectively as the traffickers do, according to Crosta.

“On the one hand we have very organized crime, and on the other hand very disorganized law enforcement agencies,” Crosta said.

In April, ELI published a report about shark fin trafficking in Latin America, detailing five case studies involving 10 trafficking networks operating transnationally. Individuals’ names are redacted, but the report describes dozens of them in colorful terms: “a Chinese timber trafficker in San Jose who uses a solar panel company as a cover,” for example; “a Cantonese leader of SA1 based in Paramaribo whom sources describe as having a large appetite for risk if he thinks it will be profitable” and a “Chinese-Colombian smuggler based in Cartagena who smuggles shark fins, sea horses, and totoaba, as well as drugs.”

Indeed, Latin America’s illegal shark fin trade — as with virtually all international wildlife trafficking — is dominated by Chinese nationals, Crosta says.

Another theme of the report is “crime convergence”: the idea that wildlife traffickers often also engage in other forms of crime, such as drug smuggling, human trafficking and money laundering. These overlaps can be helpful for getting the attention of authorities who “usually would not even think about environmental crime,” according to Crosta.

“That’s why environmental crime convergence is complex, is a problem, but it’s also an opportunity to change the way we fight these crimes,” he said.

The global shark fin trade is worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year, with shark fin soup, a status symbol, still a popular dish in some parts of Asia. Much, though not all, of the trade is illegal.

Unlike bony fish, sharks, whose skeletons are cartilaginous, take many years to mature and produce relatively few young. With fishers killing an estimated 100 million sharks a year, nearly a third of all shark species now face extinction.

Mongabay’s Philip Jacobson spoke with Crosta in late April following the report’s launch. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Andrea Crosta on Muir Beach, California. Image courtesy of ELI.

Mongabay: You mentioned the need for specific capabilities when Chinese people are involved in some of these networks. I’d be curious to know more about that.

Andrea Crosta: Shark fin trafficking networks, in the Americas and beyond, are run by Chinese nationals. Sometimes Hong Kong, sometimes — rarely — Taiwanese, Vietnamese, but usually Chinese nationals. Chinese nationals residing in those countries, sometimes even second generation, and very often with links to organized crime, Chinese organized crime, Latin American organized crime and all sorts of different groups.

If you really want to investigate these groups, you need the same capabilities that, for example in the U.S., the FBI has. Nobody has these capabilities across Latin America, and I would say Africa and Southeast Asia. And that’s a huge problem. And that’s why they’re so successful in what they’re doing in these networks.

Seahorses photographed in Peru. Authorities in the South American country have seized millions of illegally traded dried seahorses, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. Image courtesy of Earth League International.

Mongabay: By capabilities, do you mean language?

Andrea Crosta: Not only language. Language is of course the first barrier. A few years ago — I don’t want to name the country, because it’s embarrassing — but it’s a powerful Latin American country, and they took me to their command and control, and we were exchanging notes on specific wildlife trafficking and crime convergence. And it was one of these incredible rooms, the control rooms where you see all the screens. And they do all kinds of serious stuff there, on drug trafficking and other stuff. And they put on the screens all they had in terms of like a crime chart with all the icons. And we had a lot of names in common. And then I noticed at the bottom of this chart, just gray icons. And I asked, “Who are the gray icons?” And the answer was, “Well, they are the Chinese.” And I asked, “OK, so what are you doing with the Chinese?” And the answer was, “Nothing, because we don’t understand what they are saying.” That’s it, everything stops there. That’s the first barrier.

The second barrier is that even if you have language capabilities, you have to know how to properly recruit sources and informants around these networks and extract intelligence over a period of time. That’s an art. And they don’t have it. They’re sometimes really good at what they do when they deal with their own nationals or their locals. With the exception, of course, of all the law enforcement and authorities dealing with international narcotrafficking: They’re good, but they don’t care about environmental crime, so it’s almost impossible for other authorities to get those kinds of skills from these kinds of groups; they will never allow it. And the end result is that on the one hand we have very organized crime, and on the other hand very disorganized law enforcement agencies. I don’t want to blame them; I don’t think it’s their fault. They do what they can with what they have.

I’ve discussed it with other organizations and institutions in the past, and intergovernmental organizations like UNODC, the U.N., CITES, Interpol, you name it, even U.S. authorities — we really need to transition from short-term training into multiyear, 5- to 10-year mentoring programs. Otherwise, locally, they will always have these challenges.

A dead hammerhead shark alongside a basket of freshly cut shark fins. Image courtesy of Earth League International.

Mongabay: How do people learn those skills? Not the language part, but the recruitment and the extraction of information.

Andrea Crosta: I have been handpicking, recruiting people for the past 12 years, just through personal connections and references and word of mouth. As you can imagine, you cannot post a LinkedIn recruiting this and that. Plus, my right hand, Mark Davis, 28 years with the FBI undercover program and the CIA, and my left hand is also from the agency. They help me a lot in designing the missions, framing the objectives and the goals, recruiting the right people. Training also, extra training to some people. And then in the field we use super-experienced people. I don’t even want to call them investigators, because they are much more than that. They’ve been doing this for decades, and they know what to do.

We have different teams, multinational, not just Chinese; we have Spanish-speaking teams, Arabic-speaking teams, and because of their skills and languages, they extract information from different sources in different ways. All these tons of raw information are passed to our crime analyst, and their job, also very difficult, is to make sense of all their stuff, because it’s really a lot what we collect from the field. If you want to work with law enforcement agencies, especially U.S. or Western, you need to be capable of producing intelligence products that have the same quality of the intelligence products they usually get from other agencies. Otherwise, they will not work with us.

Mongabay: What sorts of backgrounds do these operatives tend to have? Former law enforcement, former criminals?

Andrea Crosta: A bunch of them are special law enforcement, like special forces. For example, in Latin America, we have a couple that used to work really deep against international narcotrafficking. We have some others that never served in law enforcement, but they have like 30 years’ experience investigating stuff around the world or for the private sector. And then of course, we rely on information coming from sources, locals that we recruit, and they have to be managed in a very different way.

The main risk is because we deal with a lot of environmental crime convergence, not just wildlife or environmental crime, you constantly stumble upon really serious things: international money laundering, human smuggling, human trafficking, all sorts of cooperation with other criminal groups.

A photo of shark fins and fish maws being sold in a local market in Hong Kong, captured by ELI’s field investigators. Image courtesy of Earth League International.

Mongabay: This “convergence” aspect, where the shark fin traffickers are also involved in other kinds of crime, wildlife or otherwise, is a big theme in the report.

Andrea Crosta: The incredible part was the constant convergence of all these crimes and networks. If you go up to the top level, it’s impossible not to find crime convergence.

Crime convergence is not a new concept: If you deal with organized crime or mafia, of course you deal with crime convergence, they do all sorts of stuff. But in the environmental or wildlife crime field, it’s actually not known, it’s kind of new, and very few organizations have firsthand information and evidence about it. And we thought it was really, really important to prove this point because that could change the game in how we approach this problem, even globally.

To give you an example of how they collaborate with each other globally: Twice in Latin America we’ve been offered rhino horn, and once ivory. The goods were not in Latin America, they were African and Asian. But nevertheless, someone in Peru is able to say, “Hey, I have rhino horn if you want.” Our side, the international community, is not that organized. And that’s a problem.

Mongabay: It makes me think of the Denzel Washington movie where he plays the Harlem drug lord and flies to Thailand to find a supplier because he’s already got a big market at home. So, I imagine it’s reversed in this case, the Chinese are coming over to South America because they’ve got the market in Asia?

Andrea Crosta: Exactly. They’ve got a market, and it’s a big market. And the market, of course it’s China, Hong Kong, a bit of Taiwan, of course Vietnam. But we published a really interesting report a few months ago on our operation in Europe, Operation Old World, where we uncovered a big trafficking network to bring wildlife products from China to Europe, so the other way around. The Dutch authorities made an arrest in Rotterdam, and this guy had a network of 800 customers and stores across Europe — Germany, Italy, Poland — undisturbed for decades. So, they are really good at finding new markets.

In the report we also mention some really interesting smuggling routes that we uncover, sometimes very difficult smuggling routes to investigate. If you have a smuggling route going from Venezuela to Suriname to Cambodia, when I show it to law enforcement, they tell me we cannot do much in Venezuela, we can do very little in Suriname and Cambodia. So it’s the perfect smuggling route, for anything you can imagine on the planet, not just wildlife. Investigating this would require, in my opinion, a completely different kind of collaboration between countries and law enforcement agencies, beyond conferences and reports. I mean field collaboration. And that I don’t know, honestly.

Shark fins photographed in Colombia. Image courtesy of Earth League International.

Mongabay: Is there any model for that, anywhere in the world?

Andrea Crosta: Well, of course if you look at the fight against terrorism, or narcotrafficking, I’m sure there are models. But is environmental crime serious enough to try to replicate such a model? I say yes, because it is the fourth-largest criminal enterprise in the world, $260 billion, plus the destruction, plus climate change. So I think it’s serious, but I don’t see any — in the U.S., we actually work very well with Homeland Security Investigations, especially the new environmental crime unit they launched last year, because Homeland Security Investigations has, in theory, the power and the capacity to go beyond the U.S. So, we need this kind of big serious law enforcement agency to get involved.

And this is one of the reasons why I thought it was super important to focus on crime convergence, because with crime convergence — and it’s happening right now, I cannot give you the details because this is confidential — but we have a couple of projects in which we are digging up so much stuff about so many crimes that then it’s easier to get the attention of a federal agency that usually would not even think about environmental crime, but in this case yes, because the same person is doing also other things. And that’s why environmental crime convergence is complex, is a problem, but it’s also an opportunity to change the way we fight these crimes.

Mongabay: So, on the convergence side, do you get the sense that the shark fin trafficking is undertaken by groups that were previously trafficking other goods and they’ve kind of moved into shark fin trafficking too? Or maybe it’s the other way around?

Andrea Crosta: Mostly the other way around.

Mongabay: Oh, really? Shark fins are the gateway for some of these groups?

Andrea Crosta: Shark fins have been for many years, the great — now, in the past few years, they passed some laws, it got a little more difficult to poach and traffic shark fin. But for decades you could do anything you wanted. So, they made tons of money, hundreds of millions of dollars. And of course, when you have so much money, you want to make more money, and you go into other stuff. We had a meeting in Latin America where a guy offered us, in the same meeting, it was like a container of one or two tons of shark fin. And then he showed us hundreds of jaguar fangs. And then he started talking about human smuggling, like, “What are you interested in?”

There was another one who’s big in shark fin but even bigger in money laundering, because these people are so good at laundering money that of course they launder money for many different actors. And they have a very interesting, sophisticated way to launder money around the world, using like an Asian version of the Muslim hawala — so they move value, but they don’t move cash, so it doesn’t hit the financial system. So, if you don’t have intelligence about these movements, they don’t exist. And they offer these services to other organized crime groups as well.

Shark fin drying facility filmed by ELI’s team. Image courtesy of Earth League International.

Mongabay: These Chinese operators, what languages are they operating in? Is it Cantonese, Mandarin? And how often do they know Spanish and other languages?

Andrea Crosta: Not often. Second generation, yes, of course, but not often. Because they tend to be more — and this is something I’m seeing across the globe in all Chinese communities — they tend to stick with each other. They create really close communities. And I’m not talking about only the bad guys, I’m talking about also the millions of normal Chinese nationals that live around the world and just want to make a living and live in an honest way. But they tend to stay together, so very often they don’t speak local languages. And that’s why they are very difficult to penetrate. We constantly recruit sources and informants around these groups. But they have to have an entry point. Otherwise, they will not even talk to you, if you’re not the same. And that’s another law enforcement challenge, if you can imagine.

Mongabay: That’s really interesting. I would have thought it’s more people with the linking skills, the second-generation types who can speak both Spanish or English and a Chinese language. But from what you’re saying it sounds like there’s a lot of people who only speak a Chinese language, maybe they were born in China but they’re still able to come and mastermind these international operations.

Andrea Crosta: Absolutely. And also, another important thing to mention is that most of these people are businessmen as well. So, there is a constant overlapping with legal and illegal activities. Some are, but some are not, flat-out criminals. They are just businessmen, so they have import-export companies, supermarkets, hotels, restaurants, money exchange, you name it, and they make a lot of money legally as well. And that’s why it’s sometimes really complicated to understand, especially when you get to shipping stuff — my God, they can ship tons of stuff totally legally. They also have the power to make illegal shipments legal just by buying the right certificate and import-export certificate. So it’s a nightmare, of course.

We have to admit that authorities in China, they got better at intercepting and cracking down on some of this. That’s why all these networks are constantly using different transit countries to get into the final market; they go through Taiwan and the Philippines and Hong Kong and Vietnam and Cambodia. But put yourself in the shoes of someone at customs in the destination country, and there is a shipment, and all the documentation is perfectly OK. He doesn’t know that the guy paid to get it, and it’s not a fake certificate, it’s a real certificate that says that whatever it is, it’s OK. So that’s why my obsession with intelligence: If you don’t have the right intelligence, you will never know about these things. It’s too difficult, it’s like a needle in a haystack.

Hammerhead sharks. With fishers killing an estimated 100 million sharks a year, nearly a third of all shark species now face extinction. Image by Masayuki Agawa/Ocean Image Bank.

Mongabay: What are Chinese authorities doing about this? Are they doing enough?

Andrea Crosta: We don’t want to point the finger at the Chinese government. I’m from Italy and we exported criminals and organized crime around the world. And it’s not that you will hold accountable the Italian government, “Hey, what are you doing about the ‘Ndrangheta buying cocaine in Colombia?” So it would not be fair to say, “Hey, Chinese government, what are you doing about these people in South America or Southeast Asia?”

It is clear that environmental crime and wildlife crime is not a priority for them. That’s clear. If I could make one request to the Chinese government, it would be: Be more assertive and aware of this problem. We don’t want to teach you how to do it, you know how to do it, but just be more aware that the destruction, this criminal destruction of nature, also goes through these kinds of relationships and situations where no one is held accountable at the end. That’s dangerous.

In cases where you have money laundering, they are breaking Chinese laws. And so, I’m sure they would be more than happy to crack down on these people. And again, also maybe establish different kinds of collaboration with local governments. That’s the one point zero, that’s the first step. At least scale up that kind of collaboration.

And of course, in the case of sophisticated networks with a lot of crime convergence — so the same people at the top doing not just wildlife trafficking, sharks and jaguars, but also human smuggling, money laundering, God knows what — you need task forces, you need different skills, you need a whole different approach to the problem. And that’s a huge challenge. I don’t know who is best positioned to tackle this challenge, but it’s huge. And that’s one of the reasons why for the past few decades, all these authorities and organizations have been focused on really low-hanging fruit, arresting poachers and fishermen and small-time traffickers. But it’s not making a dent.

Mongabay: Are there ever any turf wars between the Chinese traffickers and the local cartels or gangs? Or is it pure cooperation and collaboration? Do any of these local groups ever try to kind of vertically integrate and take over some of the nodes of the trade that are run by Asians?

Andrea Crosta: Usually there is good division. We don’t know of any significant situation where you can see the two groups competing with each other in an aggressive or belligerent way. They complete each other a lot.

If we talk about narcotrafficking, there is no way in heaven any other group, Chinese or otherwise, will ever take over [from Latin American groups], or manage to do anything. That’s untouchable. International wildlife trafficking for many years has been the domain of Asian international traffickers. And I underline international traffic. Not small-time traffickers.

We have a situation in one Latin American country where the trafficking of a specific commodity is a marine product that has been in international Chinese hands forever, and it got the attention of local organized crime, because it’s really profitable and almost no risk. And we are observing this situation, how these two groups will find the way. But almost never, if not never, do local organized crime groups who aren’t Chinese have control of the international side. In other words, they [Chinese traffickers] know how and especially where to smuggle this stuff.

Mongabay: Anything to add?

Andrea Crosta: I think it’s a big report, so I honestly don’t know how many people will read it entirely. But I can tell you that it is getting a lot of traction here in the U.S. within U.S. government agencies and policymakers. I will be in D.C. in May just to brief people about it because we received a lot of requests, and that’s good. Again, that’s another example of using this information, not necessarily for law enforcement, but to inform policymakers and people who act in different ways behind the scenes. So that’s a really good development.


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